For some companies, uproar means ruin. Disorder courts the shipwreck.
Not so at Buffelen Woodworking.
Turning 100 years old this year, the Tideflats business born in doors and plywood has survived and prospered because it has grown to understand change.
“It’s the turmoil that keeps us alive. Wherever there’s a shakeup, there’s opportunity,” said Joe Guizzetti, 62, Buffelen CEO and general manager.
There has been no shortage of turmoil over the past century.
After buying the Raze Lumber Co. and its small sawmill on Hylebos Creek at the Eastern edge of the Tacoma Tideflats, Dutchman John Buffelen began manufacturing doors, which today comprise the company’s mainstay product.
In the intervening years, and as ownership changed a handful of times, Buffelen Manufacturing has also produced both plywood and furniture.
Twice owned by California investment groups, the company faced perhaps its greatest challenge in 1955 when local media reported that the shop would close and the workers sent to the unemployment line.
“Buffelen to close down permanently,” said a headline in May 1955. “Buffelen to close Aug. 15,“ ran a headline in early June of that year.
Business was down, competition was strong and the supply of raw materials was problematic.
Later in June the headlines changed.
“Option taken on Buffelen: May be Co-op,” said the news on June 19. “Buffelen Co-Op stock sale OK,” said the story in late August.
The California owners had agreed to sell the company’s stock to Buffelen employees.
And so began the future.
“I still get calls from people who have a piece of Buffelen furniture,” Guizzetti said a few weeks ago, on the day he and his employees celebrated their century in business.
From a broad range of products manufactured over the decades, Buffelen has grown to specialize in its original sector: doors.
The controversy nearly 25 years ago over the habitat of the spotted owl led to an industrywide downturn in business.
“Within five years of the spotted owl (decision), 50 percent of companies didn’t exist and 50 percent of those left had been cut in half,” Guizzetti said.
Meanwhile, Chinese manufacturers entered the market.
“They were making doors and bringing them into the U.S. at 45 percent less than the cost of a domestic door,” he said. “I got on a plane and went to Shanghai.”
He discovered that Chinese manufacturers were paying less for wood than Buffelen could, and they were paying their workers, Guizzetti said, 32 to 35 cents an hour.
“China took 85 percent of the U.S. interior door market,” he said.
Guizzetti came to Buffelen as a kid, a summer intern. He stayed, and learned electricity. He joined the board at 24. He was promoted to CEO in 1983.
He saw the problem and thought it through.
“When I took over in ’83, this company produced 80-to-90,000 doors a year. We took it to 500,000. Then the spotted owl, and the competition. We went from 2,000 doors a day to 400 to 500.”
The Chinese were doing interior doors. So was Buffelen, but Guizzetti and his team saw the future in exterior doors, front doors, unique doors, up-market doors.
“If we didn’t do anything we could go out of business,” he said.
So he did something.
Buffelen embraced robotics.
Where previously a door manufacturing station could consume up to two hours to make a change, the time was reduced to 10 seconds.
Buffelen commissioned the building of specialized manufacturing machinery.
“We are now a custom manufacturer of doors,” he said. “Everything we manufacture, we can ship 15 days after the order.”
“So let’s talk,” says the latest Buffelen catalog. “The very word ‘custom’ means that it may not have been done before. Show us your sketches: Get us your specs, tell us what species or even combinations of species matches your decor. Curved, elliptical, round — we can make your wildest dreams come true.”
“If you live in Houston, we will build for the climate,” Guizzetti said. “In Denver, for Denver.”
The change at the company came when “we held employees accountable to build a high-quality product (coupled) with a high level of service. There’s always going to be a market for that.”
Between 1955 and 1979, the company saw 26 general managers. Guizzetti has been in the position since 1983.
“We were a small group of people and our only interest was to preserve our jobs and our environment of self-employment. We just wanted to do a good job,” he said. “We needed to get everybody rowing in the right direction. Most companies that fail are disorganized, or they don’t have a common goal. You have to solve a problem as fast as you can, because tomorrow there’s more coming.”
THE FUTURE, AGAIN
“The only way to prosper for any length of time is to be an innovator,” said Bruce Kendall, president and CEO of the Economic Development Board for Tacoma-Pierce County.
Buffelen, he said last week, has “innovation built into their DNA. It’s the way you prosper whether its for 10 years or 110 years. It’s an inspiration for any company.”
Beyond that, Buffelen provides jobs in a sector that can help communities thrive.
“It’s exceedingly important to have a vibrant manufacturing sector, and not every community has those,” Kendall said. “We are fortunate that we do. It’s important — just as you want a balanced portfolio in your personal life, you want a diversity of businesses in your marketplace because when one sector is up, another might be down. The more diversified you are, the more resilient you are.”
Buffelen employs 115 workers, which represents half of its workforce employed before the Great Recession began.
And in the first months following the beginning of that downturn, the company lost 70 percent of its sales, and 65 percent of its workers.
By last month, the company had surpassed its total sales for 2009, Guizzetti said.
“Fear is one helluva motivator,” he said. “We never gave up, but the potential was there. We have all done this all of our lives. What else would we do?”
The company has repurchased 430 of its original 500 shares from investors and employees.
Buffelen recently bought two smaller companies, one a manufacturer in the South that produces an “impact-rated” door that can withstand the forces of a hurricane as tested by a 2-by-4 stud being propelled at 160 m.p.h.
“The large-volume door manufacturer in the U.S. – it’s an era that has passed,” Guizzetti said. “We’re in a niche market. We’re not going to be this huge giant, but that doesn’t mean we can’t be successful.”
“It’s exciting to be able to talk about a company located in the same location for 100 years,” he said. “I told the employees today that no one has paid a larger price than they did during the recession. They had to work harder than they ever did, and we wouldn’t be celebrating this anniversary if it weren’t for them. We’re profitable. I think the company has a great future.”
C.R. Roberts: 253-597-8535 email@example.com