Employees: 45, including 12 contractors
One of the few mills in Colorado that can perform extremely high-end and large-scale woodworking, owner Todd Palmer's company is thriving where others have withered.
Watson Mills' 30,000-square-foot shop has a CNC router, machines to produce veneers, a thin-cutting gang resaw, a multi-headed sanding machine, other specialized tools and equipment, and a finishing facility -- basically a woodworker's dream.
Still, with all the specialized equipment, Palmer points out that the technology is there to help the craftspeople. "There's really no way to replace the skilled labor in the work that we do," he says. "A true win-win for me is investing in technology improves quality and saves time in manufacturing."
Palmer began working with the company in 2006. Since he bought the company from founder Richard Watson in 2011, he estimates that the company's sales have jumped 50 percent. He attributes part of it to recovering from the economic downturn -- 2015 sales were about 10 percent higher than the pre-recession high point in 2008, but also notes, "The amount of local competition has reduced. We always had things that distinguished us from other local companies." Most of Watson Mills' competition for large, multi-million dollar home projects now comes from out of state, he adds.
"The group of woodworking companies that can do this level of work is pretty small," Palmer contends. "That's where our niche is, doing this extremely high-end work in the Aspen market. He estimates that 90 to 95 percent of Watson Mills' business is in Aspen, with some in Vail and a small amount in the Front Range. Still, the company's shop is in Lafayette because Palmer says most of the best labor is in the region.
"We're really doing architectural millwork and finishes," Palmer says. This can include creating custom doors, stairs, cabinets, trim work, wall paneling, ceiling beams, and special finishes accomplished by wire brush and other tools. One interesting project in the company's portfolio is a bookcase that revolves to reveal a desk.
But Palmer says it's not just about aesthetics. "The climate in Aspen is a tough climate. It's much drier, Colorado in general is dry, and the high, arid mountains are even drier." As such, Watson Mills' customers, general contractors, demand high-end works of wood that can withstand the elements. Palmer explains that it means producing works that are similar to engineered flooring for walls and ceilings. "Over the years we've purchased things to do that and gain the knowledge and know how to do it."
One of the ways it's been doing that is by being able to produce veneers and engineered wood. "The use of veneer is good for the environment and it lets you do things architecturally that you couldn't with solid pieces of wood," Palmer says. "You can get a ton of veneer out of a log. You may find a log that has 40,000 to 50,000 square feet of veneer in it."
The company also specializes in large-scale projects like multi-floor staircases. "There are very few woodworking manufacturing companies that would take on some of the stair work we do. Frankly it's challenging. But that's what makes it fun," Palmer says. "It's hard to imagine a five- or seven-person company being able to do the size of projects that we do."
Building on Watson's dedication to high-quality woodworking and fabrication, Palmer is moving the company in new directions, such as engineered flooring. "We have two jobs on the books. It's kind of a new offering for us. I anticipate that will be a path for growth for us in the future."
Challenges: "One challenge in this type of custom business is scheduling," Palmer says. "Trying to have enough work to allow for schedules to shift when changes are made and not end up with too much or too little is a challenge."
Opportunities: "The direction we're heading with flooring is pretty unique," Palmer says. "We're still seeing a large amount of work to bid. We're looking to expand our customer base and those are opportunities I see we'll be able to realize."
Needs: Palmer says the company is able to draw top talent because of its jobs and facilities, but there's still a need for experienced craftspeople.