Voice of the Modern Manufacturing Economy Since 2013

Colorado Heirloom

by Brad Smith on October 3, 2018, 07:29 am MDT

www.coloradoheirloom.com

Loveland, Colorado

Founded: 1986

Privately owned

Employees: 30

Industry: Supply Chain

Products: Wood products for the awards and laser engraving industries

For more than 30 years, owner Barry Stewart has kept the focus of his wood products firm on customization and quality.

Colorado Heirloom makes hardwood strips, plaques, wooden boxes, and picture frames, as well as custom items. Engravers use the strips to fashion artwork, names, logos and 3D designs. Among the custom items the company makes at its 14,000-square-foot facility in Loveland are wood bases for bronze sculptures, of which Stewart is particularly proud.

Loveland has become a national hub for sculpture, with an annual Sculpture in the Park exhibit that draws several thousand pieces from around the world. And one of the country's leading sculptors, the late Dave McGary, called on Colorado Heirloom to make the base for one of his Native American bronze sculptures. That sculpture of Shoshone Chief Washakie was exhibited in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda in Washington, D.C., in 2000 and is in the permanent collection of the U.S. Capitol's National Statuary Hall.

"We work with some of the finest artists in the world," Stewart says. "We have pieces of art all over the world. Some are in the Smithsonian."

The sculpture bases are high-profile, but most of Colorado Heirloom's sales are for smaller objects.  The company's thin hardwood strips are used by the laser engraving industry for wedding invitations, puzzles, boxes, even roll-top desks. "It's amazing the talent and the art that some of these people have," Stewart says.

Small boxes, often used to enclose a gift or award, are among the most popular items, he says. The boxes can be engraved or printed with three-dimensional designs and color logos and can be personalized inside and outside.

Colorado Heirloom operated out of the same 5,000-square-foot building, a former J.C. Penney store in downtown Loveland, for about 30 years. The demands created by increased sales led to Colorado Heirloom moving in 2015 into a 14,000-square-foot facility on the south side of the city.

Stewart says the move was a mixed blessing because the added space provided more room but also was less efficient. "We got into the new building and no one could find anything," he says. "Things were spread out and our biggest task was finding new employees. We struggled to get the nucleus of employees we wanted. We're fighting that still."

Colorado Heirloom sells its products through its catalog, which is available online, and through retailers, especially stores that specialize in gifts. It also works with several distributors.

With its focus on small production and customization, the company has won a niche in the market for limited quantities, roughly 200 pieces or less, Stewart says. Its competition had been from companies in China, Mexico, and Vietnam, "but we can turn pretty fast on custom items than bigger offshore manufacturers." More recently, U.S. buyers have turned to American producers.

"We've been doing this for 32 years and have grown almost every year," Stewart says. "A few years have not been great when the economy was bad but we've hung in there. Now we're going international with our products. There are a lot of wood product companies in Europe but there are very limited laser-quality wood products internationally."

Stewart also has started using some automation in the shop, primarily CNC routers, as well as a few robotic tools. CNC routing enables designers to create a project on the computer and then automatically cut it from wood. But it's not all about high-tech manufacturing: Everything is still finished by hand.

Challenges: Workforce. "Currently, it is employees, trying to find and retain employees," says Stewart. "Anyone with woodworking skills and knowledge is almost impossible to find. And, everyone who wants a job has one. That's industry-wide, but especially in Colorado."

Opportunities: "Now we're going international with our products. There are a lot of wood product companies in Europe but a very limited number of laser-quality wood products internationally. There's just a lot of opportunity internationally for laser engraving. There's been a lot of growth in the last 10 years. We've picked up 10 different foreign countries now and can grow more."

Needs: Stewart's priority is "to become more high-tech. We are very manual, very labor-heavy in what we do. We've done that intentionally because we didn't want to compete with the big companies. We're very customized. We've stayed in quantities of 200 or less. We did a lot of products no one else wanted to do. But with the difficulty finding skilled labor we can't do that anymore."

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