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Market leaders: a look at six forward-thinking leaders, and the impact they've made on their companies and the woodworking industry as a whole.

Today's market leaders are those that meet the economic and competitive challenges facing the wood products industry and maneuver them to their advantage. They seek opportunities to improve and grow their businesses, and go above and beyond to work for the betterment of the marketplace as a whole.

On the following pages you'll read the stories behind this year's leading executives: not only their strategies for success, but their influences, achievements and insights. Through their business experience, using new technologies, and looking at the big picture, not only did these executives help lead their companies to greater prominence--but an entire industry as well.

These are your 2013 Market Leaders.

Along with this year's Market Leaders, we also recognize our honorees of the previous four years. See the entire list on page 66.

Hank Menke Jr.

President & CEO, OFS Brands Inc.

"WHAT YOU MAKE PEOPLE FEEL is as important as what you make," says Hank Menke Jr., president and CEO of OFS Brands Inc.

Menke's philosophy is backed by a significant furniture-making heritage and a commitment to provide OFS Brands' clients with products that exceed their expectations in both quality and value.

The Huntingburg, IN-based company designs and manufactures furniture, and is the parent company for OFS, First Office, Carolina, Loewenstein and Styline Logistics. The family-owned company has seven manufacturing plants and four support facilities throughout Indiana, Kentucky and North Carolina, employing 1,680 workers, and recently marked its 75th anniversary.

"At OFS Brands, you won't find big company committees waiting for other committees to make a decision about what furniture we'll be producing this year," the company motto states. "What you will find are craftspeople who are dedicated to creating the office furniture you need."

Menke's first position after college was with Armstrong Corp., former owners of Thomasville Furniture Industries. Menke worked in production scheduling and eventually became an assistant plant manager. After five years with Thomasville, Menke made the decision to rejoin the family business in 1978.

"At that time, we were servicing 5,000 customers who were buying less than a thousand dollars average in a given year," Menke said in an interview with MavenStar Consulting. "That was our clientele. We were selling all of these local furniture stores in every small town, but those businesses were dying on the vine.

"So we made the decision back in 1983 to move to office furniture," he continues. "Our first office desk came out in 1983, and by 1987 we had decided to leave the residential industry completely. Then we retooled the plants and got busy."

Menke is a leader in the community, serving on the board of directors of the Indiana Chamber of Commerce, and also is active in the industry, serving on BIFMA's board of directors and recently being elected to the Board of Directors of the Tropical Forest Foundation (TFF), an international, nonprofit, educational institution for sustainable forest management (SFM).

"Hank understands and is committed to TFF's mission of conserving the tropical forests by maintaining their economic value," says Bob Johnston, TFF executive director. "As we improve the skills and knowledge of local forest communities, he will provide valuable counsel and relationships that can advance our work."

Menke frequently mentions in interviews his pride in OFS Brands and excitement about its future. "We're constantly reinventing ourselves, which is important for any company," says Menke. "I don't care what you're making--you need to constantly innovate and talk to your customers regarding their needs. And once you know your customers' needs, you must execute with a superb delivery system."

QUICK GLIMPSE

* Education: Millikin University, Industrial Engineering

* Number of years at the company: 35

* Number ofyears in the industry: 40

* Word or phrase that describes you? Not complacent.

* Who is the one person you've tried to emulate in business and why? My father. His saying to me was always: "Life doesn't come on a silver platter. You have to work for everything you get."

Neil Baiter

Founder, Organizers Direct

NEIL BALTER'S FORAY INTO THE HOME organization industry has proven successful, but his first initial steps were rather lonely.

"When I started California Closets in 1978 I was an 18-year-old kid right out of high school," says Balter. "There was no closet industry at that point; we created it."

In just under a decade, Balter expanded California Closets until it encompassed over 700 employees and 100 franchises in the United States, Canada, Japan, Australia, New Zealand and Spain, with annual sales of $66 million. In 1990, Balter sold the company to Williams-Sonoma Inc. for a reported $11 million. After that, Balter signed on with ClosetMaid to grow its dealer network.

