The Joinery in Portland, Ore., has been a fixture in the custom furniture business in the Pacific Northwest for nearly 25 years. Featuring custom and stock hand-made furniture — no CNC here — the 35-person shop has a reputation for producing a quality product, often from sustainable domestic woods.
Owner Marc Gaudin is the man behind The Joinery, equipped with a razor-sharp business sense and a keen eye for design. He has seen his shop go through the best of times and some difficult times, all while continuing to design and build furniture representing a variety of styles for his upper middle-class clientele. The Joinery has a reputation for producing affordable and quality solid-wood furniture, with pieces such as table tops as thick as 4".
You won’t find Gaudin posing anywhere as the poster boy for a CNC manufacturer. He prides himself on the “heirloom-quality, solid-wood, residential and commercial furniture” that is hand-produced in his shop.
“CNC has never entered the picture,” he says. “It’s debatable. The thing to me is what would be the first step we might consider if we’re even thinking about that? Some days you go, ‘Wow, the CNC would be perfect for this.’ You know, our chair scoops, we send them out to be done by CNC. And there have been some other parts; it’s cost effective. But to have a $150,000 machine and having someone getting lost on how to run it, then they’re sick and everything that goes along with that. I’ve strayed away from that.”
Big Sky roots
Gaudin was raised on a ranch in Montana and worked with his hands at an early age. His business prowess can be traced back to running a chicken business as a young kid, ordering supplies and having his own checkbook.
In high school, he worked at a small furniture shop called Purdue Woodworks, which has since grown into a large business. He alternated between going to college and working in cabinet shops before he graduated from the University of Montana with a bachelor’s degree in geography and a minor in photography. He spent his summers working for the U.S. Forest Service before moving to Portland in 1982, where he started his own furniture restoration business.
“Those first days, I sold my stuff on a street corner. I’d buy antiques, refinish and repair them,” he recalls. “I had a growing business for probably two years, then somebody came along and wanted to buy the business and I sold it to him. I had a 500- to 600-sq.-ft. shop; it was mostly restorations. I wasn’t building at all.”
He strayed away from woodworking for a few years when he worked for a company that calibrated balances and scales, receiving training in Germany and working in six states. He went out on his own, doing the same type of work, before returning to woodworking.
“I restarted The Joinery because the guy who had bought it passed on. I didn’t get any of the tools or anything. I just said, well, the name is out there so I just grabbed it and started building furniture.”
Like many woodworkers, Gaudin began his career working out of a garage as a one-man shop. But it wasn’t long before he hired his first employee. He opened a small shop, sold the building, bought a larger shop, sold that, and finally settled down about 11 years ago when he bought The Joinery’s current building. He admits to “probably having a few golden nuggets along the way in terms of real estate.”
Everyone has to start somewhere and, for Gaudin, the key phrase was “Futon furniture.” Although you won’t find any of it on The Joinery’s Web site today, it proved to be quite fruitful.
“In the get-go, my niche was Futon furniture — folding couches, all these different Futon-related items. I went into that with the concept of ‘I’m building the best one out there.’ We dovetailed all the joinery, we made stuff out of bird’s-eye maple, cherry and other hardwoods, but we built the high-end line. We actually had about 15 commercial accounts we sold to around the country. During that period, as the demand grew higher in Portland and the word got out, I started reducing my wholesale accounts — money was much better selling retail instead of wholesale, absolutely.”
To understand the success of The Joinery, one must understand Gaudin’s business philosophy. He believes in slow, methodical planning, not going into debt, taking one step at a time, adding an employee to see how it goes and, as business improves, adding another employee or machine. It’s a very careful and cautious process.
“One of my greatest strengths is strategic. I have the ability to boil things down to the simple and not get too complex. Simplicity is going, ‘OK, are we going to build a bigger mousetrap? Well, what is the reason we need that?’ If we build it, I need to know exactly how it will be used prior to even thinking about the contractors and the costs. The ability to take things down to their simplest form is a great strength of mine.
