Volume 45, Issue 8 - October  2006

Knock on Wood

Steves and Sons Still Manufacturing Wood Doors After 140 Years
by Megan Headley

Steves and Sons Inc. was founded in San Antonio, Texas, in 1866 by Edward Steves. Though the name has changed from Ed Steves & Sons Lumber Yard to reflect the fact that the focus had changed to the manufacture of millwork, the ownership hasn’t changed over the last 140 years. Today the independent company specializes in the manufacture of interior wood doors under the leadership of Sam Steves, president, Edward Steves, chief executive officer, and their mother Patsy Steves, chairperson of the board. 

The Steves expect their company to be around for at least another 140 years—and while plant floor integration, high-tech equipment and a strong distribution channel are important points when striving for success, it doesn’t hurt to “knock on wood” for luck on occasion. 

“That’s a line we like to use a lot,” Edward jokes.

A Mainstay of the Company 
Their mainstay, Sam says, is “the manufacture of commodity interior hollow core doors that have evolved from lauan and hardboard to a large piece of it now being these molded doors.”

Sam says the company’s offering of molded doors is among the broadest in the industry because it’s able to source material from domestic manufacturers of door skins: he cites Masonite, Jeld-Wen and CMI.

“It used to be a commodity door for a track house was just a slab,” says Patsy. Now the company emphasizes the quality of its product. 

According to Gary Miller, millwork manager of MG Building Materials in San Antonio—a local distributor of Steves and Sons’ products—quality is a critical issue for the distributor. 

“If you start having issues with quality, builders contact us because they don’t know where we get the product from. They have no clue that Steves is involved; they just know that they bought a door from MG that’s failed. So they call us out there and it’s our job to get it to Steves and let them know what’s going on. It happens occasionally,” says Miller.

He adds, “The last four or five years they’ve been excellent for us.”

These days, manufacturers also have to think about the sustainability of their product. Steves uses recycled materials in its products and is a Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified manufacturer.

“Some products that we manufacture are 100-percent FSC certified … it’s a goal to have at least 75 percent of your product FSC certified and the lion’s share of our products meet that goal,” Sam says.

In addition, the company has recently completed an ISO 9000 rollout in its San Antonio facility. 

“I believe that we are the only commodity manufacturer of interior wood doors that is an ISO 9000-certified company,” says Sam. 

Expanding the Company Footstep 
The company has expanded since it opened, with three plants across the country and plans for more. A plant in Lebanon, Tenn., was first opened in 1970, and reopened this past October in a new, larger facility. A plant in Richmond, Va., opened in 1993. The three plants together produce approximately 30,000 doors each day. 

The facilities have a total of about 700 employees, many who have been with the company for decades. Sam says he’s not completely sure of what drives that loyalty to the company, but he recognizes its value. 

“Our single biggest asset is our people,” Sam says.

Each facility is run by a general manager who oversees both a sales staff and a plant manager with a production staff. 

“We think it’s real important to have the general manager set up in each location because if we want to be customer-focused, we don’t want production driving the ship, we want sales driving the ship,” says Sam. 

The company is looking currently at opportunities to expand into the Midwest and West Coast to gain a national presence. 

“While some of our competitors have gotten larger through acquisition, we’ve felt it was better to expand our operations and maintain our stability by not overextending our debt and possibly toppling over if the economy turns,” says Edward. 

Both Sam and Edward see the consolidation of manufacturers as the biggest challenge facing the industry, for manufacturers and their customers. 

Manufacturing Process
For a manufacturer that produces thousands of different doors each day, it’s important to have plant efficiencies in place. 

“Every door that we build is built to order, so we don’t have the luxury of saying, well, we’ll build 1,000 of these, 500 of these, 2,000 of these,” says Sam. 

Two things in particular help the plants run smoothly. 

“The first would be plant floor integration through order-entry systems,” says Sam. “We make sure that from the time that the order is placed in the office and as it runs through the back office and into the facility, we’re all playing off the same play sheet. There are 300,000 permutations of size, species and construction just in what we do, so it’s important that that piece be in place.”

The use of in-house software is a critical part of the integration. 

“We’d fall apart without it,” says Edward.

The second critical efficiency is the use of CNC equipment wherever possible. 

“The place where it has the greatest advantage is when we trim the doors,” Sam says. 

Steves uses large equipment from Mareen Johnson among other manufacturers to add speed and consistency to the manufacturing process. 

“Our approach is to have multiple machines in each facility,” says Sam. “I think it points out our commitment.”

Not that the equipment doesn’t come without its challenges. Sam recalls that employees were wary of a new CNC machine installed six years ago. 

“The old machinery, when it would stop, they’d [employees] reach around with a wrench and whack something,” Sam says. “When our new machine had all these safety stops that prevented it from hurting itself, and it got to a point where the first stop happened … everyone just sort of stopped and looked at it and didn’t know what to do.”

That quickly changed. Sam says that the manufacturer has helped greatly with training Steves employees in how to use the machinery. 

“Great enthusiasm in backing up what they have sold,” says Patsy of Mareen Johnson. 

Sam adds that it’s also important for Steves’ IT department to support training and operation of equipment. 

