FormWood Works to Get It Right

 On time. On budget. On spec. Check, check, and check! That's the corporate mindset at FormWood Industries, a real wood veneer manufacturer based in Jeffersonville, Ind. “It's something that we strive towards,” says Senior Vice President Craig Langford, “and it's become our mantra.” What matters most not only to the manufacturer but to all of the stakeholders—including the woodworker and distributor—is Opening Day, he explains. Whether the customer is flinging wide the doors to a store for the first time on Black Friday or welcoming guests onto the floor of a brand-new casino, Langford stresses that making these projects happen when clients want it, how they want it, and within the financial parameters they have planned for is fundamentally important. FormWood pays strict attention to these details; and, that, Langford stresses, is a differentiator between it and many other manufacturers.

The service component—which entails not only nailing the order but doing so with integrity—is especially vital given the kind of to-build work the manufacturer is focused on these days. FormWood's products are sold into a diverse range of industries—from cabinet making and store fixtures to millwork and the automotive, RV, and boat sectors. Increasingly, though, it relies less on stock items and more on made-to-order projects. That means applying real wood veneer over particleboard, medium-density fiberboard (MDF), or whatever choice of architectural plywood the customer prefers, with additional tailoring in terms of dimensions and flexible backing to suit individual needs. As opposed to receiving an architectural-panel order for 10 sheets of maple, Langford offers as an example, a customer might request 10 sheets of maple that must be sequence-smashed and cut to 5 foot wide by 12 foot long. It's these types of orders, he says, where it's really critical to meet every single detail.

Toward that end, FormWood is busy developing some tools and technologies to help it perfect its track record in this area. The aim of these coming innovations is to simplify the process of capturing specs on the higher-end, more complex jobs and conveying them effectively between the manufacturer and the woodworker, which often is receiving product directly by virtue of the custom nature of the work. To be certain, distributors are not being left out of the equation, assures Langford, who notes that FormWood's sheet veneer business is still alive and very much in need of their services. Although its growing entrenchment in the made-to-order niche has taken the relationship with the distribution community in a different, less traditional direction over the course of Langford's 20 years with FormWood, the manufacturer still needs distributors that can carry standard inventory ready to formulate; and it still places considerable value in these partners. “The distribution network, for us, is a big deal,” he reinforces.

Indeed, with more opportunities on the horizon for distributors in terms of millwork, hotel interiors, law offices, and the like, FormWood is pursuing resources to improve communication within its distribution network as well. “We're working on things that will allow us and the distributor to partner to make sure that we're getting accurate information from that point all the way into FormWood's spec-capture sales division all the way into actually producing it and getting it on the floor correct and shipping it out,” he says. “It's key to get it right and limit anything that could potentially get caught in translation.” The solution, the manufacturer believes, is equipping distributors with information on the front end rather than the back end. Instead of having to try to be an “expert” on a myriad of different products, Langford says, distributors just need to have the reference material at the ready—and not have to ask for it after the fact.

The evolution of FormWood's relationship with its distributors doesn't end with its growing focus on the to-build market. Langford additionally cites customers' higher expectations and lower lead times. “Everyone wants their order yesterday, and it's really forced us and the distributor partner to have a different type of relationship than we once had,” he says. “You have to have better trust, you have to have more openness, and you have to have greater communication.” FormWood personally seems to have found a good rhythm with its own partners, which Langford largely attributes to the manufacturer's nearly 15-year affiliation with NBMDA. Enrollment in the organization, according to the first-year Steering Committee member, has allowed the company to forge peer-to-peer relationships that give it a better grasp of where people are coming from and what's important to them—but from a different perspective than just a vendor talking to a customer. “Anytime you can better understand anyone's perspective, that's a good thing,” Langford shares. “It's a way to get an unfiltered view of reality—but in a very positive manner—so that we can make decisions that ultimately strengthen that partnership that we're working towards.” Those moves are not necessarily based on interactions or discussions with actual business partners, either, he adds. That's the beauty of NBMDA's meetings and events—often, input from a non-partner is equally valuable.

Although FormWood and its partners are comfortably in stride, Langford points out anecdotal evidence—some of it garnered while engaging with other attendees at NBMDA's University of Innovative Distribution—suggesting that there is some general angst about the relationship between distributors and manufacturers. Much of that anxiety is swirling around who has what role; how to communicate with one another; how to address the Internet and direct-selling opportunities; and other sticking points. Those are just some the challenges Langford sees distributors having to confront going forward; but the opportunities are out there, too. Painted wood and textured wood are both hot right now, for instance, and he predicts distributors that secure products that can be customized—and especially those that do so at the designer and architect level—will reap the rewards. In terms of markets, Langford notes that existing categories like store fixtures are making a rebound, while new ones—like acoustical panels and soundproofing—are gaining ground.

Perhaps the biggest opportunity for anyone in the channel, Langford concludes, comes from offering true service in their relationships. That element has slipped away over the years as technology has taken over, he says, and many industry insiders now look at business from a transaction-based angle only. That's a mistake in his eyes; picking up the telephone or paying a personal visit, being supportive, and showing genuine concern for partners and wanting them to do well are all actions that are rarely forgotten. As proof, Langford points to FormWood's customer surveys—results from which have routinely lauded the manufacturer for its status as a trusted adviser and praised it for the care it extends in its relationships.

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