These days we hear a lot about bailouts, but more often than not, those of us doing the bailing did not initiate the action. It’s not always that way. One company, Osborne Wood Products, was so beloved by their community that when they had a fire, their customers, suppliers and neighbors stepped forward to make certain they did not go out of business.
“In 1994, we had a fire that destroyed more than 95 percent of our building,” founder Leon Osborne recounted. “We survived it because of the community. First, a local company offered us a forklift and warehouse space for free. Another company offered us the use of a very sophisticated copy lathe. An individual who had a very large custom hobby woodworking shop offered us the entire shop and tools to use until we got back onto our feet. Every supplier offered us 120 days terms with a two percent discount. One hardware company told us to order our tools from them and to pay them no money until we were back on our feet, no matter how long that took. Everyone came to our aid.”
Why? “I think that the bottom line is that our business has been built on good values,” Leon explained. “We had always treated people with integrity and respect and always went the extra mile. We used to pay all our bills not in 30 days, which was normal, but within two or three days. In short, all these people wanted to see a company like us stay in business. Even our employees, and there were six at that time, worked long hours to help in whatever way they could. One month after the fire, we were once again shipping products, and one year after the fire we had built another building, moved in and had all our tools replaced and working.”
It’s easy to see why everyone wanted them to stick around, not just because they are such a model company, but also because they go out of their way to help the little guys. Osborne makes and sells wood parts: legs, knobs, appliqués, corbels, columns, brackets and so on. But while other parts manufacturers sell only in bulk to contractors or builders, Osborne also caters to small shop and hobby woodworkers who want to buy a couple of corbels or legs at a time.
As is often the case, the eponymous company started by Leon Osborne began with a slightly different focus. “Originally, I started the company in a garage in 1979 in Georgia,” Leon recounted, “though that only lasted a year before we moved to more commodious quarters. At the time I was working as a welder, but woodworking was my hobby. Though I loved welding, I felt it was unhealthy for my lungs, so I turned to woodworking. We started as subcontractors building cabinets and furniture.
“For the first 10 years, we almost exclusively built subcontract furniture, but about 1989, we started selling parts directly to manufacturers. One thing we noticed was that companies we contracted for were purchasing parts, and at times they had difficulty getting small quantities of parts. I decided to focus on woodworkers who wanted to buy parts but could not buy in bulk.
“From the beginning, we sold in any amount, even single parts. We started with legs, but in 1991 I saw a design magazine that featured a kitchen with an island sporting furniture legs. I’d never seen that before. What I was used to were kitchens that were mostly boxes, and I realized it would help cabinetmakers to buy sets of legs for kitchens. No one else in the industry was addressing that market, so we began a national campaign aimed at kitchen cabinetmakers. That doubled our business.
“In 2002, we realized a need for additional decorative parts. At the time, the majority of our business was legs: for tables, coffee tables, kitchen islands and so on. When customers would order, we’d always follow up with a phone call. From that we learned that customers wanted larger diameter table legs, taller bar legs, carvings and carved legs, corbels, overlays, finials, bed posts and carved wooden pulls. We care about helping our customers, so we added these items and more.
“At first, we went to a very large carving company, but had problems with one rather unique feature; carved grapes. That was the one thing this company could not do well. They told us that the only way that could be done was to have them hand carved, and the only place to do that was in China. At this point, the detailed hand carved pieces, usually with grapes, acanthus leaves or basket weave, are made in China. Everything else is manufactured right here in the U.S.
“Today, we have 26 employees and produce about 400 styles, most of which are offered in at least 10 different woods each, for a total of nearly 4,000 possible products. The range of woods includes alder, cherry, maple, walnut, mahogany, oak, knotty pine, birch, Lyptus® and rubberwood, sometimes called parawood. We have a huge plant here where we make all the turnings, which comprises about half of our products. The rest are made by subcontractors, which is kind of ironic considering we started out as subcontractors.”
“We sell to a diverse group that includes custom cabinet shops, furniture makers, store display makers, designers and architects and, of course, hobby woodworkers,” explained Christian Smedberg, a design engineer with the company. “What’s different about us is that we have a huge variety, but still will sell very small amounts. We get a lot of hobby woodworkers because we sell direct, with no middlemen, and will sell any amount, even single pieces. Because we only sell direct, you don’t pay jobber or dealer costs. Typically, if you buy on our website, the order gets processed and shipped the same day. We don’t have any sales force; you’ll see us through magazine ads, and of course, our website.
“One of the unique things we offer, to help those who do CAD drawing, is a DVD with three-dimensional models of our products. The drawings will plug right into your CAD program, and will interface with all of the programs out there. This was a very revolutionary step. Creating three-dimensional representations of all 400 of our products in all file formats to integrate with all software was quite a major undertaking. So far, we have sent out 150,000 DVDs for free. For us, that’s just another way to get our name out there and make sure our products are easy to use, even when our customers are still at the design and sale stage.”
“When we look to the future,” Leon chimed in, “we look to have a web presence that is more customer service oriented. We’d like to see a website where the customer can build his own custom leg, right online, using our software, then get an immediate quote or the ability to buy. Thus, you could design and buy a custom piece right on the website. That’s the sort convenience we aim to offer our customers.”
“We want to continue to be customer driven,” Christian insisted, “and don’t want to outgrow our base. We have no minimum order, and we have no intention of changing that. We want to make sure we listen to and provide for the little guy. Even today, shops and customers who buy small quantities are the backbone of our business.”