One other all-too-critical part of the manufacturing process is safety. 

The company has a safety coordinator on staff who goes from branch to branch looking for potential safety violations. 

“We haven’t had any significant injuries in the last ten years since we have implemented that program,” says Edward. 

Standing Out from Competitors
Being a commodity manufacturer, Steves works to set itself apart through quality and low costs, but primarily through service.

“Our motto in the early 1900’s was ‘price, quality, service,’” says Sam. “But the service component is critical. That’s it in my mind.”

Service is a selling point for MG as well—and in motivating the company to do business with Steves. Miller says that the “single motivating factor” for MG to do business with Steves was the manufacturer’s commitment to making sure that material got to MG on time.

“They were the ones that gave us the guarantee that they would be there,” says Miller. 

“At the same time as volumes have increased—because we’ve had double digit sales growth now for the last couple of years—with that additional pressure we’ve been able to keep the promise, to make sure that we get the product to the customer in time,” says Sam.
Swimming the Distribution Channel
The company does some marketing, but primarily finds new distributors through trade shows such as the AMD Annual Convention and networking. But the company does have an advantage in its history of relationships with certain distributors.
“We have some customers that are second, and even one that would be a third, generation [company] that has dealt with our company,” says Patsy. 

“A good example of that would be Central Woodwork headquartered in Memphis,” says Sam. “All three generations of Central have done business with different generations of Steves and Sons.” 

“The word of mouth is also a really good thing. Plus relationships [built up over time] are important to us,” Patsy says. 

The company also does some work in helping distributors to market their products. Miller says that he has received brochures and other literature from Steves on their doors, which he offers to customers. 

Sam says that the company aims to become a secondary supplier of commodities to large, national distributors. It’s a solution they offer to customers also being challenged by consolidation in the industry. 

“That’s where we bring value and will continue to bring value to some of these larger distributors that are nationwide that might want a sole source. If they can see the benefit of your company to bring in a secondary supplier to ensure that they’re buying commodities competitively, that’s a nice fit for them and for us,” says Sam.

Looking out for Daily Challenges 
No matter how efficiently a facility is run, there will always be challenges. Manufacturers and distributors have to work together to keep the daily challenges from becoming overwhelming. Maintaining lead times is just one example. 

“Where we normally have maybe a four to five day lead time between the time that we receive an order and that the customer must receive it, these guys have, in their own right, only two or three days, so everything is working almost just in time,” says Sam. “Pretty incredible for the level of detail that they’re putting together, but that’s how that works.” 

Miller says that communication between the two companies is important, since any small glitch could greatly alter the amount of time it takes to get the product to the end customer.

“[We] make sure we know what’s going on between us and them so we can let the customer know. If they’re out of skins or they can’t produce doors for whatever reason, they let us know,” says Miller.

Miller talks on about a weekly basis with Steves’ production manager to keep abreast of changes and the needs of each company. 

“He’ll come by here about every two to three weeks or so to stop in and see how things are going,” says Miller. “Doors are our business so we have to make sure we’re all on the same page together as far as what’s going on.” 

One of the company’s biggest claims to fame also brings some of its challenges—the number of types of products available.

“To make sure that there’s a flow of product running all the way through, to where we know where all the doors are at every point in time—and we’re manufacturing 30,000 doors a day and that’s 30 truckloads more or less—knowing where every door is can be a difficult task if you don’t have the systems set up to do that,” says Edward.

Miller says he faces that challenge on his end as well. 

“The biggest challenge, quite frankly, is the number of products that are out there to sell right now. Just having the immeasurable number of products … you can take that door, that one particular door and probably make it a dozen different ways,” says Miller. 

With all of those products, sometimes one gets lost in the distribution mix. According to Miller, Steves has been successful in providing to MG on short notice the critical “one door” the company doesn’t have in its warehouse.

“That’s where I think Steves has stepped up to the plate for us,” he says. “We may ship out a house pack that has 25 doors on it but there’s that one door that we don’t have that needs to be made. Those are as important as getting a whole truckload of doors.” 

The short distance between the two companies benefits MG in those last-minute challenges.

“There have been several instances where they’ve had to take the doors, get them made, bring them to us the next morning and we get them out the next morning. And they’ve done well with that,” says Miller.

Family Tradition 
Given their long history, it’s no wonder that the Steves family remains confident that their company will be around for generations to come. 

“Thirty-five years ago we had 60 competitors, now we’re down to five—that’s a fairly significant statistic. The reason why all those competitors evaporated or were acquired was that they didn’t have the same motives that we have. We’re not in it to build a company up then sell the company; we’re temporary stewards of a company that was started by our great-great-grandfather in 1866. And our children will be the same stewards when we’re gone and their children’s children will be as well,” says Edward.

He adds, “And I think our children will do a great job.” 

Keeping up with the times and the sophistication of the industry, the Steves have asked their children who have shown interest in following in their footsteps—and their great-great-great grandfather’s—to pursue a graduate degree. 

“We have two or three that are in graduate school or are planning to go to graduate school right now,” says Sam.

Who can tell what challenges and rewards wait for the company’s next stewards?

Megan Headley is an assistant editor of SHELTER magazine.

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