Door and countertop production driven by people, technology

When Fernand Belanger opened his Montreal, Que., business in 1965, he was a countertop pioneer working with particle board and laminate. Fifty-plus years later, cabinet doors have been added to the mix at this thriving shop in Boucherville, Que., a suburb of Montreal.

Today, this location of Belanger Laminates is a manufacturer of postform countertops, thermoplastic doors and post-form doors in conjunction with additional operations for doors near Quebec City in Ste-Marie-de- Beauce. The company was purchased in 1998 by Holstein, Iowa-based VT Industries, which itself began life as Van-Top in 1956.

At the time of the acquisition, Belanger had just moved to its current site. Over the years, the company has grown to be the largest post-former in Canada with approximately 200 employees dedicated to the manufacturing of products for kitchen, bathroom and furniture industries.

While cabinet door product accounts for 10 percent of the Belanger business, and has been running for only a few years, the highly automated line can produce 800 to 1,000 thermoplastic doors per day for custom kitchen cabinet makers and distributors. The countertop side accounts for 90 percent of the business with product sold at home centres across Canada and parts of the U.S.

“We do have a huge network in the Canadian and the U.S. markets of distributors or fabricators who push our countertop products, but also our thermo and polyester doors,” says Nancy Bedard, marketing manager at Belanger Laminates.

VT Industries, a company also driven by home-centre sales, saw Belanger Laminates as a natural fit since it had a similar go-to-market strategy that would mesh after the acquisition. The Boucherville location encompasses 100,000 square feet with 150 employees, 20 of which are dedicated to door fabrication production, 100 on the countertop line and 30 in shared office services. Countertop production ranges from 80,000 to 100,000 linear feet per week.

Simon Roy, production manager at Belanger Laminates, notes that door production includes close to 75 different colours and 70 different standard styles. But when custom orders are accounted for, there is an almost unlimited variety of different styles, adds Bedard. “The production guys like that,” Roy laughs.

Polyester door production ranges from 400 to 600 doors per day at the Ste-Marie-de-Beauce plant, adding to the variety available with 40 colours in four models, including one model that is exclusive to Belanger.

With several production lines operating, finding the right people — and retaining them — is a challenge that Belanger has met with much success, according to Roy. “Our people average 14 years with the company,” he says. “There is a good retention rate here compared with others due to the good working conditions, so people like to stay with us.”

Some employees have over 40 years of experience at the facility, with many in the five, 10 or 15 years-of-service bracket. The company also has a human resources department that searches for the “right people to work in the right department,” says Bedard. “We consider employees as family, not just employees.” The company has an “open concept” where there is constant communication between managers and employees.

“Employees in the shop can talk to any level of management at any time,” says Bedard. “That open door is something that helps us — we definitely listen to them. We try to make their environment as good as possible. Since they probably spend more time at the plant than time at home so we try to make that working environment pleasant.”

According to Roy, “we are not unionized but have an employee committee. There’s more money in their pocket.” The committee works directly with higher management levels and in 2016, a five-year convention was signed with the employees. “It’s the same kind of contract as you’d find with unions, but is non-unionized in this case.”

At Belanger Laminates, quarterly meetings with the employees are organized by management to let them know what’s happening with the business — where it is and where it is going. “The most important thing is that employees have a voice,” says Bedard. “Their ideas are as important as our ideas — we put everything on the table.”

Communication is key to day-today operations of the Boucherville plant. “In every department at the beginning of a shift the supervisor meets with all of their employees,” says Roy. “Every morning there is a couple of minutes where you can exchange ideas and at the same time learn about the performance of the previous working shift — what happened that was bad and what was good — and what we need to do today.” The management team also sits down for 30 minutes with all the supervisors every morning to make sure everything is on track and share their ideas, he adds. “To see who needs help that day, for example.

“Every week there is a meeting to go over all of the productivity numbers from all of the departments — again, what went bad and what went good. To try to find the best recipe for success and repeat it as much as we can.”

On the floor, all the employees have what is called a process control and standard-of-work sheet. “The standard of work is all of the tasks to do during the day, so it helps for new people coming in,” says Roy, “it helps them know what to do. Process control is more related to the product itself, where the laminate has to be at this temperature, at this position. We field these numbers all day long and supervisors go around the line every two hours and see if the checklists are on track or if there is something to fix. There is always an exchange with the employees at least a couple of times a day during the work shift.”

