Last Man Standing

Fletcher timing a machine's output.

You could easily breeze past the nondescript Maine Wood Concepts mill in the tiny town of New Vineyard without realizing it’s there. Inside, however, it’s very much alive, with more than a hundred workers manning rows of woodturning machines that churn out untold quantities of wooden items.

The Fletcher family has operated the mill since 1971, when brothers Wayne and Earl Fletcher bought it from former owner, Percy L. Webber. At that time, it was one of many turneries in the Pine Tree State. Four decades later, it’s one of a handful left in the entire country. And it’s not only surviving, but growing.

The company recently bought the Vic Firth Company’s line of upscale gourmet kitchen products and rebranded it as Fletchers’ Mill. In August, the mill received the Pine Tree Award from the Maine Wood Products Association for contributions to innovation in the forest products economy.

Recently, Maine writer Joe Rankin sat down with MWC’s president, Douglas Fletcher, to talk about the company.

Tell us a little about what you make.

As our slogan says, “We turn wood into what you need!” That’s anything from a wooden nickel to molded nativity scene pieces to Lufkin Rule laths. We make rolling pins, muddlers, salt and pepper mills, chopsticks, spatula handles, honey dippers, kendamas, duck calls, gavels, wooden game pieces, furniture buttons and plugs, balls and beads of every size and shape up to three inches in diameter. We make toy train parts – smokestacks and wheels – Christmas tree ornaments, yo-yos, spindles, hairpins, recipe card holders, candlesticks. The list goes on and on. Since 1971, we’ve probably made close to a million different items, if you call every different size and shape of wheel or spindle a different item.

What woods do you use and where do you source them?

We use mostly birch and rock maple. We opened our sawmill in 1973. Most of our wood comes from within a 75-mile radius. When we branched out into the Fletchers’ Mill line we had to go out farther. Part of it is size and quality. We’ve been used to buying the equivalent of pallet-grade logs and sawing them into squares for smaller turnings. But it takes a very high quality log to produce the items in the Fletchers’ Mill line – salt and pepper mills and rolling pins. You can’t get that out of a pallet log.

You’ve made a practice of buying other companies or their product lines. How did that strategy evolve? Did it strengthen your business?

The first company we bought was a machine shop in Massachusetts that made tooling for our machinery. We sold it in early 2005. We bought the Lutz File and Tool Co. in 2005 and Pride Manufacturing’s custom wood turning division in Guilford, Maine in 2005. Then the spatula handle line from Downeast Woodcraft in Anson, then the Vic Firth line. With Vic Firth, we recognized the opportunity to have a finished product we could sell at retail, versus making components where there is so much competition. We have no plans to discontinue our component manufacturing, but with Fletchers’ Mill we believe we’ve tapped into a business that has an opportunity for substantial growth.

The wood turning sector in the northeastern U.S. was hard hit by the rise of manufacturing in China. What was your experience?

It was rough on us. We bought American Pride in 2005, which significantly expanded our horizons. We began doing small turnings, small molded pieces and shapes, cribbage pegs. But between 2007 and 2009 both businesses were struggling. Those were very hard years. Even customers that continued to buy from us, who didn’t go to China, were beating us down on our prices. In 2009, we closed our facility in Guilford and merged it into the business here in New Vineyard. We did it because we needed to in order to survive, but it was probably the best thing that could have happened. We had to examine all areas of our operation and become more efficient.

Some see manufacturing returning to the U.S. How do you see that playing out?

We have already brought back the lion’s share of what we lost. Some of it is because of economic factors – rising labor rates in China, customers’ need for quick turnaround, the cost of shipping, even cultural differences and the time difference. There are so many challenges to manufacturing in China.

You have a reputation for running a lean operation. What does that mean?

Lean is a systematic process and business philosophy that minimizes waste, including time, motion, excessive inventory from over production, and processing data. We’re not practicing Lean as well as we could be, but we’re better than we were 10 years ago. Some of that is because of the way that we recover value of materials – we’ve come up with revenue streams where it used to cost us to get rid of material. We heat all of our manufacturing facilities and dry kilns with the wood chips from our turnings. These days we’re much more cell-oriented. At the sawmill, there’s one guy doing four different operations. But when it comes to work flow, sometimes it’s difficult. In an ideal plant, the work would start on the top floor and go down. This mill was pieced together and grew over time – it was originally a blacksmith shop. Sometimes it’s hard to arrange a logical flow to the work, especially given that we’re making so many different products and our product mix has changed so much.

How much has technology helped?

In the wood turning business we’re new school and old school. The CNC machines at the sawmill are about as high tech as we get. Yet the lathe that makes toy tractor trailer tires has been around since the ’20s. But you’d be hard pressed to go over there and find a single machine that’s the same as when it was first built. Our machinists have made many modifications to our equipment to make it do what we want it to do. The biggest changes have taken place in our boiler and our air compressor. Before 2008, we had to have three air compressors to run the mill. Now we have one, and that one only puts out the horsepower needed at any particular time.

Rebranding the Vic Firth line was a big step. How’s that working out?

The rebranding itself wasn’t difficult. Probably the most difficult thing was coming up with a name. It was simple in the end – Fletchers’ Mill, with the apostrophe on the end signifying more than one Fletcher. My father and uncle started the business and now there are three brothers who are current owners and a fourth brother who also works here. When we bought Vic Firth, the national sales manager opted to come with us. If he hadn’t, we would not have proceeded. He knew the customers, the reps, the business. We were not in a position to have done that ourselves.

Talk a little about your staffing situation. Do you have trouble finding qualified workers?

You do when you need 30 overnight. We knew it was going to take a number of additional employees to integrate Fletchers’ Mill while still maintaining production of traditional custom turnings. Fortunately for us, we’d been working with the Regional Wood Products Consortium for over a year in an attempt to develop growth strategies. That proved to be very timely and beneficial for us. Last year we had around 75 employees; we have 108 now. Quite honestly, we couldn’t have managed this expansion without them. In addition, I think we’re at the place where we need to expand our machine shop and expand our research and development capabilities. I anticipate that being fully staffed is going to about 115 employees. If the people we need were available, we’d hire them today.

This article series is underwritten by the Northern Forest Center, a non-profit organization. The Northern Forest Center creates economic opportunity and community vitality from healthy working forests in Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, and New York.

 
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