New York Wood Window Manufacturer Proves that the Small are Thriving
by Alan B. Goldberg
As the old cliché goes, “be careful what you wish for.” Jane and Lee Davis know it well. Not that long ago, they saw their dream turn into a reality. They had been working at a hardwood door company in Western, N.Y.
“I spent 17 years at the mill and through various jobs learned practically everything about this business,” says Jane Davis, co-owner of Davis Woodworking.
Following her long stint in manufacturing, Davis pursued a career path in computer technology. The attraction was a new challenge and the opportunity to work out of her home. But it was not to be her calling.
“I needed to get back into manufacturing and my husband was ready to leave his job (as milling supervisor),” she says. “We talked about starting our own business.”
Fortunately, through their years of service, the Davis’ had friends who could tell them where the market needs existed. They confirmed what they heard through their own investigation, concluding that their niche would be high quality, hardwood window combinations for storms and screens.
“We knew what segment of the market would be our primary focus. We wanted to be very high-end and we were not going to serve the big boxes,” adds Jane Davis.
From a Grain Mill to Millwork
What Jane and Lee Davis did not know was where they were going to make windows and how much space they would need.
It turns out that a friend, Russ Wackenheim, and his son, Tom, owned a vacant building adjacent to their business, Attica Lumber Company, and offered it to the new entrepreneurs at a very reasonable rent.
As the Davis’ would find out from their landlord, their new shop had an interesting history. Located in Attica, it was built in the late 1800s as a grain mill. The previous owners, Godfrey Brothers (Norman and Bill) operated the mill from the 1930s to the 1950s, when it closed.
“We bought the building in 1985 and used it to make wood mouldings,” says Wackenheim. “Eventually we moved that operation over to Attica Lumber and have used the space for storage.”
Thrilled to see his vacant building occupied, Wackenheim spruced up the exterior.
“For me, it was inspirational to restore the old letters that ran across the front of the building, (The Godfrey Milling Co.,”) says Wackenheim who points out that it might be the oldest commercial building in Attica, a town of 4,000 people.
With support from friends, the local Chamber of Commerce and the local bank, Jane and Lee Davis launched their new business on September 11, 2001, without a hint that the first day of their new venture would be etched in history.
Combining their skills, they began to make wood windows in 1,200 square feet of space, about one third of its current size. For seven months, Lee made windows at night and continued to work at his former employer by day.
“When Lee left his job, it was pretty scary because we were also giving up health care and other benefits. But we were willing to make the sacrifice,” says Jane Davis.
One year later, Davis Woodworking was making a combination wood storm and screen door to complement its windows.
“Why not offer our customers the same benefits in a door?” says Lee Davis.
In 2003, the company expanded its products to include porch enclosures and exterior shutters.
“Our customers were asking for both and we certainly had the means to offer them with the same level of high quality,” adds Lee Davis.
Two expansions would follow as business increased.
As the business grew, so did the need for skilled craftsmen. Today, Lee is joined by four people in the shop.
“Although we work as a team and family, each individual has his special skills,” explains Lee Davis.
Rick Bonczar is in the milling end, doing jig work, shaping, assembly and related tasks. He worked with the Davis’ at their previous employer and has been with them for more than three years.
“This operation is similar to where I worked but on a much smaller scale,” says Bonczar. Over there, I had a specific task and it was more like a factory. Here, because it is much smaller, I can take a job from start to finish.”
He compares this environment to an old custom shop rather than a typical manufacturing operation.
Pointing out that sanding “is one of the most important jobs here,” Jane Davis says that there is a tendency to downgrade it “and that is a misnomer.”
Jeff Buckley is responsible for that function. Andy Breton handles finishing, priming and painting and Shane Snyder takes care of deliveries.
“We deliver our own products,” adds Jane Davis who describes her husband’s job as “milling, shaping and everything else that must be done (in the manufacturing area) whether it is electrical, maintenance of machinery or other issues.”
Jane Davis wears the remaining hats, from running the office, accounting and human resources to customer service, marketing and shipping.
The Davis’ purchased all new equipment when they started, which included shapers, saws, sanders, paint spray guns and a spray booth.
“Two years after we started, we purchased a five-head moulder made by Bridgewood,” says Lee Davis. “I selected this manufacturer on the recommendation of a friend. I also needed a compact model and Bridgewood offered one.
But even with a compact unit, Davis explains that he needed a crane to get it through the door.
“It took us six hours to get the moulder into the building, but it was worth the effort because we’re very happy with it,” he says.
The moulder has eliminated many manual steps including planing and jointing. It does dimensions on all four sides of wood, simultaneously.
Davis is pleased with all of his equipment, most of which is made by Grizzly, because it has been performing for five years without any maintenance problems.