“So things just kind of came. I have never bought machinery on time. I’ve always felt that we have to use modern machinery to create today’s furniture and, with the high quality that we have, there’s [also] much handwork involved with that.”
He credits a huge jump in business to when The Joinery moved to its present building in 1997 as “the economy was smoking pretty good.” Sales were abundant and The Joinery was the recipient of “Dot.com dollars” that flowed into the shop from employee bonus checks from Intel and other area companies.
Along the way, The Joinery became involved with the community, a commitment Gaudin continues to feel strongly about.
“Last year, 12 percent of our net profit went to [charities in the] community. We use 100 percent wind power here, we run two Meals on Wheels routes every week, we work with Friends of Trees; they plant trees all over the place.”
Product and design
The Joinery produces custom pieces along with four lines of stock furniture — Dunning, Pacific, Joinery [Shaker-style] and Modern. A previous line named Versailles has been discontinued. The stock lines can be modified to fit custom needs, and unique designs can be built from the ground up. The Joinery’s Web site contains a link to its Price Guide, a catalog of more than 300 pieces with photos, line art, dimensions and pricing for its standard collection items. Hardware, leather and fabric choices are also presented.
The Dunning style is an Arts and Crafts, Mission-influenced style; the Joinery style is similar to Shaker furniture; the Pacific style is almost like the Mission style with an Asian touch to it; and the Modern series features smooth and uninterrupted surfaces with sleek metal pulls for a modern, minimalist look. Selections include items for the bedroom, dining room, living room and office.
“We do use AutoCAD [for design purposes], but Inventor is our next little project; it seems to be working quite well,” says Gaudin. “We can generate cut lists, make changes, and they change within the cut list. So when we change the size of a table top, it changes all the corresponding parts, which means no mistakes.”
The Joinery has a 6,000-sq.-ft., two-floor showroom that adjoins the 13,000-sq.-ft. shop area. With about 5 percent of sales generated through its Web site, the showroom is critical to the company’s success.
“About 95 percent of our sales generate right out of our showroom. We have sales people that are knowledgeable on the furniture, how it is put together; there are interior designers and we also have a few designers that have been trained in furniture design or the CAD applications.”
Asked if The Joinery is known for any signature pieces, Gaudin quips, “there’s too many.
“This year, the economy has slowed down and we have felt that pinch. We feel it both ways, when it’s good and when it’s bad. I am very concerned … one thing is we’ll always offer the products, but we’re weeding out, we’re simplifying, we’re going with our top sellers and 20 percent of our product line has been pitched.”
All about the wood
Much of the materials used by The Joinery come from the Collins Companies, a longtime Portland-based supplier of sustainable domestic woods such as cherry, maple, poplar and white oak. Gaudin describes it as an “awesome relationship” and adds that the Collins Companies is the first place he always looks for lumber.
“When I first started, one in 100 asked about certified wood. Today, five in 100 may, but it’s added value to our customer. We build heirlooms, things that can be passed on generation to generation, and that’s the best use of wood in my opinion.”
Portland is known as one of the “greener” areas in the country. Using sustainable wood when possible is a trademark of The Joinery and the practice is partially responsible for the success of the company. But using wood from sustainable forests doesn’t make Gaudin a fan of the Forest Stewardship Council.
“We were FSC certified for over 10 years,” he states. “For 10 years, we followed those rules and regulations. Every year, there was some little added thing we had to do and guess what? We’re a for-profit company. I didn’t see the Forest Stewardship Council do jack for us; I didn’t see it when I put [out] the $10,000 a year to maintain it, the $2,000 or so to be certified, and all that extra work that goes along with that. Finally, I said, ‘You know what? We’re not going to be certified anymore.’ ”
Gaudin has developed an affinity for Pacific madrone, which features a wide range of colors and grows in northern California and southern Oregon. Only about 1 percent of The Joinery’s wood usage is with exotics, such as lacewood, bubinga or wenge.
