Pride in custom-made craftsmanship
STEWARTVILLE — Scattered across the sprawling Halcon factory on the north side of Stewartville were thousands of pieces of wood in various stages of being covered with veneer, sanded, shaped, varnished, assembled or crated for storage.
They made up about 50 orders for Halcon's high-end furniture, in various stages of completion.
What looked like chaos, however, was well organized. You just had to know where to look.
Each piece had a bar code that identified it, as well as cryptic shorthand that told workers who know the language what piece it belonged to, whether it was a door or desktop, and where it went in relation to other pieces.
That final part is critical, said Ben Conway, executive vice president. Halcon is one of a handful of high-end makers of furniture nationally. It prides itself not only on how strong the pieces are but also how they look. And to look good, the veneer has to match. Pieces are made to line up so the grain of one piece of veneer blends in with another one.
It's part of the Halcon look.
Yes, the recession hurt Halcon last year, with the high-end furniture business falling 45 percent, but business is starting to rebound, Conway said.
The business, which now employs about 85, began in 1977 when Peter Conway, Ben's father, and Duane Halvorson formed a small furniture-making company here where everything was done by hand. It has grown into a business was about 125,000 square feet of manufacturing space, not to mention another building for design and sales.
What sets Halcon apart from most other furniture makers is that each piece is custom-made. Even if customers order from the catalog, they specify type of wood, hardware and other details. That is a source of pride, and a lot of extra work, Conway said.
Employees can't just crank out piece after piece by the hundreds or thousands. Each has to match the other pieces in that suite. And each suite of furniture might match those in other offices. They will do a job for one office, or as many as 750 offices for their biggest project.
No matter how big or small the order, "every piece is unique," Conway said.
"Everything we build, someone is waiting for — they have already purchased it," said Peter Fuchsel, vice president of operations.
But even before that, a lot of work has to be done.
"That nuts-and-bolts piece is more complex than you think," Conway said.
As a way of explaining, he told how a big law firm in Chicago or New York would end up with Halcon pieces in its office.
When the firm decides it needs furniture, it usually hires a designer to decide what is needed, how many and whether some unusual sizes are needed to fit a unique space. That firm might also hire someone with expertise in colors and styles.
Then the designer will talk with Halcon to detail what it wants and seek bids.
"In the end of the day, it's just a matter of what the client wants and how they want to structure it," he said.
Halcon will do a computer mock-up of a suite, letting the potential client have a virtual tour from different angles. It might also be asked to make one suite or piece of furniture so the client can see the finished product, not just a picture. It's like the difference between seeing a car in a brochure and sitting inside it, Conway said.
If the company can get a customer to see and feel the wood, and to slide drawers in and out, the chances of getting a sale are high, Fuchsel said.
When Halcon finally gets the bid, the local work begins, Fuchsel said.
Its employees begin by buying veneer from trees across the world, because different ones have different grains and colors; the only Minnesota trees are oaks. The company has a large room filled with slabs of veneer and one person who is an expert in matching them so they all look like they belong together.
They use a particle board instead of solid wood because it's much less expensive and more stable. There aren't enough trees to make all furniture out of solid wood, Fuchsel said.
While much of Halcon is mechanized, such as machines to glue and trim pieces, there is also a lot of old-fashioned craftsmanship in other parts. It takes skills to know when things are right or, if they are wrong, how to fix them. And some of the sanding is still by hand.
"There is craftsmanship that is going on in this company every day," Conway said.
To keep everyone working together, the project manager for Halcon will often see pieces being made and keeps in close touch with the workers on the floor. "It gives a sense of community," Conway said.
When all the work is done, which takes three or more weeks, the product is ready for shipping.
When Conway sees that final piece, he knows a lot of work and expertise, as well as craftsmanship, went into it.
"We are really proud of our product," he said.