Importer Looks For Silver Lining For 85-Year-Old WEST HARTFORD
By Bridget McCrea
West Hartford Stairs & Cabinets Inc., of Newington, Conn., purchases an array of imported woods from which to manufacture such items as stairs, balusters, rails and finials.
Newington, Connecticut–Serving the nation’s home-building market isn’t an easy gig these days, what with the real estate market crash, credit crunch, and overall economic malaise. All of these factors have taken a toll on West Hartford Stairs & Cabinets, Inc., located here. The fact that homebuilders, remodelers, and homeowners – the firm’s top three customer segments – are dealing with their own economic and business issues has put the manufacturer in a challenging spot.
At the peak of the construction market in 2005 the manufacturer’s annual sales hit $9 million. That number has since been whittled down to $3.5 million – a level that President and Owner AndreLetourneau hopes will begin rising again in 2013. “We’re seeing some signs of improvement in the market, but the last few years have definitely been challenging,” said Letourneau, the fourth generation owner of the firm. “We’ve gone from 85 employees working about 51 hours a week to 44 working 32-40 hours. That’s a pretty significant drop for a company to absorb.”
Specializing in custom stairs and cabinetry – from bookcases to cabinets and vanities to furniture – West Hartford Stairs & Cabinets operates from a 56,000-square-foot facility that includes a warehouse, office, and yard space. Founded in 1927 by a trio of entrepreneurial woodworkers, the company is headed up byLetourneau; Office Manager TerryLetourneau (Andre’s wife); Cabinet Sales Manager Jerry Caron; and Stair Sales Manager Dana Donavan.
This massive circular staircase began by West Hartford purchasing rough lumber and finding ways to “utilize every single piece to the highest degree possible,” says company President and Owner Andre Letourneau.
West Hartford Stairs & Cabinets buys about 120,000 board feet of lumber annually, mainly in 4/4 through 16/4 of both imported woods and North American hardwoods.Primary imported species include Santos Mahogany and Jatoba, while domestics are comprised of Red Oak, Poplar, Maple, Birch, Cherry, Butternut and Walnut. “We’re pretty much using small quantities of a pretty wide variety of species right now,” said Letourneau. That variety allows the manufacturer to cater to a wide range of tastes, particularly among homeowners who want their abodes to have a special, customized appearance.
All lumber is purchased in rough condition – a feature that allows the firm to control the quality of the millwork. Buying rough also ensures that every single piece of wood is utilized to the highest degree possible. “We try touse everything that we cut,” saidLetourneau. “We strive to create the least amount of fall-off possible, and then we utilize that fall-off for other functions.”
All scrap wood, for example, is retained and then used to heat the manufacturing plant during the winter months. Overflow of scrap – typically accumulated during the summer – and sawdust is shipped to BioPellet, LLC, a Connecticut manufacturer of BioBricks. The firm turns the waste into CO2-neutral, renewable, environmentally-friendly briquettes that are used for home and industrial heating. “Our goal is to either use everything that comes into our plant, or find ‘green’ ways to utilize whatever is left over,” saidLetourneau.
A 7-person sales team of outside reps who alternate working on the road and in the firm’s office handles company sales. “I also get out there and sell when the time allows for it,” saidLetourneau, who also oversees procurement and the plant’s operations. Recent equipment additions in the plant include a Biesse Rover CNC machining center and an Intorex CNX CNC lathe that allows the company to manufacture its own balusters (rather than having to outsource that function).
“Our new equipment allows us to handle everything in-house,” said Letourneau. “We have exceptional control over everything that goes into our products and a very good handle on our quality and workmanship.”
West Hartford, a fourth generation, 85-year-old company works closely with clients to match lifestyles with functional, handcrafted cabinets.
A member of the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB), the Hartford Home Builders and Remodelers Association (of which it’s been a member for 66 years), and the Better Business Bureau, West Hartford Stairs & Cabinets has been grappling with a number of new industry and governmental regulations lately. The EPA, OSHA and the DEP are all imposing new regulations and making the manufacturing business that much more difficult.
Letourneau said he and his team deal with the challenge by putting in extra hours and handling queries and filing requirements on a case-by-case basis. “When I got into this business I thought I’d be making stairs and cabinets,” saidLetourneau, “but I found myself doing a lot more federal and state governmental paperwork than anything else. It takes up a lot of our time and has actually become a drag on our company’s success.”
With a few tough years under their belt, the team at West Hartford Stairs & Cabinets is looking forward to the slow-but-sure economic and housing market recovery that economists and analysts are talking about. “We certainly don’t want to see another three years like we just had,” saidLetourneau, who is confident that his 85-year-old firm will come through the crisis intact and ready to serve even more customers. “We’re heading in the right direction, although it will be probably a few years before we see another 2005 on our books.”