The Business of Custom Wood Finishing: Jeco’s Path to Market Leadership

Jim Carrigan, Owner of Jeco Inc.

“A lot of cabinet makers were just building stuff on site and then letting the painters deal with it. So, I started specializing in just cabinet finishing and wood finishing in these large custom homes and then eventually decided that that was my niche. I probably ran both house painting and the spray shop for about two years and then I decided I had to choose one or the other. Trying to run both is just not cost effective. I know there’s still people trying to do it now. What happens is our shop ends up being empty half the time because they’re on site doing a bunch of work. So, I decided, no, it’s going to be all shop. I threw all in on pre finishing and I’d like to say that’s the end of the story and it’s been happily ever after but it’s been a long grind to get to where I am now.”

In the competitive landscape of the secondary wood manufacturing industry, Jeco Inc., led by Jim Carrigan, stands out for its commitment to innovation, strategic growth, and customer engagement. In this article, we delve into the multifaceted strategies that have propelled Jeco Inc. to the forefront of custom wood finishing.  Carrigan provides his perspective on the integration of technology with craftsmanship, highlights proactive approaches to growth and market expansion, offers insights into making strategic decisions for operational efficiency when it comes to finishing, and explains the role of digital platforms in building customer trust.

 

Automation and a Lean Mentality

Andrii applying wipe stain to head boards for a hotel project.

At the center of Carrigan’s approach is a commitment to lean manufacturing principles. Originating from a practical approach to minimizing waste and maximizing value, Carrigan’s lean philosophy has evolved with Jeco’s growth. Lean manufacturing, for Carrigan, is about streamlining processes, reducing unnecessary steps, and enhancing organizational and administrative efficiency.

“It started with common sense,” says Carrigan. “What is the quickest way to get from A to B and in the least number of steps? When you have an operation like this with all these different moving parts and different staff, that’s where I started leaning towards tried-and-true systems that have been used in manufacturing industries and getting input from people who have been down that road.”

A massive contributor to Jeco’s success is due to the work of VP of production Richard Davies, who has been the brain behind Jeco’s custom management and organization software that keeps track of their complex operation. While still a work in progress, Davies and Jeco have invested serious time and resources to track and standardize their processes across their production. Despite Carrigan’s obvious professional abilities, he recognizes how far he has come because he has invested in a great team and a supportive community of craftsmen.

When asked about automation and the role of skilled labour in the 12,000 sq ft. Calgary facility that he has dedicated to his finishing operation, Carrigan emphasized the importance of a holistic value stream analysis where serious consideration is paid to how automated machinery effects other steps in the production process.

“Automation isn’t the only answer. It’s a partial answer,” says Carrigan, “I would estimate we could automate 60 to 70% of the regular finishing that we do. The other 30-40% would still have to be done the way that we do it now: manually with skilled sprayers. We’ve been working towards automation and the closer that we feel we’re getting to it, the farther away we realize we are. There is a great deal of support that needs to be in place and systems that need to be really working well on everything else before you automate one aspect of your business. Otherwise, you’re just going to have a series of bottlenecks to deal with. You may have solved one problem and created five. So, I’ve decided to take a different approach and solve the five problems before we go after the automation.

“We’ve been working with a lean manufacturing specialist group to help us get ready for automation. And throughout that process, we realized that we have a whole lot of work to do in some of our other areas.

“Technically,” Carrigan points out, “we’re not manufacturing anything, but we are the tail end of the manufacturing process and we partner with manufacturers to complete the chain. So, we have to take the same lean approach to how we interface with our clients in the most effective way and getting our work done in the timeliest fashion.”

 

Pursuing Business and Opportunity with VeroMetal

Jeco Inc. has embraced a practice of pursuing new business and offerings as a key strategy for managing the seasonality of the wood finishing industry.

“What sets us apart is deciding to seek growth and not just deal with it. If you’re just dealing with demand, you’re going to run the peaks and valleys and go through the highs and lows, you’re going to staff up and staff down, you never leave your comfort zone, but you’re still uncomfortable. Eventually you are going to stagnate and start sliding backwards,” says Carrigan. “I also think that I’ve learned some lessons living in Alberta about diversification.”

This diversification came in the form of acquiring the Canadian distribution and training rights for VeroMetal, a move that has significantly broadened the project capabilities of Jeco and the Canadian designers who have fallen in love with it.

A prepared VeroMetal sample

VeroMetal is a revolutionary finishing technology that can apply a metal veneer to a variety of substrates, effectively turning them into metal pieces. This capability has enabled the company to undertake innovative projects using wood where normally a less customizable and more expensive cast metal pieces would be used, creating unique, high-quality results that appeal to a wide range of clients. From architectural finishes like hood fans and doors to intricate mixed-media projects, VeroMetal has positioned Jeco Inc. as a leader in the finishing industry, capable of executing designs previously thought impossible.

Understanding the complexity and novelty of VeroMetal, Carrigan has also initiated training programs for certified VeroMetal applicators. This not only expands Jeco Inc.’s service offerings but also fosters a skilled workforce capable of high-quality finishes across Canada.

 

Social Media to Educate Clients and Inspire Trust

In an era where transparency and trust are paramount, Jim Carrigan has adeptly leveraged social media to demystify the wood finishing process and foster a deeper connection with both current and prospective clients. Carrigan’s initial reluctance towards social media was quickly overshadowed by the realization of its potent ability to educate, inspire, and build trust among a wide audience.

