Show-offs

ConceptWorks Inc., an Elkhart Lake-based builder and designer of custom displays for retail, tradeshows and showrooms, might not be a household name. However, homeowners who have thought about renovating a bathroom or kitchen might be very familiar with the company’s designs.

Most of ConceptWorks’ jobs are with Kohler Co., which is headquartered nearby in Kohler. ConceptWorks routinely designs and builds prototypes of displays for Kohler’s faucets and shower heads. Many of those displays end up in stores such as Home Depot or Lowe’s, said Adam Schneider, vice president and general manager, or in Kohler’s showrooms.

ConceptWorks will build jobs that require a relatively small number of displays. But for larger jobs, when a customer might want 1,500 displays, ConceptWorks will design and build a prototype. Another manufacturer will build the 1,500 displays.

ConceptWorks has 17 employees, most of whom handle a combination of manufacturing and installation jobs. Because it is a relatively small shop, ConceptWorks is best suited to designing and building small numbers of most displays, Schneider said.

“Custom is the key word,” he said. “We focus on one- or two- to 10-piece quantities with some runs of 500 to 1,000. We excel at quick turnaround on one or two off-the-wall ideas. That’s where we can step up to the plate.”

ConceptWorks’ most off-the-wall projects have been for Kohler.

“Each year, we work with six Dodge Sprinter vans,” Schneider said. “They have flushable toilets, urinals, sinks with working faucets. All of that has to run off of battery power. We kind of set up a ‘Monster Garage’ set with D cell batteries running into the alternators, and we invert them so we can run the props and lights.”

The first of those vans was built with a minivan, Schneider said, but subsequent versions are built into the larger Dodge Sprinter vans. ConceptWorks builds new vans every three years, and refurbishes the vans in the years in between.

ConceptWorks has also created custom shower displays for Kohler for use at trade shows – one is placed on the deck of an open-air swimming pool atop a New York City apartment building.

ConceptWorks’ custom jobs highlight the company’s design and engineering capabilities, areas the firm is looking to for future growth.

“We advertise ourselves as a one-stop shop,” Schneider said. “Most (jobs) are new to us. We have to do the design and find the right materials. Most jobs start from ground zero.”

While 80 percent of its business is tied to Kohler, ConceptWorks deals with more than 100 different contacts among 15 different divisions, Schneider said, such as its design center, power generation, retail and communications departments.

“We’re diverse within Kohler,” said Jason Gudex, production manager and manufacturing engineer at ConceptWorks. “There are different expectations with each (line), each has its own style.”

In 2004, about 95 percent of ConceptWorks’ business was with Kohler, Schneider said. Since then, the company has tried to diversify its work load. The amount of work done with Kohler has increased, but ConceptWorks has decreased its percentage of work with the company to about 80 percent.

“We’re doing a job for Milwaukee Tool right now,” Gudex said. “It gave us the ability to expand and add a new customer. No matter how much extra work that meant, we wanted to pursue it.”

ConceptWorks was founded in 1984 as Sheboygan Woodworking, which made curio cabinets and other small woodworking projects. By 1997, the company grew to 14 employees and was working with Kohler on some small display jobs, Schneider said.

However, the company stayed at about that level until 2004, when it was purchased by Dave Schneider (Adam Schneider’s uncle) and Mark Koenig, owners of Alaark Tooling & Automation Inc., a Sheboygan tool and die shop.

Schneider started work at ConceptWorks in 2004. Gudex was hired in early 2005, and the pair run the company’s day-to-day operations. They knew each other from their days as engineering students at the Milwaukee School of Engineering.

“We’re two engineers in a business environment,” Schneider said. “We’re learning by trial and error. We’re young rookies in terms of business.”

While they might be rookies, Gudex and Schneider have helped ConceptWorks implement elements of lean manufacturing, including a greatly reduced inventory, extensive job tracking and a more efficient layout of the facility.

“It takes a lot of upfront effort, but we’re finding out that a lot of our early endeavors were worth it,” Schneider said. “This place was tight (before). By cleaning out a lot of waste and making it lean and more efficient, we’ve made more space and increased people and morale.”

ConceptWorks has about 17 employees now, and it may hire one more by the end of the year. The company’s revenue increased 26 percent in 2006. The company expects a much more modest increase for 2007.

“2006 was the best year we’ve ever had,” Schneider said. “2007 will be more like 2 or 3 percent. But it’s hard to say halfway through the year. Sales are consistently going up each year, and we will have had a really strong July.”

Address: W3126 State Hwy 32, Elkhart Lake

Products: Custom displays, prototypes and design

Revenue growth: 26 percent in 2006

Employees: 17

Web site: www.conceptworks.biz

Eric Decker is a reporter for Small Business Times. Send news about manufacturing to eric.decker@biztimes.com or by calling him at (414) 277-8181, ext. 144. News can

also be sent to Eric Decker, Small Business Times, 1123 N. Water St., Milwaukee WI 53202.

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