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At home in the heartland

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When gazing across the endless sea of fertile cropland where tractor whirs barely break the silence, it seems like farming is the only enterprise around. Then suddenly out of the scene pops a warm, smoky-green building with Johannes Architectural Woodworking Inc. set in stone across the front. It turns out that sitting in eastern Iowa surrounded by corn and soybeans is a pretty good place to be right now.

Johannes (green shirt) favor high-end residential work over commerical projects.

“Yes, the business climate here is good for us,” says Steve Johannes. “We didn’t suffer too much during the recession, though we did have to lay off a couple guys. It would have been a lot worse if I’d been in debt and hadn’t paid off our equipment. I could hire possibly at least two now, but I’m waiting to see what happens in the next year.”

Notwithstanding Johannes’ conservative, principled business model, location in a viable region of the country does matter. But he’s still uneasy. As the CEO responsible for the livelihood of six employees and their families, not a day passes when he doesn’t worry about a continuous flow of work.

STEVE JOHANNES Owner of: Johannes Architectural Woodworking Inc. Location: North Liberty, Iowa Shop size: 8,000 sq. ft. Years in business: More than three decades. Employees: Six Approximate yearly gross: $1 million Business focus: High-end custom residential and commercial woodworking projects including designer moldings, cabinets and circular staircases. Equipment: Anderson CNC router; Weinig molder; Northtech straight-line rip saw; Robland sliding table saw; Mikron multi-molder; Holz-Her belt sander; Powermatic 24” planer; Invicta sliding table shaper; case press.

Even though Johannes is enjoying a six-month backlog, every job has to be scheduled wisely to keep faithful customers calling. Big jobs with long time frames are golden and burdensome at the same time.

“We’ve run into the problem where if a project lasts too long and we have to turn down work, then people start to think we’re too busy to take on any more,” Johannes says. “We have to be ready to accept anything that comes in the door to keep our clientele. Of course, you have to weigh the benefits. There’s always a problem with overtime cutting into profits.”

Long-term jobs come along every two to three years. A good example is the specialized woodwork and cabinets the company crafted for a new 12,000-sq.-ft. mansion in 1998 that consumed a year. It was a stellar project that required a knowledge and experience upgrade or, in Johannes’s words, “a fresh download.” In this case, scheduling wasn’t as crucial because there were enough employees at that time to handle any additional workload.

Finding a niche

Johannes was born in Lincoln, Neb., and spent his first 12 years there before moving to California. He enrolled at the University of Utah on a football scholarship, and developed a fondness for Iowa when he visited a college friend there.

His athleticism was an indicator that Johannes would be attracted to a physically active profession. That started to become evident during his four years at school when he summered in California and tinkered at a paint store and cabinetmaker’s shop. Eventually, finishing and cabinet building evolved into a passion for the final stage of woodworking. There was a short period when his job description was “finisher.”

For a year he practiced cabinetry, finish carpentry and remodeling in California with a partner before opening his own business. On the decision to go it alone, he says, “I think at the time I had more guts than brains.” But by then, he knew what made him happy.

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“I always liked working with my hands. I’m the kind of guy who wants to be on my feet out in the shop with the tools building things. Since I had my heart in it, I learned skills easily without formal education. You can’t beat experience and trial and error as the best ways to learn this trade. For the most part, everyone here has learned the same way except for John Danker, our production manager, who took computer courses at Kirkwood College in Cedar Rapids.”

Residential vs. commercial

Since 1990, when Johannes built his present shop and called the heartland his home, he’s worked his company atop the list of woodworking firms in his area. The focus is on high-end residential with about 10 percent commercial work.

“Though commercial is where the most money can be made, it’s not necessarily always quality work. I feel the best and favored approach to any job is with a team — our employees and the client. Commercial jobs rarely offer that opportunity and end up wearing me down. I like to sit at the table with my clients and toss around ideas and see their faces light up.”

Of course there’ll always be the difficult customer, but most are understanding and willing to bend. “The best people to deal with are self-made. They actually worked in the trenches themselves and know what you’re going through.”

Johannes states his primary objectives: “We’re not trying to make a killing here. We just want to keep the guys busy, make a good living and stick with the things we love to do.”

The well-organized shop features labeled drawers and cutters.

