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