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A Shining Example

With a shop powered by the sun, Lantz Custom Woodworking marches toward an even brighter future

These days there’s a certain energy being generated at Lantz Custom Woodworking in Harrisonburg, Va. Sure, the steady stream of jobs makes the place vibrant, but so do the solar panels on the roof.

“I think turning to renewable energy wasn’t just an environmentally friendly choice. It was a solid business decision,” says managing partner Doug Lantz.

Last year a vendor approached him about the idea and though he’d been thinking about it, he figured it would be too expensive. The numbers told a different story. Grants and tax savings would cover about 80 percent of the cost.

So, he signed on and had a 36.18 kW photovoltaic system installed on the roof of his 18,000-sq.-ft. shop last December. The system was sized to cover 100 percent of the shop’s annual electric needs. In June the system produced more energy than the shop used and there was a $35 credit. All credits are carried forward each month and possibly there’ll be enough in total to pay the bill during winter months when less power is generated because of the sun’s angle. In four years, Lantz expects to pay nothing for electricity and recover his out of pocket expense.

Tom Goebel

Tom Goebel

“The equipment is supposed to last at least 25 years, so theoretically, we can get 20 to 21 years of free power. We joke about changing our name to Sunshine Woodworks,” says Lantz.

“It’s unfortunate solar energy and other forms of renewable energy require government programs. I hope eventually it’ll be self-sustaining without the need for government assistance. Government programs are changing and I’m not sure I could get as good a deal today.”

From the start

Lantz has been the power behind LCW since he started it in 1997. He’s the CEO, COO, strategist, problem solver, equipment repair guy, computer programmer, payroll dispenser, and everything else. “It’s true. I wear many hats around here. And I feel this is where I belong,” he says.

All the hats seem to fit him perfectly. He’s entrenched as though he’d been planning to own a woodworking business all his life. He says he never consciously thought about it, but just naturally fell into it. Actually, the idea was there all along, lodged in the recesses of his mind and hanging in the family tree.

“I’ve always favored hand work. Guess I’m a lot like my granddad and dad in that they were both in construction or building at some point in their lives. Now I see the same interest in my 7-year-old son who likes to play with wood and nail it together. I took woodworking in high school and lived in the shop. I could never get enough of it.”

But innate talent and inclination to go into woodworking didn’t cloud a broader vision for his future. His hands were ready but his mind needed tweaking, so he thought, and for that he wanted a four-year college degree.

“Higher education is important because it usually helps a person expand his thinking. I took engineering to prepare to make a living at something. I was drawn to mechanical engineering because it’s related to woodworking; they both involve the creative design process.”

After earning a Bachelor of Science in mechanical engineering, he spent a year as a missionary in Mexico. Then for two years he worked for a sheet metal fabrication company where he applied engineering knowledge to how parts are designed and made.

“I got frustrated with the office setting. I enjoy the hands-on creative process and what I was doing didn’t make me feel I was making a noticeable difference,” says Lantz.

So, he thought about switching to woodworking. He and his wife had no children yet and the economy was booming, so he decided to start LCW.

For three years he built furniture in a two-car garage behind the duplex where he and his wife lived. He bought a band saw, table saw and jointer in a package deal from Delta. He called on willing friends, wife, and dad, if he needed help handling large pieces of wood or delivering.

In 1999 he partnered with his dad and bought three acres on the outskirts of Harrisonburg in Shenandoah Valley. They started in a 5,000-sq.-ft. shop. Furniture was not the best money-making product, so he included architectural millwork and cabinets.

“You could probably make a living building furniture exclusively in a garage setting like I had before but not in this setup. It’d be difficult to get enough orders or build fast enough to offset the amount of overhead we have currently. And consumers have so many other sources for furniture.”

For the first few years all profits went back into the business. Lantz didn’t make a lot of money in those years, but always had enough to pay the bills. By 2005, when his first son was born, he was taking a salary.

Doug Lantz's solar-powered shop.

Doug Lantz's solar-powered shop.

Surging ahead

LCW formed and operated during the window of economic opportunity in the late 1990s. When the Great Recession hit, the company had two large commercial projects going. It was doing extensive architectural millwork at the Virginia Military Institute’s parade ground. There was also a custom millwork project for the new Performing Arts Center at James Madison University, which carried the shop through most of 2010.

“Our worst years were 2011 and 2012,” says Lantz. “We found a few small jobs including furniture commissions and kitchen cabinets to keep us busy. We had plenty of time to make a new sign for out front to replace the original which was weather-beaten with rotted posts. We also put together a TV ad.”

Most commercial jobs are obtained through bidding. LCW continues its relationship with universities in the Shenandoah Valley. The company also has working relationships with area builders and contractors. Only 5 percent of all projects are direct to homeowner. When considering a job offer, Lantz aims to stay within a two-hour driving distance from the shop.