For the most part, windows are single-pane, double-strength, laminated or tempered glass which is supplied by Twin City Glass of Buffalo, NY. When insulating glass is requested or specified, the IG units are supplied by Tory Hill Glass of Alstead, N.H.
As a private company, Davis Woodworking does not report sales. Because of the nature of the business, it is very difficult to estimate volume.
Doors and windows from Davis Woodworking can be found in multi-million dollar homes.
Jane Davis explains that when the energy crisis hit (in the 1970s), consumer preference seemed to change to aluminum although it was only a matter of time before homeowners returned to longer-lasting wood doors and windows. But she quickly points out that these homeowners are not nearby.
“Around here, vinyl seems to be the material of choice,” says Jane Davis. “Our market is 400 miles away (in New England). But we serve it as if it were in the next town.”
Lee Davis describes the level of customer service and why customer loyalty is so high.
“I’ve gotten into a truck to deliver or repair screens in Connecticut. We are always there when our customer or the homeowner needs us.”
He says customer service is “only part of what makes us different.”
Although other companies make quality doors and windows, “they don’t make them the way we do. I design them myself. That’s because we provide a solution to a problem through customizing.”
As part of the service, CAD drawings are developed to exact measurements. Often, there are adjustments that must be made for various reasons.
“Sometime contractors don’t think through some of the details and we will work closely with them. Other times, we may get an order before a house is built and it is not unusual to find some differences which must be adjusted during construction,” says Jane Davis.
As far as timing, she explains that a job may take as long as a year from quote to delivery. Once a job is started in the shop, a standard combination door or window can be completed in two days.
But it is the way the Davis’ conduct business that has also earned them a reputation.
“We’ve had customers tell us they will continue to use our products because of the way we do business. From the day we started, honesty and integrity have been part of our signature,” adds Jane Davis.
Supporting the Community
New York’s Wyoming County Chamber of Commerce and Microenterprise Assistance Program are no strangers to the Davis.’ They have long been involved with local issues, including small business development.
“At one of our meetings, I was asked to discuss our business and how we have grown. One of the attendees and a strong supporter of small business development in Upstate New York was our U.S. Senator, Hillary Clinton, who seemed to be very interested in our concerns,” says Jane Davis.
Working with other local organizations, the company donates wood to the prison which is used by the inmates to make toys for the needy. Students from Attica High School have toured the shop to learn about a trade and how a small business operates.
Four years ago, Kevin Demars (Jane Davis’ son) joined Attica Lumber as a salesperson. In a sequence of events, Wackenheim retired, selling the business to his son and other partners. Today, at age 27, Demars is president and majority part owner. One of his customers is Davis Woodworking.
“Actually, we sell to each other,” says Demars. It’s an interesting family connection.”
And, at 74, Wackenheim still works at Attica, using the same type of equipment he operated for most of his career.
Like any business, large or small, there are challenges. For Davis Woodworking, they range from mahogany to manpower.
“Almost all of the lumber we use is mahogany and it comes from South America,” says Lee Davis.
But it is the shortage of Honduron mahagony, which is referred to as an endangered species, that is of concern.
Labor is another challenge. Good, skilled people are hard to find, says Jane Davis.
“My complaint is the lack of any training at an early age. Wood shop is no longer offered in the high school and according to State law, kids must be 18 years old to be around equipment so we do not get the opportunity to provide any type of training while they are in school,” she says.
The only training in the area is through New York’s BOCEs vocational school.
Another challenge, or frustration, is operating a small business in the State of New York.
“They (the State) do not make it easy for small businesses to survive, with high taxes, high insurance premiums and other costs,” says Jane Davis.
Lee Davis explains another challenge. Because of their size, it is difficult to find suppliers who will sell to them in smaller quantities.
“There doesn’t seem to be much interest in servicing a small business. We’ve had to resort to making some dies in order to make our own extrusions. We just don’t have the room to store large quantities,” says Lee Davis.
Today, there are independent representatives promoting and servicing hardwood doors and windows, hardwood shutters, mouldings and beaded wainscot from Davis Woodworking. According to Jane Davis, there are five representatives in New England and one in Kansas City. The Davis’ have plans for expanding their market.
“We want to develop the entire East Coast. Next year, we will focus on Florida and the Carolinas,” says Jane Davis, “but we want to remain a small business.”
Davis Woodworking has not only given new meaning to the word custom, it has added new life to an old grain mill. The red building with the large white letters, The Godfrey Milling Co— Feed, Seed, Building Materials, Coal and Salt—offers a glimpse into a colorful past while the activity inside is a snapshot of a bright future, a dream come true.
“To this day, people stop in and ask us for feed and coal,” says Jane Davis.
Alan Goldberg is a contributing writer for DWM magazine. He has 31 years of experience in the insulating glass industry.
© Copyright 2006 Key Communications Inc. All rights reserved.
No reproduction of any type without expressed written permission.