Balter launched Organizers Direct in 1995. Based in Scottsdale, AZ, the company's basic target is independent closets businesses in need of marketing and manufacturing support, as well as people wanting to get started in the business. Organizers Direct offers assistance to help owners grow their business and margins.

Balter says the biggest key to his success has been having a series of mentors to consult, and he adds that some of the best advice he was ever given was "Enthusiasm is contagious. Catch it." This has helped guide his business techniques and is something he looks for in partners and employees. With a business mantra of "work hard, have fun," Balter says he sometimes feels he is the "CEO of Happiness."

"The smartest thing our company has ever done and continues to do is to hire people that have the same level of enthusiasm and commitment for the job and keeping them for the long haul," he says.

Supporting the community is important to Balter. He and his wife Lynn helped start the Arizona Walk Now for Autism Speaks event seven years ago. Since its inception, the Walk has raised $6-7 million for autism research, programs and awareness.

Balter has been recognized in Entrepreneur Magazine with an Outstanding Entrepreneur Achievement Award and featured in The Wall Street Journal, Forbes and People. He was a regular guest on the "Oprah Winfrey Show" and other home talk shows. Balter published a book, "The Closet Entrepreneur: 337 Ways to Start Your Successful Business With Little or No Money," in 1994, and is also featured in a current book by business author Ken McElroy, "the Sleeping Giant: Take Charge of Your Future," examining the stories of 20 entrepreneurs. He is also a founding member of the Young Entrepreneurs' Organization.

QUICK GLIMPSE

* Education: High School

* Number of years at the company: 18

* Number of years in the industry: 35

* Who is the one person you've tried to emulate in business and why? Nobody. I'm my own person but I learn from other people's experiences.

* What one word or phrase can be used to describe you? I see "no" as a definite maybe.

Bastien Larouche

President, CEO and Founder, Ro-Bois-Tic

WITH MORE THAN 25 YEARS of experience working in high-volume manufacturing environments, Bastien Larouche of St.-Apollinaire, QC-based Ro-Bois-Tic didn't envision having a career in the woodworking industry until his recent foray into the office furniture and kitchen cabinet markets.

Larouche began his diverse manufacturing career at Kraft Foods in the mid 1980s and more recently served stints as director of manufacturing for metal furniture maker Amisco and as plant manager of Teknion, a manufacturer of wood office furniture. In his mind, the challenges posed by each succeeding job along his career path, plus the MBA in business administration that he earned in 2003, helped prepare him to reach for the stars in August of 2011.

"During 2010 and 2011, I was actively searching for ways to have my own business, and starting a company from scratch was only the "C" plan," says Larouche.

Larouche met Tommy Gagnon, CEO of Automatech Robotik, in August 2011, and proposed renting Gagnon's robot to produce kitchen cabinets in a complete new concept: lights-out manufacturing, which is fully automated manufacturing requiring no human presence on-site. Ro-Bois-Tic provides OEM components to cabinet companies and other manufacturers. When Gagnon agreed, Larouche began a market study to build a solid business plan by December 2011.

"I was able to leverage the huge amount of capital to start Ro-Bois-Tic by March 2012," says Larouche. "The first production with the robot started in July 2012."

According to Larouche, starting a new company from scratch and making a real breakthrough in the kitchen cabinet sector has been one of his proudest achievements in the woodworking industry, and the decision to run his panel processing facility with the capacity of 8-10 ready-to-assemble cabinets an hour without any direct labor was one of the smartest he made.

In the near future, Larouche hopes to grow Ro-Bois-Tic by 100% per year to reach full capacity. Other goals include consolidating Ro-Bois-Tic's customer base through customer satisfaction and building a new plant (replication) inside a bigger market in Canada.

"I am looking to have half of my production devoted to office furniture and the other half to kitchen cabinets," he adds.