So far “keeping the guys busy” hasn’t demanded much marketing because of adequate word-of-mouth referrals. Neither does he have a good reason to pay someone to update the company’s website when few seem to view it. And competition is negligible because Johannes does specialty work that other shops can’t or aren’t willing to do. They keep it versatile and flexible and give their customers value for their money. Lately, much of their work is in Iowa City, about 10 miles south of North Liberty.

“As long as there’s plenty of demand in our region, there’s no need to hunt or go soliciting in other areas.”

In the curve

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Customer requests have taken the company in many directions beyond square corners and straight lines, such as spiral staircases and curved reception desks. Curves bring art into the picture and the passion for what the employees are doing goes up several notches, says Johannes.

“When you come right down to it, woodworking is a series of somewhat boring events with a very good ending. It’s nice to have some twists and turns in there to keep it interesting.”

Johannes has other reasons for favoring curves. “A curve can be unexpected, an interruption in the visual scan and offers a graceful, fluid change from rigid geometric lines.”

In the past, curves were hard to craft. But with new technology it’s much easier. However, they still present problems and demand precise measurements and cuts. “You can’t fudge. They’re either right or wrong with no in-between.”

The company can easily handle the challenges. Johannes does the concept drawings and Danker produces working plans. “We have that perfect marriage here. John doesn’t draw; that’s what I like to do. But he has an engineer’s mind and is good with computers. In turn, John can explain his computer-generated plans to our shop foreman, Bruce Lohause.”

Furniture and stair railings are also in the shop's repetoire.

Big changes

As a seasoned woodworker with more than 40 years logged in the business, Steve Johannes has witnessed a widespread evolution.

“Definitely, it’s the equipment that’s changed the most. We’ve come out of the Dark Ages. The basic table saw and shaper of old are still here, but now they’re more elaborate machines. Consequently, cabinets are built better these days. The type of work we do now would have been almost impossible 20 years ago. We’ve had our CNC router about eight years and it’s miraculous what it can do. If you can draft plans and use the software to program precise cuts, you’re saving a lot of time and headaches. No special jigs needed either.”

Upgraded equipment has likewise infiltrated the finishing process since the 1960s when Johannes began his career. Heavy-duty sanders and commercial spray booths are common sights in the shop scene. Although he may miss the meditative, slow ways of old, he still likes to smooth a wood surface and spread on the coating.

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Computer software has seen additions and improvements almost every year across the spectrum, from bookkeeping to drawing plans. Some of the programs used at Johannes are AutoCAD and Cabinet Vision. The only time computers aren’t used is in the production of some cut lists, though there are programs that will perform the task. “Our projects are usually specialized enough for a combination of software and hand listing.”

QuickBooks, Johannes’ accounting software, was developed specifically for the small-business owner with scant knowledge of accounting. With the easy-to-use program, he can easily post costs associated with each job and keep payroll records.

Other qualifying changes involve labor and materials. The proportion of project expenses related to manpower has been increasing and remains the biggest hurdle in figuring job costs. The billing rate stands at $65/hour, up from $58-$60 during the economic downturn.

Price fluctuations in materials are always a factor in preparing estimates. Johannes purchases the majority of its lumber from a wholesaler in Des Moines who attempts to keep prices steady.

“We’ve been going with premium cherry the last few years because the medium color finishes in an attractive tone that customers like. It’s a hardwood, yet soft enough to mill easily. I like it, too, because the scraps are great for smoking ribs.”

A wider view

Johannes says that his “success may be sheer luck.” He would amend that statement with praise for his employees with their credentials to keep the business going. Altogether, they have close to 140 years of experience. He can put the business on autopilot and they’ll carry on, as happened recently when he underwent hip replacement surgery. “Sometimes it seems things actually do better when I’m not here,” he quips.

The shop is well-equipped with a Weinig molder and Northtech straight-line rip saw.

At 61 he feels he’s “getting a little long in the tooth. I’m almost there. I have a couple more years and I’ve thought about starting to plan for semiretirement. I can’t hand the business over to anyone, because right now there’s no one to hand it to. My son is a park ranger in Washington state, my daughter is a teacher and so far none of my coworkers are interested.”

He could pursue his favorite pastimes, camping and golfing, but he’d want to keep his foot in the door or take work home.

“This shop and woodworking in general are too ingrained to get out altogether. I’d miss that client interaction and their loyalty we’ve worked so hard to win. But as I say to my daughter, in the end things will work out for the best or they’ll just work out.”

Contact: Johannes Architectural Woodworking Inc. Tel: 319-665-8600.

This article originally appeared in the October 2012 issue.

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