Edmonton furniture-maker Stephen Moen knew he was on to a good thing when a competitor hissed in his ear: “You’re screwing up the market for the rest of us.”
Maybe so. But it’s only because Moen and his wife, Lisanne, have refined the art of designing, producing and delivering their unique and colourful desks, tables and bookracks in record time, without sacrificing quality or eye appeal.
The Moens and five staffers run Moen Woodworks out of a workshop on Edmonton’s eastern outskirts. As the business quietly celebrates its 20th year, this self-described mom ’n’ pop enterprise will approach $1 million in sales during 2003, while anticipating continued growth.
As their rueful competitor complained, the Moens’ turnaround time between initial order and final delivery tends to be quicker than a prairie dog’s pulse.
|Jack Dagley photos, Business Edge|
|Edmonton furniture makers Stephen and Lisanne Moen are framed by their flagship product.|
Example: An Edmonton-area school placed an order for eight space-saving teacher’s desks on a recent Friday afternoon. All eight were built, installed and in use by the following Tuesday.
Extremely light on their feet, the Moens have developed a knack for responding to custom orders by designing and manufacturing their creations within weeks, or even days if need be.
By contrast, larger and more stodgy competitors can take 18 months to approve, develop and market a single new design.
Maybe it’s no surprise that Moen Woodworks has placed its products in six out of 10 Edmonton schools. But Moen furniture also graces private and public schools from California to Virginia. The company’s products occupy 16 pages in the current Brodart catalogue, second only to the space allotted to 3M, the U.S mega-conglomerate.
“We get orders from the catalogue pretty much every day,” Stephen said during a pause in production last week.
For the uninitiated, Brodart is a leading North American library-supply company, based in Williamsport, Pa. It distributes its annual catalogue to 150,000 libraries.
And since Brodart discovered Moen Woodworks three years ago, the Edmonton company’s star has risen like smoke in an updraft.
The couple now specializes in outfitting North American classrooms and school libraries. But the Moens started out in 1983 with a more prosaic line of products – custom furniture, kitchen cabinets and office consoles to accommodate banks of computers.
“We did that until we got completely bored,” Lisanne grinned.
The breakthrough came in 1997 when a purchaser for Edmonton Public Schools invited them, along with other local vendors, to participate in a school-board sponsored technology seminar. Each manufacturer was invited to demonstrate new designs for computer furniture.
The Moens quickly agreed, even though they didn’t have anything suitable in their existing product line.
After intense brainstorming, they dreamed up the concept of what is now their flagship product – the Moen Computer Puzzle Desk. It’s an interlocking series of rounded, ergonomically correct, brightly coloured desks which make wise use of space and keep the kids’ health and best interests in mind.
Within days, the couple arrived at the show with four prototypes, complete with printer tables, loaded in the trunk of their car.
“We had our desks set up in 20 minutes,” Stephen recalled. “Most of the other vendors took all day to set up theirs.”
The Moens were startled by an immediate spurt of orders. And when I. D. Magazine, an industry bible, presented the couple with its annual design award the following spring, things took off in earnest.
After I.D. ran a cover story on the Puzzle Desk, a private school in Virginia purchased 600 pieces from the tiny factory. Subsequent inquiries came in from as far away as Scotland, Brazil and Egypt.
A U.S. airline featured the company in its in-flight magazine and Moen Woodworks has never had to look back. In six years, the Moens have moved more than 5,000 Puzzle Desks (retail price: $255 Cdn).
Their durable, safe, attractive, easily portable products are crafted from medium-density fibreboard. Pieces are equipped with casters, for maximum mobility, and each is designed to roll easily through doorways.
Reasonable prices make Moen products appealing to schools running on tight budgets.
Inevitably, the Moens’ success has attracted notice from the industry’s biggest players.
IKEA sidled up to them with one tempting offer, which was politely refused.
“They wanted to buy our core designs,” nodded Stephen. “But you could ramp up your production capacity for IKEA, bust yourself to fill one huge order, then never hear from them again.”
Nope, this mom ’n ’pop operation prefers to keep all four feet on the ground. Lisanne said it best: “We’re having fun just moving along at our own pace.”