Outside of business, Larouche likes to spend his leisure time traveling in the United States and Canada with his family, as well as participating in outdoor activities such as camping, biking and playing golf.

QUICK GLIMPSE

* Education: EMBA from University Paris-Dauphine, MBA from UQAM, and a graduate degree in administration

* Years at the company: 2

* Years in the industry: 8

* Person you have tried to emulate in business: Winston Churchill because of his courage & leadership in adversity

* Best advice received: Have a self-confident attitude and always look ahead, never back, except to learn from error.

Kent Gilchrist

President, Fremont Interiors

ALTHOUGH HE HAD A LOVE for woodworking from an early age, Kent Gilchrist, president of architectural woodworking firm Fremont Interiors, was completely unaware of the opportunities available in this industry, like many young people.

"While in high school I spent most of my time at the career and technical school taking all of the architectural drafting and woodworking classes available, to the extent of creating my own position as a teacher's assistant during my senior year," says Gilchrist. "My guidance counselor unfortunately did not see the value in this effort and did not offer much support going forward."

After high school, Gilchrist worked for his family's agricultural construction company as a project manager. When industry conditions brought on the closing of the construction company in the mid 80s, Gilchrist was left struggling to find his next career.

Gilchrist and his wife Susan decided to take a chance and follow their dreams. The couple moved west, where Gilchrist apprenticed in a custom cabinet shop in California. This began his "journey" into woodworking, which has taken him to Indiana; then to Colorado, and back to Indiana where he started Fremont Interiors in 1990 in the family's one-car garage.

"Twenty-three years later we operate out of an 8,000-square-foot shop and office in Carmel, IN," says Gilchrist. "Our projects range from high-end residential and commercial cabinetry and furniture to plastic laminate casework, and custom architectural woodwork."

According to Gilchrist, one of the wisest things Fremont Interiors ever did was join the Architectural Woodwork Institute (AWI) in 1996. He was elected to the AWI board of directors and executive team, and in the past year the company also has joined an AWI Best Practice Group. This move exemplifies some of the best advice he has ever received, "stay engaged in the industry, share with those who came before you and those who will follow."

"I feel very strongly that for our industry to survive we need to share our knowledge and expertise," Gilchrist says. "We continue to compete for skilled labor in a much smaller labor pool and with more industries than ever before."

For the past eight years, Gilchrist has served as the chair of the AWI SkillsUSA committee, and on the boards of Wood-LINKS USA, SkillsUSA Indiana and the Woodwork Career Alliance. Fremont Interiors also offers internships and work-study programs to high school and college students.

QUICK GLIMPSE

* Education: College and technical school, continued industry education through AWI

* Number of years at the company: 23

* Number of years in the industry: 28

* Word or phrase to describe you? Dedicated, persistent

* Person you've tried to emulate in business? I don't have anyone person, but a variety of friends that I continue to network with for continued growth.

Peter Kleinschmidt

President, CEO & Chairman, Stiles Machinery Inc.

FROM HIS FIRST EXPOSURE to the industry in 1962 working for a German international exporter of woodworking technology, Peter Kleinschmidt, president of Grand Rapids, MI-based Stiles Machinery, has always looked at the big picture.

"We did this work on behalf of the machine manufacturers, who were highly skilled at creating technology but not prepared to market it effectively," says Kleinschmidt. "It was during this time, half a century ago, that I began to envision what was possible."

In 1975, Kleinschmidt came to the United States, and on behalf of his employer at the time, purchased Stiles Machinery. Kleinschmidt says it was just a small company then, but with a great deal of potential.

"Early on at Stiles, we enjoyed the strong and helpful support of professional advisors," says Kleinschmidt. "We were also fortunate to find outstanding people right here to help lead and expand Stiles over the decades. In fact, many of our employees have been with the company 25 years or more. Our supplier relationships with trusted machinery brands are equally enduring."

Kleinschmidt is proud of Stile's commitment to maintaining knowledgeable staff through the recession, even though the company's business volume declined during those years.

