Updated: Aug 13, 2019
Nation’s Business, May 1997 Entrepreneur’s Notebook by Frederick Duckloe, Jr. A personal history of Frederick Duckloe & Brothers by one of the current owners.
It's a common belief among business people that all except the most computerliterate and technologically advanced are doomed to be dinosaurs. For our furniture company, Frederick Duckloe & Brothers, Inc., doing things the oldfashioned way - using master craftsmen and time-honored techniques of carving and finishing - is what makes us successful.
Started in 1859 by my great-grandfather, the companyâ€”which I co-own with my sister, Barbara Duckloe Townsend, the firm's secretary-treasurerâ€”has grown to have a line of 80 patterns of original and adapted 18th century-reproduction furniture. Annual sales have increased roughly to $3 million. And while production has grown, too (in the 1930s, a good week meant turning our six chairs), our commitment to doing assembly, sanding and finishing by hand has limited growth.
In 1996, our 30 employees produced about 5,000 Windsor chairs, settees, benches, and assorted other pieces. That annual production matches the weekly rate of many of today's furniture manufacturers.
Here's how we maintain old-fashioned quality even as we improve sales:
We let workers use their time wisely. Fitting and sanding by hand are required to achieve the levels of authenticity and quality our customers expect. But our craftsmen's time is better spent working on the nuances of a piece than on cutting basic components chair by chair. So all repetitive work is automated, and we make parts for 50 to 100 chairs at a time, although assembly is generally done in batches of 25 and finishing is done in even smaller batches.
Our craftsmen and their apprentices can move freely between the parts and assembly operations as needed to complete an order efficiently. While no one in the company counts how many spindles are produced in a day or how many chairs we complete each week, everyone knows that his or her part in the production process must be completed in a timely fashion to keep the operation on schedule.
As a result,, all employees feel a responsibility to bring forward new ideas that could improve our products or productivity.
We limit waste. Just like the craftsmen of old, we abide by the proverb "Waste not, want not." The wood we use comes cut to size, reducing the amount that goes into the scrap pile. Virtually all wood purchased is used; even our sawdust is used as horse bedding by a farmer who hauls it away for free, saving us the cost of paying for disposal. The only wood in the discard barrel has knots in it.
Likewise, we minimize manufacturing mistakes through communication. For example, before parts are cut, the craftsmen who will do the assemble are consulted so that pieces will fit exactly the first time.
Marketing is one area where you have to keep up with the times.
We embrace technologies if they give us an edge. Just because our chairs are crafted without nails or screws just like chairs made 200 years ago - doesn't mean that the information age is passing us by. In addition to regional and national advertising through traditional media, we have a World Wide Web site on the Internet, www.duckloe.com. Marketing is one area where you have to keep up with the times.
We don't jeopardize what we do best. Doing things the old-fashioned way has earned our firm a top reputation in the industry and among customers. Many customers return years after their first purchase to find that our chairs are built with the same solid construction and attention to detail as the ones my father built. That's what we're known for and why we will never change our approach in favor of "more, better, faster."