For the team at Great Northern Cabinetry, it’s about the journey, not the destination, and the opportunity to help someone turn an ordinary house into an extraordinary home. With its reputation for producing high-end, handcrafted cabinets for kitchens, bathrooms, and any other room of the house, Great Northern Cabinetry aims to offer its customers products proudly made in the USA.
Located in the heart of Wisconsin, Great Northern Cabinetry offers a wide range of choices to create distinctive, one-of-a-kind cabinets tailored to fit specific requirements. The company’s ESP (Environmental Stewardship Program) certification, in partnership with the Kitchen Cabinet Manufacturers of America (KCMA), further demonstrates its commitment to the environment as it follows strict conditions in areas including air quality, resource management, and environmental stewardship.
Originally known as Northern Kitchens when founded by Harold “Roger” Johnson in 1972, Great Northern Cabinetry now offers face-framed and frameless cabinetry at multiple price points, with numerous wood species, door styles, modifications, and a wide variety of stain and glaze colors to provide its customers with affordable, well-made cabinets.
“Like a lot of late-blooming entrepreneurs, I followed a 30-plus-year corporate career path, and during that time, in the back of my mind I thought that maybe someday I’d like to do my own thing,” says owner Tim Ford. “Once I had the time and the wherewithal to make that happen, I started looking around at different opportunities and potential businesses to buy.”
His criteria included a simple manufactured product, in an industry where innovation was important but not technology-dependent—and also one where brand matters.
“I like products that are sold through a dealer channel where relationships make a difference,” Ford says. “And I wanted a company specifically that had a clear value proposition that can be scaled. So that led me to the cabinet industry.”
While there are many different approaches to market within the industry, Ford in particular appreciated the high-end, dealer-based, custom product category. Throughout 2019 and 2020 he looked at a number of different companies in the industry, and found Great Northern Cabinetry. At the same time, he also discovered Jay Rambo, based in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and was able to acquire both companies at the end of 2020. With the recent slowdown, the Tulsa manufacturing operations were consolidated into Great Northern Cabinetry, though the well-recognized Jay Rambo name will survive as a product line.
“My timing was either incredibly great or horrendously bad,” he laughs. “We went through the huge surge of demand in 2021, followed by the supply chain disruptions, the most challenging labor market I’ve ever seen, significant material cost increases, and inflation. All of that led me to where we are today. And through that process I feel like I’ve learned a lot over the last several years.”
While the pandemic affected every industry in different ways, travel and tourism in particular were severely prohibited, causing many to instead funnel their money into home improvement.
“In 2021, our backlog was nearly triple what its historic level had been,” Ford shares, “and like everybody else, it took us many months to work our way through that backlog. It put a lot of strain and stress on the company, our employees, and our dealers.”
While the housing sector didn’t face dire shortages similar to industries that required electronic chips, for instance, it did have to deal with episodic issues with suppliers in terms of reduced supply, which created a choppiness in operations. “We never were out of anything, but we faced potholes and bumps in the road, if you will,” says Ford. “But most of that is behind us.”
Navigating those bumps successfully was due in large part to the company’s committed employees who strive to create not only high-quality products, but to always treat customers with the utmost respect.
“Every business in my view is about people,” says Ford. “It’s about people, customers, and feeling like those that you do business with are treated with value and respect. And the products that you provide are the vehicle to create those relationships.”
While the challenges of the pandemic made it difficult for Great Northern Cabinetry to add to its product line during the period of 2021 and 2022, it’s now able to fully realize its ultimate goal of offering a distinctive cabinetry built in the homeowner’s style.
“We offer a great selection of modifications and options, but we’ve recently added to that,” Ford says, specifically highlighting the launch of a line of frameless cabinetry earlier this year using the Jay Rambo product design, which has been tried and true for several decades. “We’re also in the process of expanding our selection of core Great Northern cabinetry products as well, adding a couple of new species including walnut and white oak.”
The white oak will be offered in several different cut options, along with some new door styles that will align with today’s design trends. The company is also creating further differentiation between its ‘best’ product line, Classic, and its ‘better’ line, Deluxe. “We’re trying to make sure that when you buy our lines, you know the value you’re getting for each.”
