It’s a great story: New England woodworkers carry on an age-old craft for 115 years right here in Cheshire County. But can you guess the company? Not to worry if you are stumped. Whitney Brothers remains one of Keene’s best-kept secrets, despite its reputation for designing, building and supplying award-winning products for schools all over the country and the world.
You’ll find Whitney Brothers in its historic brick setting a few blocks from Keene’s main way on Railroad Street. Though the maker of solid wood furniture is synonymous with quality and distinction in educational settings, the company is not quite so well-known within the Monadnock Region.
Owner Mike Jablonski, who recently took the helm, admits they haven’t done a good job of telling their story locally.
“We just haven’t really focused on doing that and doing that well in our local community, at our own peril,” he says.
Now, with unemployment rates low and the industry booming, he’s hoping to bring more regional awareness to Whitney Brothers’ success, largely to attract more employees.
That’s because, as Jablonski puts it, “Things are looking very rosy
RAMPING UP EARLY FOR THE SEASON
Whitney Brothers typically sees a surge of business in the summertime when teachers reevaluate their classrooms or design them for the first time in the case of a new school. Then things lighten up and sometimes even get a little quiet heading into late winter.
But this year has been different. The company started getting busy early and saw unprecedented spikes in ordering.
“We’re at our high-water mark,” Jablonski says.
The company’s vice president of sales and marketing, Brian Vaillancourt, notes that while manufacturing, in general, is seeing a contraction, that’s not the case for Whitney Brothers.
“If you’re an education products manufacturer, this is a really good time,” he says, “It’s a healthy niche.”
There are a few reasons behind that, one being funding. Once underway, projects in the realm of education typically don’t get cut.
“They’re preserved into the future, and there’s a really long arch to building projects,” Vaillancourt explains.
Education was the last into the recession and subsequently is one of the last sectors to come out due to such funding formulas.
Vaillancourt says, “We are absolutely riding that trend.”
WINNING AWARDS FOR CREATIVITY
The other reason Whitney Brothers sees such a boom is undeniably because of its innovative approach. In 2019, they won a Teacher’s Choice Award from Learning Magazine for their Nature Reading Haven, which features a thoughtfully-designed reading space for young children, enhanced by a photo-realistic view of a tree canopy over the top.
“There’s nothing like it out there … We want to add value to the products and our offerings by creative skews, new items and we try to stay in touch with changes in education,” Jablonski says.
Following that strategy, they’ve cleaned out their inventory and are hustling daily to meet demand.
“We’ve got 115 years of history here. This is completely unusual. It’s a great problem; it’s awesome. But finding the staff to perform it is the concern,” Jablonski says.
Currently, Whitney Brothers is hiring for a range of positions.
“It goes from the really entry-level of putting glue into holes and tapping things together with a rubber mallet … to some pretty sophisticated, high-end processes and then crossing the border into management and group leadership,” Jablonski notes.
The factory deftly combines the manual input of workers with impressive efficiency from its machines. Much of the equipment is CNC (Computer Numerical Control) machinery, which means it accepts digital data to control settings and operation.
Whitney Brothers’ designers input specific instructions for each product into specialized software. Then on the factory floor, an employee can scan a barcode, input the materials and the machine will do the rest. There is almost zero setup, and the configurations can change instantly.
“Those newer machines also have a lower learning curve, so we can have somebody even on their first day … within five minutes, we can teach them how to operate that machine,” Jablonski says.
There are some older pieces of equipment that are more nuanced, but incoming employees can also train on those over a longer period of time.
From high-tech milling to specialized printing, the inner workings of the factory are remarkable. Anyone with manufacturing experience would likely be quite impressed by the finishing and painting department, as well.
“Typically, when you walk into a paint department, you’re immediately almost knocked over by fumes. We don’t have that here,” Jablonski says.
Instead, Whitney Brothers uses a paint that cures immediately when exposed to UV light — better for both the environment and the health of workers. An automated system applies finishing coats to all product pieces, keeping each one consistent. They reappear at the end of the line in about two minutes, completely dry.
WORKERS NEEDED TO MEET DEMAND
The amazing automated capabilities make it possible for people at all levels to take on important roles in the production process and to continue up the chain as they learn.
But, Jablonski explains, “Finding people who are engaged — who want to do industrial work (and) who will stay with us for the long-term — is the challenge.”
He and Vaillancourt note that there is usually a threshold around the year mark that determines whether employees stay or go.
“If we just get them over that line, then they’re here to stay,”
For example, the office and engineering managers have both been with the company for 30 or more years. Jablonski himself has been there for two decades.
But for brand-new workers, various factors can get in the way of developing a long-lasting role. Sometimes it’s getting coaxed away by pay, especially for employees who are already having to commute. They don’t mind driving slightly farther for a slightly increased wage. Shift choice can also be an influencing factor, and for some, manufacturing just isn’t a fit, but they don’t know until they’ve tried it.
At Whitney Brothers, the ongoing reward for those who make it past the threshold is the culture.
“No matter who you are in the company, where you are and what you’re doing, everybody has a touchpoint on making the product,”
The goal is for every single person to feel the job satisfaction of having created award-winning merchandise.
“That helps lift all boats, of course,” Vaillancourt says.
One of the tools Whitney Brothers has used to shape the company’s culture is lean organizational skills.
“You look at things that are identified as being waste in your organization, and you try to eliminate those waste points,” Jablonski explains.
With the help of outside consultants, Whitney Brothers implemented the structure about 10 years ago, and it has thoroughly changed the culture through teamwork and communication.
“People are really engaged, and they want to solve problems and help their coworkers,” Jablonski says.
That feeling is pervasive. A new department manager that started last fall pointed to the culture as the reason he took the job. He told Jablonski he experienced it firsthand while on-site for the interview process and was convinced it was the right company for him.
“There’s just a culture here that you don’t always get at other organizations. Every employee is critical to our success,” Jablonski says.
He would love to see more locals come on board to experience that “secret sauce.”
“Sales look rosy for the next year or two,” he says, noting that there are great opportunities for growth.
Learn more at www.whitneybrothers.com.
Caroline Tremblay writes from Richmond, New Hampshire.