The perfect employee
Since The Joinery opened, Gaudin estimates he has had more than 200 employees come and go through his shop. By the sheer numbers, he has come to recognize the type of employee he wants and, conversely, the type he wants to avoid. By a process of eliminating the types of employees he hasn’t liked during the past, he has come up with a formula for what makes a good employee. He’s even taken the extra step of going back through his files and categorizing his previous employees.
“There is a certain person with a mind-set who loves to build wood,” he says. “They may have experience in woodworking, but very little experience at working in a shop like this. This is college.
“I think some of our best employees are the ones that have worked in production, particleboard, shops making junk ... so when they come here they go, ‘Wow.’ They get to build in hardwood, so it’s a different beast.”
Gaudin has often received the advice that he should increase the price of his furniture in order to tap the high-end customer. He says he prefers the upper middle-class customer, not the rich and famous.
“Our customer appreciates woodworking and the quality of it. When they come in here, they may not know exactly what that is. But hopefully when we’re done with them, whether they purchase with us or not, their ability to look at drawers, mortise and tenon joints and dovetails, how we lay stuff out, well, we hope they take that with them. Education of our customer, if we do that, we’re doing our job. The sales will come a little easier.”
MoFlow, MoJo and ProFlow
The business structure of The Joinery is something Gaudin says he loves and could talk about for hours. He proudly calls himself The Joinery’s “Founder and Headslacker” and signs his e-mails with those titles. He has created three groups in his business structure.
“I have a group called Moflow where I want more flow from my guys when we’re talking about work in production throughput. My direct reports are essentially from three people; one is operations, one is production, one is assistant production. Those are the guys that I go to. We meet weekly. That’s Moflow.
“I also have in the company, Mojo, which is good feelings. You know, treating our employees well; we’ll have contests, barbeques, group events, people go skiing — that’s Mojo.
“Then there’s Proflow, which is production flow and there are four people in that group, but I’m not part of that. When they sit at my table, I’m like ‘Let’s look at the numbers.’ I want more flow. I want to get the pieces out the door; that’s the bottom line.”
Gaudin has a partner who owns 6 percent of the company and two others who work off percentage profits. One of his goals is to be able to leave his business for extended periods of time knowing the company could run without him. He’s done it a few times, but doesn’t feel totally comfortable doing so. He’s an avid bicyclist, triathlete and golfer, and just got his welding shop back up and running. In other words, he has other interests besides The Joinery.
“There’s a part of me that’s probably the old hippie, the anti-movement. I don’t engage as much as I should in the networking, rubbing shoulders with the mucky mucks. I would rather go home, get on my bike or have a cold beer.”
Bump in the road
The Joinery stuck to its plan of weeding out slow sellers, introduced its new product line of top sellers, and bought the Inventor program last summer.
But even with the long-standing success of The Joinery, the nation’s economic troubles, particularly in September, have taken their toll on the Portland furniture-making business. Gaudin’s belief that the company needs to have a minimum sustainable growth rate of 6 percent a year is in jeopardy. It doesn’t appear that any custom shops are immune to the financial problems currently facing the country.
“Interestingly enough, the most recent month [September] has hit us pretty hard as far as new orders,” Gaudin remarks. “I haven’t seen this in 25 years. We’ve had to take some other moves. I’ve actually laid 12 percent of my work force off, which was a sleepless time period. We’re working definitely very hard at reaching out for other accounts outside of the retail end of it a little bit ... not wholesale, necessarily, but commercial.”
The Joinery was bolstered by some uptick in potential commercial projects in October, and without a full load of work, Gaudin is taking advantage of the free time that exists and investing it in his employees. He has been able to cross-train some of his workers and continues the education of other employees. The owner of The Joinery has been through some slow times during his career and is convinced there are some bright lights at the end of the current economic tunnel. n
Contact: The Joinery, 4804 S.E. Woodstock, Portland, OR 97206. Tel: 503-788-8547. www.thejoinery.com