If you visit Mennonite production facilities in North America, you begin to expect a certain, odd austerity — a sort of poverty in the midst of plenty. However, as you look closer, you can see it is not that, at all, but design stripped of all excess, right down to the lowest common denominator.
That quality is immediately evident as you enter St. Marys, Ont.’s Evergreen Mouldings, owned by Dale Giesbrecht since 2002, when it was two years old.
Your first impression is of empty space with a bit of inventory and a few machines, all clean and maintained to a T. However, as your impression expands, you can see an organism with a heart at the centre, and supporting elements around — efficiency at its best.
The machines are grouped at the centre-left as you come in the door, anchored by an old, Weinig PowerMat45, six-head moulder with attached profile sander. Just to its right is a rip saw. Both are positioned so the same two men can run either machine, though Giesbrecht says they never run both machines at the same time. Material can be fed through the rip saw and stacked, then run back through the moulder and sander and stacked. Both machines are fed and received by a forklift that can pick up stationed raw material from racks long the walls, and load finished product directly to the truck, so the workflow goes in a U.
Alongside the rip saw is an old-like-new, Wadkin resaw, ready for use as needed.
On the front wall to the visitor’s left sits the best-maintained old Nelson and Atkinson upcut saw I have seen, ready to accommodate orders from some of Giesbrecht’s larger clients that require eight-foot lengths.
As Giesbrecht said in the lead-up to our visit, “I usually tell people to allow at least five minutes for a shop tour.”
That’s it for production. A moulder and sander, a ripsaw, a resaw and an upcut saw. Add two men, a forklift and raw material, and you’re good to go. According to Giesbrecht, that adds up to 3,000 to 5,000 feet of mouldings a week, for kitchens, handrails, stairs, hotel furniture and millwork. His market is generally a one-hour radius from Fullarton, plus Toronto.
“We enjoy doing stuff that other people won’t touch,” Giesbrecht says. And, while that can include doing replicate mouldings for restorations of heritage buildings, his main product lines tend toward larger, solid-wood mouldings with custom profiles and exotic woods for higher-end customers. People that demand a truer match to their design ideas.
Giesbrecht laughs easily when asked whether he started out in wood processing. “My background is in construction,” he says. “I started in 1990, when I was 24 years old.” He admits he was having trouble keeping a full crew, but, he says, when Evergreen came up, “it was really attractive.” The employment headaches were a factor, but he says he wanted to work inside.
One thing Giesbrecht says he was not prepared for was the “very steep learning curve” made worse by suddenly getting a bunch of leads for new homes for his other business before it closed, drawing him away from learning mouldings and finishing up with building.
Giesbrecht says he was helped greatly by salesmen that came around Evergreen in the early days, but he says his greatest benefit was in taking a knife-grinding course at Brampton, Ont.,-based Taurus Craco. “That,” he says, “was money well spent.”
Giesbrecht says he has not replayed is former problems with keeping staff. One of his two employees — his foreman — has been there about nine years, another had to quit recently, and his replacement arrived just before the Covid-19 orders and is on layoff. “I never want anybody to quit because I am not paying them enough,” he says.
According to Giesbrecht, his one true weakness is in sales and marketing. “I can produce the best mouldings in the world,” he says, “but if I can’t sell it, it’s nothing.” Exasperated, he recalls a mentor that said, “The best person to sell your product is yourself.” Giesbrecht agrees, but still would like better marketing skills. Right now, he says, his best resource is word-of-mouth from existing customers. He sees quality as his stock-in-trade, and he trades on his reputation and his product. “Our interest,” he says, “is in high-end/top quality. Our main focus is value, but I value quality over price in the end.”
In terms of workflow and business models, Giesbrecht says he tries to keep a fair amount of raw lumber available in inventory. “I have never been a fan of Just-In-Time,” he says. In addition, such situations as the current one with Covid-19 can affect supply chains and take decisions out of the hands of the owners. In addition, he says, “I can take advantage of big discounts sometimes if I can buy by the volume.” As for other supplies, Giesbrecht says he can get delivery at Evergreen very quickly.
As far as metrics, Giesbrecht says efficiency is huge. “We track yield very closely and we keep an handle on efficiency.”
Giesbrecht says his biggest loser in the efficiency game is his offcuts. “There just isn’t much you can do,” he says. The bigger pieces get picked up by locals that use them for firewood, but the smaller pieces don’t have a demand, and he doesn’t have enough of them to warrant buying a grinder.
The shavings, he says, are another matter. “Shavings are a valuable byproduct,” he says. In the local area, there are many poultry and dairy farms, and the shavings are absorbent, pure and a good source of bedding for livestock.
Back out in the shop, a doorway opens off the wall beside the moulder. If the moulder/sander/ripper group is the heart of the operation, here is the brain. Giesbrecht put his knife-grinding course to good use, and he accepts samples from prospective customers, sets up a template and grinds knives to create virtually any profile a customer could desire.
Once again, Giesbrecht admits he wants to improve his system — this time by figuring out a better filing system for his profiles.
There is one more door on the left, that one going into the unheated, “barn” of the facility, where Giesbrecht stores his shavings, his delivery truck and tractor for moving shavings.
So there you have it. A five-minute shop tour in 1,000 words. Efficiency at its best.