ROCKLAND, Maine — Mass customization is considered the path to success for Maine’s wood products industry and representatives from around northern New England toured one of those success stories.
Representatives from companies that craft products out of wood met Friday, Aug. 17 at CedarWorks at both its company offices in Rockport and its manufacturing plant in Rockland’s Industrial Park.
CedarWorks President Barrett Brown led the other wood products owners and operators through the process that has made his company a success in a globally competitive market.
CedarWorks produces high-end outdoor play equipment as well as high-end indoor play sets. The firm sells throughout the United States and in 24 other countries.
Collin Miller, coordinator of the Regional Wood Products Consortium, said the goals of the consortium is to “strengthen the forest-based economy in the region by facilitating innovation and providing resources to help individual businesses make improvements that enhance their economic competitiveness.” The association promotes sustainable forestry in Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont and northern New York.
Miller said one of the goals of the association is to share best practices between businesses. Miller said CedarWorks was a wonderful local example of a small family-owned wood products company that has made the shift to mass customization.
Miller said CedarWorks has 98 percent customer satisfaction and has won more awards than any other wood products firm in the region.
The association coordinator said a shift away from mass production or custom manufacturing is the process known as mass customization. This allows companies to manufacture products but allows customers to customize the basic products to their wishes.
Brown’s father Duncan Brown purchased CedarWorks in 1988 when it was located in Rockport. Brown noted his father had a background in the textile business but sold his company in 1987. He said the textile business was distant from its customers and was competing against mass producers in foreign countries.
“He knew there was no future in that. He wanted to make a high-quality product, find a niche market, and make a profit,” Brown said of his father’s vision.
Brown said CedarWorks has been successful because it does not view itself as primarily a manufacturing company.
“First and foremost we’re a marketing company that offers customers a complete experience. We do what is necessary to serve the customer,” Brown said.
Not all the parts are made at the Rockland plant but instead the company will find vendors that make certain parts. But CedarWorks is prepared to make those parts if necessary if a shipment does not arrive on time.
That is important, he said, because the company sets a delivery deadline for the customers and adheres to that.
“We were never a custom-made shop, We were never mass production,” he said.
He said that in 2000, few outdoor play sets came from China but now 80 percent of the pre-boxed outdoor play sets that are stocked in Lowe’s, Cosco and The Home Depot come from China. These imports have destroyed the lower-end market for domestic producers.
“Mass customization has protected us from mass production, particularly from overseas,” Brown said.
The company owner showed the wood products representatives how the sales people can lay out two-dimensional and three-dimensional designs for customers. He said changes can be made two or three times or 20 times depending on the needs of the customers.
“It all flows from the visual designs,” Brown said.
The median price for the outdoor equipment produced by CedarWorks is $4,000 while the indoor sets have a median price of $2,500.
“If someone has a million-and-a-half-dollar house, they don’t want a God-ugly plastic thing,” he said.
CedarWorks employs 20 people full time at the Rockland plant with another 30 employed seasonally. There are 15 to 20 people at the Rockport office. Plant Manager Don Protheroe said two-thirds of the outdoor play sets are shipped out in April, May and June.
He said for every employee in Rockland, he estimates there is another employee working at one of the plants of the vendors used by CedarWorks.
At the July 17 gathering, the selection of Duratherm Window Corporation of Vassalboro as the 2012 Pine Tree Award winner was announced by Bob MacGregor, the executive director of the Maine Wood Products Association.
In his announcement, MacGregor said the award is presented each year to a company that has taken innovative steps in the past two years to strengthen their business.
The Maine Wood Products Association is a nonprofit organization that assists Maine’s secondary wood products industry with business, technical and marketing assistance. Based in Belfast, the Maine Wood Products Association has approximately 80 members statewide and also oversees in the Guild of Maine Woodworkers.