LCW carries a six-month backlog. Current projects include seven vanities for an upscale residence in Charlottesville, Va., a run of interior and exterior passage doors for a home in Harrisonburg, Va., and a cedar accent wall at a local bank. Installation and delivery will be done using a fully equipped tool van plus an 18-ft. box truck.

Though he’d rather spend time in the shop, at some point Lantz has to sit down at his desk. He’s technology savvy and uses all the programs he can find to make paper work easier. They include QuickBooks for accounting; Project Pack for figuring quotes, and PlanSwift for drawing takeoff measurements and estimating.

Many assets

Though his talents and skills seem endless, Lantz would be the first to admit he couldn’t get anywhere without his crew. He requires the best performance from his three full-time employees and they give him their all. In 2018 he hired two college-age interns for the summer. Lantz schedules four-and-a half-day work weeks.

“We have to put out quality products consistently to maintain our reputation. When our name comes up for consideration, I don’t want any hesitation when it comes to hiring us. We’re proud of what we do and I want it to stay that way,” says Lantz.

“What I fear the most is not having a steady flow of work for the guys. I need to keep them busy without overloading them. And if we don’t have enough to do, we get antsy and that’s no fun. A steady flow is hard to maintain. Jobs get delayed during construction for all kinds of reasons and because our work comes at the end, we can end up getting squeezed.”

Though the roster of employees is always fluid, Lantz is apparently doing a good job of keeping his crew happy. Mike Neff has been with Lantz for 11 years and says, “This is a great place to work. I enjoy coming to work every day and not everyone can say that.”

In 2000, Lantz’s dad joined him when he retired from a manufacturing company and for 12 years offered his construction and business expertise. Even after retirement from LCW, he maintained a significant presence until he passed in 2018. His office is untouched, and Lantz still refers to himself as managing partner in deference to his dad.

Some of LCW’s impressive work at the Virginia Military Institute.

Some of LCW’s impressive work at the Virginia Military Institute.

What works

Besides outstanding employees, a wide range of equipment and a large organized shop have helped the company prosper. Because Lantz is quick to embrace innovation and technology, his equipment purchases have made project capabilities almost limitless. In 2007 LCW bought a Komo Mach 1 CNC with an automatic tool changer.

“That machine is a dream. It saves time and time is money. We can do so many things we wouldn’t otherwise be able to do.”

Lantz writes the programs using Aspire, Cabinet Vision, AutoCAD, RouterCIM and his employees upload them to the Komo.

It’s used most often for cutting cabinet parts, curved pieces, moldings, inlays, and decorative motifs. It underwent a major overhaul in 2016.

The CNC is a major piece of equipment, but Lantz owns many others equally valuable.

“For some time, we did without an edgebander, but the James Madison job in 2010 required many linear feet of edgebanded panels so we bought a Brandt feed through and a Hess manual hot press.”

Other machinery includes a Biesse 54” x 103” sander, rip saw, jointer, planer and shapers. There’s a 16’ x 8’ x 8’ finishing room where a lot of trends have come and gone.

“In ‘97 when I started making furniture, cherry was popular. This year I’ve done only one piece in cherry. Now it’s in vogue to use different processes to create ‘limed’ or old rustic looks. One treatment that’s really hot right now involves wire brushing quarter-sawn white oak and liming waxes to create a cerused oak look.”

But sometimes it’s what you don’t see that makes a big difference. The shop’s heating system was a priority when an addition was built in 2005. The installation of radiant water tubes under the concrete floor means efficient warmth during the winter. The technology also eliminates the problem of dust blowing around and clogging the equipment.

The Performing Arts Center at James Madison University.

The Performing Arts Center at James Madison University.

The future

About the years ahead, Lantz says things look good, but he still worries. “Once you’ve been through a downturn, you’re always on guard. The way the economy is going now it seems almost too good to be true. But there’s still excitement in the development market. LCW is sized just right and on solid footing to weather a downturn.”

If things get too heavy, he takes a break and makes music at the piano, by ear. Like so much of what he does, reeling off any tune comes easily. There’s a Zen quality in his relaxed, methodical, even temperament, but there’s also a hint of melancholy. Maybe he’s just thinking about his next project or that pile of paperwork or hundreds of other things weighing down his thoughts. Whatever it is, he’ll do some fine tuning and sort it out like he’s done successfully for over 20 years. But it’d be better if his dad was still around.

“We’ve been lucky with our timing – bought this land at a good time; put in solar at a good time; had a backlog during a hard time. Now friends tell me I should have a transition plan for the future of LCW. I’m 47 and I actually have started thinking about what’s going to happen to this business. My two boys have talked about maybe coming in but they’re only 13 and 7 years old and I don’t want to pressure them. Or maybe one of my employees would be interested.”

One thing’s pretty certain, those solar panels will keep the shop lighted and machines humming for quite a while.

Contact: Lantz Custom Woodworking, 641 Acorn Dr., Harrisonburg, VA 22802. Tel: 540-438-1819.

This article originally appeared in the October 2018 issue.

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