April 15, 2019

Design Specialties strives for quick delivery of custom fireplace doors
By Arthur Thomas

On the production floor at Milwaukee-based Design Specialties LLC, you will find a high-tech laser cutter next to a 100-year-old anvil. One cuts precise steel parts, while the other serves as a base for grinding or hammering detail into custom fireplace doors.

The mixture of modern precision techniques and old-fashioned craftsmanship is part of what differentiates the company's products in a niche market. Ralph Howard, president and chief executive officer of Design Specialties, said finishes like a hammered edge could be automated, but the product would lose its unique characteristics. Plus, watching a skilled employee mark the edge, it's hard to imagine a machine going faster.

Founded in 1983, Design Specialties is now owned by Brookfield private equity firm Blackthorne Partners. The company focused on fireplace doors from the start and views offering custom products as a key differentiator. The doors consumers might find at big box home improvement centers have a wider frame, allowing them to fit a variety of fireplaces. Design Specialties' products are built to fit a specific fireplace, which only adds to the challenges of production.

"We have to hit bullseyes all the way through the process," Howard said. "If you order it wrong or the dealer does something or we do something wrong or we enter a wrong dimension, a wrong color, anything else, we can't bring it back and put it back on the shelf because it was made just for your fireplace."

Customization does not stop with the color and size of a fireplace door. Design Specialties is also able to add personalized designs, with examples ranging from the simple addition of reeds of grass to a fish jumping out of water to two children playing tennis.

"We don't do a lot of two of the same thing," Howard said. "A typical order for us is a quantity of one."

In addition to the doors, Design specialties makes and sells products that go around the fireplace, like spark guards, freestanding screens, tool sets and log baskets.

A new fireplace door is not a common purchase. Most consumers will only buy one or two in their life, if they purchase one at all. Howard said purchases -- made through one of around 400 specialty retail dealers -- are typically the result of not liking the style of door in a recently purchased house. Dealers also typically install the product for consumers.

"People don't like to work around a fire and a fireplace," Howard said. "It's not a consumer category that consumers are terribly familiar with so they'll look for the expertise."

The market itself is not particularly competitive, but Design Specialties tries to differentiate itself through quality and faster deliveries. Howard said its average lead times are about a week shorter than its main competitors.

For any manufacturer, doing custom work only adds to the challenge of delivering products quickly, and when most processes are not repeated exactly the same way each time, it is difficult to automate them.

The company has counteracted those challenges by keeping as many processes in-house as possible and focusing on lean implementation. Standardizing workstations, for example, allows a well-trained employee to assemble eight to 10 steel doors or 35 to 45 aluminum doors per day. Howard said the company has also found some areas where automation does help. A packaging machine helps prepare boxes perfectly sized for each door and the company is exploring ways to add CNC machining capabilities.

Sales of fireplace doors are particularly seasonal, Howard said, with the busy months running from October to March. The slowdown in the late spring and summer gives the company time to refine its systems, install new machinery, perform maintenance and make floor plan changes as needed.

But the company is also working to reduce some of the seasonal variation in sales and has begun selling outdoor products on Amazon, including launching a line of raised planters in March.

"We've learned a lot in the last seven, eight months so now we know how to do it," Howard said of online sales. "Now we just need to get into selling some new categories."
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