This level of constant communication serves another purpose as well, according to Bedard. “This procedure provides a sense of calmness throughout the plant, that we are not in a panic about what we need to do. And it’s very clear what the employee can and can’t do — so they can’t touch the machine based on how they feel it should be working — but follow the process control standards in place.”

Tolerances have been tested over time at Belanger for quality, so operators know not to play with settings on machines. Roy adds, “that’s a living process, so any employee that feels that we could add something on these standard work sheets or need to take up something about the process, we are always open to discussion. We want the process to be the best it can be.”

Employees cannot, however, make changes to process without first discussing them through the proper channels.

Training is delivered on-the-job and through a safety committee that gets information to employees. Management will also take courses at a local CEGEP on how to manage their team. “All of our foremen and supervisors grew into their positions on the job from the shop floor — I am one of these guys,” says Roy. “I started by pulling sheet to make laminate countertops and grew up with the company. There’s a couple more people like that now and we always try to give them the tools we can for success.” Roy himself took leadership courses to prepare for managing employees.

“When there is a job opening opportunity at Belanger, we ask inside first before going outside.”

Bedard adds that “we have a few nice, rising stars, and it is fun to see them grow.”

60 Years & Counting

VT believes in automation to the extent that it has a department of automation and has spent a lot of money to automate production lines, especially its countertop operations. The postform countertop line is known as its super line and the company has seven of them across North America.

The sales channel for Belanger Laminates across Canada includes a network of fabricators that supply products, making it very easy for the big box stores to provide product, according to Bedard. “Doors are sold across Canada as well, but through our fabricators,” she says. “Our door product lines are promoted by the fabricators and our direct customers, and we have a lot of cabinet makers that buy our doors. Being in Montreal, we are well located for the distribution of all of those products. We also do a little bit of distribution in the New England states for VT as well.”

To maintain quality among the fabricators, the Countertop Pro Team Association was formed, according to Bedard. Partners include Belanger, Arborite, Les Cuisines Tech Profab, Formica, Wilsonart and Tafisa. Suppliers like Belanger also have to maintain high quality standards, “from getting the particleboard on line to stacking the countertop on the customer’s skid,” says Bedard.

On the thermoplastic door side of the business, Belanger staff have to be a lot more hands on. “We have different spot checks for quality,” says Roy, “so we have a lot more chance to make sure the door meets quality standards through all the levels of production.”

Helping meet quality goals is the company’s investment this year in an automated, programmable CNC machine and work cell for machining and handling MDF doors. “Because it’s an automatic stacker, loader and unloader, it is much easier for the operator now,” says Roy. Belanger has doubled the capacity for machining doors, as well as increased the quality, he adds. “I think we also made a good choice with Cim-Tech (CAD/CAM software) to run the CNC machine. Its advanced technology provides us the easiest way to do the nesting.” Nesting software from the Orlando, Fla.-based company provides the machine tool instructions that maximize the yield from each MDF sheet, thus reducing scrap.

Belanger is constantly updating its designs to the software due to the cabinet door business being very customoriented. “We can’t automate the whole line because orders are not standard,” according to Roy. “We go through 80 to 150 orders per day in all different sizes, colours and styles. We have to process those orders one at a time in the most efficient way we can do.

“Lots of the parts are manufactured by hand because of the nonstandard nature of the order. The recipe changes from one type of PVC to another, one model to another,” says Roy. The company also has to deal with variations such as the glue application to the press parameters of the thermoplastic veneer application process. “The whole process changes from one door to another. You can imagine the number of recipes we can have. We all have those process controls for each recipe. It would be easier if we were in a business where we have one type of door, but that’s not our business.”

Market requirements dictate that often the kitchen design is mix and match. This means the customer sometimes requests different colours and models of doors in a single order, where she wants to see darker bottom cabinets and gloss white doors on top, something that Belanger’s thermo doors can easily address. In addition, the combination of CNC plus some manual work can process door mouldings. “We have a collection that has moulding integrated in the door so we have to make the moulding after the door has been shaped,” says Bedard.

Belanger Laminates recognizes the need for customer education and produces brochures, colour charts and a glossy consumer magazine twice a year. “They need to understand what we have to offer. We want to make sure the consumer knows how good a laminate countertop is, and how good a thermoplastic door is. We are trying to educate the consumer before they go out and buy,” says Bedard.

When it comes to countertops, “our product is still a good product. It has been here for close to 60 years and it is probably going to be here for another 60.”

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