Glacial Wood's Veteran: John Wuollet on Wood, Lean Manufacturing, & a Premonition

For John Wuollet, it began with stairs.

Grew up in Minneapolis. Parents moved to Starbuck. “When I would visit, I just loved being in the area. I tried to relocate in the late 1980’s, but there wasn’t anything for work. I made the permanent move to Brooten in 1993, and applied at Glacial Wood in January of 1994.”

 

A Woodsman at Heart 

With his background being in lumberyards, John had plenty of experience with wood. As a delivery driver and estimator, he facilitated orders and deliveries between the office and the yard. Glacial Wood was intended to be an in-between job for John when he clocked in for the first time, nearly 23 years ago. The best stories are always about the unexpected. What changed his mind and career trajectory?

“I turned on a lathe.”

John had always liked the look and composite of wood, and he found wood turning intriguing. Old houses with ornate wood detail, built-in cabinets, and big, grand staircases with epic pieces of wood always appealed to him. One of Glacial Wood’s first custom clients was a stair company out of Minneapolis called Stairbuilders, Inc.

“The stair builder would design his staircase projects in his head,” John said. “He’d present his drawings on a sheet of paper, and Glacial Wood would help bring his vision to life. That was fun. We were doing something and making something that no one else ever had. Together, we’d create these gorgeous walnut stairways. It was ultra-custom and always interesting. Even today, when we work on homes that are million-dollar plus residential projects, the staircases are just gorgeous.”

In the early days at Glacial Wood, there was a lot of variety to what the company produced on behalf of its clients. Wooden plates. Arts and crafts-type pieces. Furniture components. The odd stairway job. John ran the lathe for about 15 years before he assumed the role of production leader of the shop. Eventually, a lot of the product requests and brunt of the manufacturing Glacial Wood was handling transferred overseas. Cheaper labor. Glacial Wood needed to find a new niche. Knowing it both loved and excelled at truly custom work, Glacial Wood found that niche in custom cabinetry. “That’s when this place really took off,” John said.

 

On Milestones and a Shift in Operation 

In 2000, the CNC lathe arrived at Glacial Wood – a huge milestone that changed nearly everything. “It was one of those instances where we said, why didn’t we do this sooner? It was a game changer,” John said. Up until that point, Glacial Wood did everything by hand, giving the company its foundation of a truly custom process. The advent of the CNC lathe only continued that philosophy, and strengthened the capabilities of the craftsmen. Growth and opportunity led Glacial Wood to expand its manufacturing headquarters, and the production facility of today was built in 2002.

John’s days are spent in the heart (and brain!) of the operation at Glacial Wood. He’s on the floor overseeing our team of craftsmen, and lending his expertise along the entire value stream of manufacturing. He works with the sales team to establish estimates and project expectations. He collaborates with new customers and partners on research and development. “The uniqueness of what I do and see, and what we do and create comes from the designers, architects, and stair builders. The people who are looking outside the catalogue, and demanding something different for their craft and line of work – those are our people. They make our motor run, and they drive us.” John explained. “In fact, after 22 years, I still walk through projects and see things that make me say, that’s the most gorgeous thing I’ve ever seen!

 

I’m in awe of what we do. What we have done, and what we’ll continue to do. Has it always been easy? No. Has it always been important and worth it? Absolutely.

 

The Future Looks Lean

Right now, Glacial Wood is in a big transition toward lean manufacturing. We’ve tasked and empowered our team to take it on themselves. Lean is most impacted by the people who embrace and implement it. It’s not often the company you work for says, Hey. You see it, you’re in it, and you’re the best people to implement change to make it better. “You don’t really ever see that in companies. The changes are usually issued at the top and instructed to be carried out without much afterthought of how the process ultimately affects the people,” John said. “Make it how you want it. That’s exciting. We’ve reconsidered shop layout, scheduling, the Five S’s of lean manufacturing, and visual management. And, it’s our team pushing it and running it. It makes so much sense. We are becoming a state-of-the-art facility here at Glacial Wood.”

Did John have this notion when he started as a lathe operator in 1994, of what Glacial Wood would turn into?

“The truth is, right after I began my career here, I stopped at my dad’s. I told him, I’m going to run that place someday. I just had a feeling from very early on that this was going to be special for me, and worth all the work that comes with it,” John said.

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Topics: Lean Manufacturing, How We're Different, Project Management

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