The transformative power of social media for Jeco Inc. became evident through the sharing of stories and insights behind the scenes. Carrigan found that giving people a “peek behind the curtain” not only satisfied curiosity but also allayed fears associated with outsourcing their “babies” to ensure their products looked their best. This open-book approach has been instrumental in softening the “fright factor” related to switching from in-house to outsourced finishing services.

Carrigan explains, “It’s a scary concept when you’re contemplating outsourcing. But social media allows us to showcase what we’re doing, how we’re doing it, and who we’re doing it for. It creates a level of comfort, demonstrating that we’re capable and reliable.” This strategy has proven effective, with Jeco Inc. witnessing a significant increase in client engagement and business inquiries through social media platforms.

Beyond mere promotion, Carrigan has embraced social media as a platform for education and community building. By posting daily stories on Instagram, Jeco Inc.’s primary social channel, Carrigan shares the nuances of wood finishing processes, offers Q&A sessions, and provides valuable insights into the industry. This educational approach has not only attracted a broad audience but has also positioned Jeco Inc. as a thought leader in the finishing community.

“The real value of social media lies in storytelling and education,” Carrigan notes. “It’s about showing who we are, what we do, and why we do it. It’s fascinating to see the engagement, with hundreds of people tuning in daily to watch our stories. This level of interaction has brought us new business and strengthened our community ties far more than traditional advertising could ever achieve.”

Finishing In-House and Considerations for Outsourcing

Roman preparing furniture for a finish coat.

The decision between maintaining in-house finishing capabilities and opting for outsourcing is pivotal. Jim Carrigan sheds light on this critical choice, highlighting the factors that drive woodworking shops towards outsourcing as a strategic move. The tipping point for many comes down to a combination of demand management, skill scarcity, and the quest for operational efficiency.

Carrigan points out two primary scenarios pushing woodworkers towards outsourcing. First, an overwhelming demand where in-house finishing becomes a bottleneck due to limited resources, such as having a single finisher or spray booth that can’t keep up with production. The second scenario is the difficulty in finding skilled finishers. With no formal trade school for finishing and the learning curve steeply set in on-the-job training, sourcing competent finishers has become increasingly challenging. This scarcity often leads to compromised product quality and customer dissatisfaction, prompting a reconsideration of in-house finishing.

Beyond immediate operational challenges, Carrigan emphasizes the importance of evaluating the cost-effectiveness of maintaining finishing operations in-house. Many shops fail to accurately account for the full cost of finishing, overlooking factors like overheads and the detailed intricacies that contribute to the final cost. This lack of understanding can lead to a misapprehension of the financial impact of in-house finishing. Carrigan advises a thorough evaluation of finishing costs, separate from manufacturing expenses, to truly ascertain whether it aids or hinders the business financially.

“Finishing should be evaluated completely separately, including the overhead on storage, equipment, and labour, from the manufacturing end of things, even if you have your own in-house finishing, to really know if you’re cost effective or not,” Says Carrigan.

Moreover, reallocating space dedicated to finishing to expand production capabilities or invest in new machinery can significantly enhance a shop’s output and success. Outsourcing finishing to a specialized partner like Jeco Inc. can, therefore, be a strategic move to unlock greater productivity and profitability.

 

Essential Tools for Finishing Excellence

Carrigan’s go-to choice for air assist, airless pumps, and guns is Sames Kremlin, a brand that stands out for its reliability and performance. Originating from France, Sames Kremlin’s equipment is celebrated for its ability to deliver consistent, high-quality finishes without faltering. “They’re workhorses,” Carrigan asserts, highlighting that although these tools might come at a premium, their longevity and the quality of work they produce make them a worthwhile investment. The mantra “If you take care of them, they’ll take care of you” encapsulates Carrigan’s approach to selecting tools that offer long-term value over initial savings.

For more conventional needs, particularly smaller jobs or projects requiring high gloss and finesse, Carrigan and his team rely on SATA systems. These spray guns are lauded for their precision, making them a staple in Jeco Inc.’s arsenal for achieving the finest finishes. Carrigan’s philosophy of commitment to tools that work well underscores a broader principle of consistency and reliability in the finishing process.

Carrigan’s advice extends beyond specific brand recommendations to a fundamental principle of equipment selection: consistency and compatibility. The diversity of tools and products available on the market can be overwhelming, but Carrigan warns against the pitfalls of mixing and matching without consideration for how each piece fits into the broader workflow. “It’s a recipe for disaster,” he cautions, emphasizing the need for a harmonious integration of tools that complement each other and enhance the efficiency and quality of the finishing process.

Bringing it all Together

Carrigan’s insights reveal a deep understanding of the challenges and opportunities within the industry, emphasizing the importance of embracing technology, lean manufacturing, and the power of social media to educate and build trust with clients. By balancing the artistry of traditional finishing techniques with the efficiency of modern technology and embracing the role of education and community, Jeco Inc. ensures that it remains a leader in the industry. As the pre-finishing sector grows, Jeco’s journey from a specialized finishing shop to an industry innovator highlights a path of continuous improvement, strategic growth, and a deep-rooted commitment to excellence and customer satisfaction.

 

 

Tyler Holt is the Editor of Wood Industry / Le monde du bois magazine. He has a master’s degree in literature and publication, and years of experience in the publishing and digital media industry. His main area of study is the effect of digital technologies on industrial and networked production.

 

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