Finally, Great Northern Cabinetry is looking at upgrading some of its hardware selections—such as hinges—for a number of its products. “When a homeowner buys Great Northern Cabinetry, they’re making a big investment,” says Ford. “We want them to feel like they’re getting great value, and we’re making improvements to our offerings that support that.”
While the focus is on creating quality cabinets for someone’s home, the company offers more than simply products, Ford says. Dealers, builders, and customers alike all expect Great Northern Cabinetry to create more value, the first part of which, of course, is providing cabinetry crafted with precision and designed to fit any style.
“We also need to think about how we deliver that product to them,” says Ford. “Our dealers rely on our spec book to help them with their design. Today we can support designers across several major software platforms—2020, ProKitchen, Chief Architect, and Cabinet Vision. We’re looking to put our spec book into a new technology platform that’s more interactive, which is something I hope we can accomplish early next year.”
Lastly, the company is looking at putting an electronic ordering system in place, which will likely be a late 2024 project. “This is critical, in my view, to simplify the order process, eliminate errors, create greater productivity, and ultimately help them be more productive and profitable,” says Ford.
These advancements all speak to how the company can use technology and innovation on its end to interact with dealers and simplify the process. “Our goal, ultimately, is to be easy to do business with, provide our dealers with value-added services that help them capture more business, drive contractor loyalty to them, and help them make more money for projects. If we do that, we’re going to be successful,” says Ford.
The past several years have been especially challenging in numerous ways, he adds, and have contributed to the drive to ensure dealer and customer satisfaction going forward. “These past two and a half years have been the most complex environment that I’ve ever worked in, and I lived through 2009,” he says. “The number of challenges we’re facing today is significant.”
While the company has certainly handled these challenges successfully, there’s always room for improvement, he adds.
“We’ve made some mistakes, and in the end, ultimately, this comes back to doing the things that you need to do well,” he says. “What we’re trying to do is make sure that the product we produce meets the customer’s quality expectation without hesitation. We’ve made a number of investments in our factory, both in hardware and software, that allow us to do that and we are beginning to see the results.”
But Great Northern Cabinetry is also focusing on things that matter most to its customers. “Our industry really values certainty, and that matters in terms of delivery,” says Ford. “We’re focusing on how we can make sure that we deliver with certainty.”
To assist with those goals, Great Northern Cabinetry is putting measures in place to communicate very clearly and loudly to the industry, he adds. Of course, customer service is vital to the success of any business, but Ford is determined to make Great Northern Cabinetry’s attention to customer satisfaction a top priority.
“My career started on the commercial side of the business, meaning sales and marketing,” he explains. “I’ve learned product engineering and manufacturing over the years, but at my core, I’m a customer-facing person, who I believe is ultimately the lifeblood of any company. Those relationships need to be cultivated every single day.”
Making high-quality cabinets is key, but guaranteed delivery and added value for dealers is vital to differentiate the business and ensure longevity. “We’re a relatively small employer in the area, but a big part of the town in which we’re located,” says Ford. “And I hope we can be the best employer in the area and a company that people will aspire to want to work for. When we reach that level, in my view, there’s nothing but upside.”
When Ford thinks about milestones, he thinks about creating something that the people in the community can be proud of and that dealers are excited to partner with. “In the end, we want to be a trusted partner to our dealers and help homeowners turn an ordinary house into an extraordinary home,” Ford says. “That’s the vision we ultimately want to rally around. We’re on that journey today. We’ve got a long way to go, but that’s the direction we’re headed in.”
He is excited about the future, he adds, and is looking forward to attaining all the success that Great Northern Cabinetry is poised to achieve. “In the end, my goal is to build a great business. That’s why I’m doing this,” he says. “I didn’t have to do this at this point in my career; sure, making money is a critical part of any successful enterprise, but to me, that’s the result of what you create, not the reason to create it.”
Ford believes the company can be an incredibly successful business while also serving as a vital part of the community in which it’s located. “That’s really important to me,” he says. “I grew up in a small town, and I want nothing more than the people of Rib Lake, Wisconsin, to be proud of their hometown company.”