"The pains we took to hold together a disproportionately large team paid off, and when the economy recovered we found ourselves fortunate to have kept our best and brightest," Kleinschmidt says. "We were well prepared to respond to our customers' increased demands--and grow with them during this time of rebuilding. It is always our aim to take the long-term view. What is in the best interest of our customers is, consequently, in the best interest of Stiles."

Kleinschmidt sees significance in industry relationships, be it with customers, business partners or suppliers, and says it is important that everybody can find an equal exchange of values in these relationships. He believes that everything he has achieved has come with the help of friends and colleagues.

"I was deeply involved in the creation of the Woodworking Machinery Industry Association (WMIA) and enjoyed the cooperative spirit between major industry players involved in this effort," says Kleinschmidt. "Together we created what became eventually the unified International Woodworking Fair (IWF) held in Atlanta--one of the most important industry events in the world. I was also humbled when my industry peers made me honorary president of the Combois e.V., an international organization of companies like Stiles that span 20 different countries."

QUICK GLIMPSE

* Education: Economics School in Bremen, Germany

* Number of years at the company: 38 years

* Number of years in the industry: 51 years

* Who is the one person you have tried to emulate in business and why? No individual person. I have known and learned to respect so many people along the way, and I think that my internal compass, my work and my focus reflects their good influence.

Gene Ponder

Founder, Master WoodCraft Cabinetry

UNLIKE MANY OF HIS PEERS, Gene Ponder, founder of Master WoodCraft Cabinetry and previously founder of Republic Industries, always knew he would eventually end up in the woodworking industry.

"While in high school, when I wasn't participating in football or track, I worked part time after school and weekends at a cabinet factory one block from school and fell in love with the cabinet industry," says Ponder.

Based in Marshall, TX, Master WoodCraft Cabinetry is a supplier of kitchen cabinets, counters and kitchen cabinet components, and one of the last five cabinet companies in the United States that is a complete manufacturer, not buying parts from anyone except for metal hinges and drawer guides. The company also owns 80% of its own transportation fleet and performs installations as well, offering a total turnkey package through one supplier.

"In my 52 years in this business, I decided to focus on one segment of the market and be a supplier to multifamily projects that would supply my customers with cabinets and countertops, all on the same truck, 100% complete, delivered by our trucks, and install them on the wall," Ponder says.

Ponder hopes to grow the company to its maximum potential, starting from scratch in 2008 to 2013, achieving a volume of $45,000,000 with a goal of $80,000,000. He adds that one of the smartest things Master WoodCraft Cabinetry has done was "to build a 250,000-square-foot manufacturing facility with one goal: to environmentally meet all of today's standards including complete total water-based finishing lines." He says he is fortunate to have learned the cabinet business at two large cabinet companies, giving him the ability to study the best and worst of each.

Some of Ponder's proudest achievements include being awarded Entrepreneur of the Year in 2003 for manufacturing by Ernst & Young, as well as growing Republic Industries from 10 people in 1974 to 2,200 people by 2003 and making it one of the top 10 cabinet companies in the USA.

As a company, Master WoodCraft Cabinetry has donated cabinetry to over a dozen Habitats for Humanity homes locally, and has made sizeable contributions to Wiley College. Ponder and his wife also personally donated and built a church for a group of elderly people whose church was falling down.

Outside of work, Ponder has a passion for rebuilding European sports cars from the 30s, 40s, and 50s. "I have amassed a collection of over 50 cars that I consider works of art."

QUICK GLIMPSE

* Education: Management and Engineering--Georgia Tech and Georgia State

* Number of years at the company: 8

* Number of years in the industry: 52

* Word or phrase used to describe you? Determined

* Who is the one person you've tried to emulate in business and why? General Patton. His philosophy was "forward, onward and never slow down."
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Comment:Market leaders: a look at six forward-thinking leaders, and the impact they've made on their companies and the woodworking industry as a whole.
Publication:Wood Products
Date:Dec 1, 2013
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