Managers Versus Woodworkers

Can a person with little woodworking experience manage a woodworking company? In some situations, maybe so. January 18, 2007

Does anyone have any experience or opinions on custom woodworking shops being managed by people without wood-working experience?

Forum Responses
(Business and Management Forum)
From contributor J:
You are asking for trouble in most such situations, I believe. Give responsibility to those that live and breathe what you are doing. If someone isn't ready for the big jump in responsibility, maybe give smaller amounts of responsibility to several people until one becomes a standout.

From contributor W:
I have been in the cabinet business for about 18 months. I had no previous experience in a cabinet shop but did have some woodworking and finishing experience from other businesses that I owned (boat building). I did have 23 years of management experience in manufacturing and human recourses. I am still learning about cabinets but feel that I have brought a lot of fresh ideas to this organization and will continue to do so. There are a lot of recourses that a newbie can take advantage of to quickly learn the basics and beyond. Hopefully you don’t expect you general manager to be your best production worker as well.

From contributor F:
If a company has to hire someone today to be GM, and they have a choice between a good manager and a good woodworker, I would say 'take the manager'. Those skills take longer to develop, and have a higher barrier to entry.

From contributor P:
Take a look around the typical cabinet shop and you'll see several guys, all of whom have learned the woodworking skills. Glorify them as we might, those are learnable. We all did and still are. The new, younger guys (even those that don't speak much English) are learning them too. That's what's required to produce good work productively.

On the flip side, look at the business results of the typical cabinet shop (growth, profit, competitive advantage) and those usually show lots of room for improvement. Most of what the owners have learned about business they have learned anecdotally.

Shops get started every day when someone gets tired of working for someone else. And that someone usually figures that knowing how to build good work productively is really what it takes. It's the "Field of Dreams" assumption: "If I build it, they will come." Unfortunately, they rarely do, or at least in sufficient numbers to fuel the success that was imagined and hoped for.

Which leads to the next assumption: "I just need to grow." Would you hire someone without management skills but with exceptional woodworking skills to manage the business? It's done every day. But whether you choose that path or make a different choice depends on what you value and the results you want. It's perfectly justifiable to go down the path of starting your own shop, wanting nothing more than to own your own future and job by working for yourself, with no dreams of growth, growing profits or sustainable advantage in your market.

But recognize that there are guys like me out here too. I left a corporate role with lots of business knowledge and skill, and a sustained track record of growth and profit behind me. I focused the new business on the business essentials: marketing, innovation, pricing, avoiding head to head competition. I've never built a single cabinet. I leveraged a lifetime of passion for woodworking as the skill foundation, but I'd never cut it in a commercial cabinet shop: I'm way too slow.

I'm pretty happy with my business results, though. I'm my only employee and I work a 40 hour week - a day running the business, four days in a 2500 square foot shop. The only deadlines I have come from commitments I make to my customers. And the value I create isn't solely in the product itself. It comes as much from "how they get it" as from "what they get."

At the end of the day, what matters is what you want. If you're the owner of a growing cabinet shop who is working hard, taking all the risks, unhappy with the returns at the end of the year and considering the hire of a general manager, who should you choose? It depends. If you're really the guy who should be running the shop rather than the business, then someone with the business skill set and track record could be the right decision even if he (or she) doesn't have a scrap of background in woodworking. If you've got the business know how, then perhaps you need a shop manager instead.

As in most things, if you begin with the end in mind, and don't assume that there is only one right answer for every situation, you're likely on the right trail leading to a good decision.

From contributor L:
I'd hire the best manager I could, no hands on woodworking skills required. Managing a business is a totally different thing than building a cabinet! Good communications skills are a must for a manager not sawing boards.

From the original questioner:
One thing I would like to clarify is that two of the people who responded claiming to have little or no wood-working experience actually have backgrounds in fabrication and manufacturing of some kind. My original question concerned a situation where a person with only accounting or office management experience could step into a custom manufacturing/management environment without knowing what it is like to work on the shop floor, and deal effectively with the people and situations that are found there.

From contributor C:
One successful millwork shop I know of is owned by an individual who, in his own words, "can't make sawdust." He has no woodworking experience whatsoever and his background is marketing, but he's making money.

I think answers to this question need to be qualified. Much has to do with the size of the company and the degree to which the manager is removed from the manufacturing process. A shop foreman/plant supervisor should have woodworking experience. His or her boss, however, better have strong managerial skills. Depending where in the company the individual is employed, managerial skills could trump the need for woodworking experience.

From contributor X:
My opinion regarding the original message hinges on the wording of "custom woodworking shops" A general manager that lacks woodworking skills in a custom shop would be asking for trouble. Until the manager became acquainted with the custom end of woodworking problems he would not be worth his salt to the company. The manager would be a drain on the company until he could pull his own weight.

From contributor P:
I'm grateful for the measure of success I've enjoyed with my resources and limitations. Given limited capital and physical space, my strong desire to avoid managing employees ever again, and the pace at which I work, what I leveraged was a career of hard-won marketing expertise to find an unmet need and meet it, this time for my own benefit rather than for the shareholders I served in my former corporate life. So my products don't sell themselves at all. In fact that's precisely what I do best, because I understand that to customers "how they get it" is every bit as important as "what they get."

I'm also grateful for what I've learned from others, including from those who have written and published books to share their own hard-won knowledge. And I've long been happy to point out books, published articles, seminars and other methods to access what others know, particularly if I've benefited from those sources myself and can make a first hand referral.

From contributor D:
Consider the ideal skills, knowledge, and temperament for a superb craftsman/woodworker. Then imagine the ideal skills, knowledge, and temperament for a superb manager. I don’t see much overlap (my expertise is in auto repair shops, not woodworking shops, so maybe there are issues I don’t comprehend). You wouldn’t “promote” yourself or a woodworker to bookkeeper – the skills are just too different. The same goes with the manager.

Lots of WW’s become successfully become managers, bookkeepers, marketers, and so forth. But the big picture is that a manager needs a much different set of skills. And he/she doesn’t need to know how to program your CNC or run the edge bander, he just needs to know what they do, how long it takes, what sort of problems can arise and their frequency, etc.

Everybody needs to have common goals and mutual respect for each other. In my auto shop I had weekly lunch meetings (their choice of take-out fare, my treat) where we’d discuss problems, productivity, suggestions, etc. The focus was on having the shop make more money, and they knew that meant they made more money. I started the meetings almost by accident, but they really did work to make everybody feel like they were working on the same goal and that their suggestions and work really mattered.

I personally think it best if the manager really likes what your business does and its products (but I think that’s true for every employee). I would think he/she should feel comfortable using his/her hands.