Wisconsin Cabinet Company Takes Pride in Quality, Efficiency and Adaptability
By Scott W. Angus
Chris Lefeber hates it when people refer to Quest Engineering as a “cabinet shop.” “We are not a cabinet shop. I really dislike that term. We’re a manufacturer,” said Chris, Quest’s president.
“Our plant is set up like a manufacturing plant. It always has been. Even when we were a four-person operation, we had an assembly line and did things differently.”
Beyond the machines, assembly lines and cabinets, however, Quest is a different kind of company in another way.
“We’re a relationship company – always have been, always will be. “It can’t always be a dollar-sign decision,” Chris said. “It’s more of a relationship decision.”
Those words aren’t surprising from the low-key Lefeber, a classic Wisconsin nice guy whose modesty doesn’t mask his inherent smarts and obvious business acumen. At 41, he’s one of two musky-fishing brothers who run a special and highly efficient cabinet operation in little Richfield, about 15 miles northwest of Milwaukee. Brother Todd, 34, is vice president.
The relationships that Quest and the Lefeber brothers have built, along with their top-notch cabinets, have helped develop a rapidly growing business. The foundation of it all is their desire to be different.
“We knew when we started that we were not going to accept the status quo,” Chris Lefeber said. “We weren’t going to accept the box that every other cabinet shop in the world was living in.
“That’s why we came up with our name, Quest Engineering. A quest is a search, and to engineer is to accomplish tasks by more scientific means. We are always searching for a better way. This is not always easy, and we invest a lot in research and development.”
Lefeber acknowledged that Quest isn’t really an engineering company. “We do a lot of engineering, but we’re not an engineering company. We are a manufacturing company, but we’re different by design.”
Founded by the Lefebers in 2000, Quest has 32 employees and is based out of an 18,000-square-foot plant in Richfield. It has another 12,000 square feet in nearby Jackson, where most of the custom work is done. The 32 workers are up from 20 just a year ago, and Quest expects to hire at least five more a year for the foreseeable future.
Quest’s core business is laminated casework for commercial and residential uses. It started entirely commercial but is moving into more residential work, especially single-family kitchens.
“We’re best at the pretty simple stuff,” Chris said. “We’re best at casework. We build the strongest box. Our product is tried and true and tested. A lot of people do casework – there are thousands of cabinet shops – but we’ve always done it differently.”
Among the company’s advantages is its ability to integrate machines for the greatest efficiency.
“Machines are machines. They are electrical, mechanical apparatuses. You plug them in to the wall and start feeding them parts, and they do what they are supposed to do,” Chris said.
Integration and correct specifications of the machines, however, make the difference at Quest.
“I would say 95 percent of the people in our industry miss those two points. They have machines, and they think that simply having a bigger, badder machine is doing to facilitate their growth or make them build more cabinets and make more money,” Chris said.
“It’s really not. It’s being very careful about the machine. More important, it’s about the integration of the machines and how they work together.”
The efficiencies created by Quest’s manufacturing approach and its machine integration allow the company to produce three to four times the volume of what similarly sized companies in the U.S. do on average, Chris said.
Flexibility and adaptability are also critical ingredients in Quest’s success.
“It’s how we are able to be flexible in every part of the business – in the sales aspect, in the order-entry aspect, in the manufacturing aspect,” Chris said. “We can do that one-cabinet order efficiently. We can do that 500-cabinet order efficiently.”
Quest also pays close attention to what the market is asking for and responds.
“The last four or five years, I’ve seen a lot of well-respected cabinet makers fail. I look at them, and they just weren’t able to adapt. They were too big. Their manufacturing efficiencies weren’t flexible enough to meet the one-cabinet order of today.”
While talking about Quest’s success, Chris often goes back to those strong relationships with customers.
“The first-time sale to a customer is the most difficult for us. We must prove that our value and quality justify the cost of the product. Once a customer works with us, they will realize the value and how it extends past the product itself.
“Our customers realize that their management time, organizing and sorting, accepting deliveries and installation are all more productive with our products; more productivity equals less overall cost. This is a hard cost that customers do not realize they will be saving on until they experience the Quest difference.”
The Lefebers grew up in Slinger, just a short drive from Richfield, the sons of a school administrator who was good with his hands and a mother who owned a small country furnishings store. At age 10, Chris took over his dad’s woodworking shop and began building furniture to sell in his mother’s store. He developed his own clientele, undoubtedly using the same relationship skills that continue to serve him decades later.
Chris bounced around college for a handful of years and took a number of useful courses, the most valuable of which was tool engineering. He still uses much of what he learned. He moved on to carpenter contracting, construction management and several entrepreneurial efforts – “I’m kind of perpetual entrepreneur” – before a conversation in his parents’ kitchen in 2000 led to the start of Quest Engineering.
“It all started sitting around the island at my parents’ house one afternoon, and I said, ‘I gotta go start my own business again.’ My dad said, ‘What are you going to do?’ and I said, ‘I don’t know, maybe a cabinet shop.’ And Todd was like, ‘I’m in.’”
Todd, who was just out of high school, was working as a carpenter and had $2,500 in his checkbook. Chris had accumulated a collection of tools, computers and office equipment. They combined assets, rented an existing shop and became partners.
For the first few years, the brothers were contract manufacturers for one of Chris’ previous employers, building mostly store fixtures.
“We were the ‘yes’ men. ‘Hey, can you build this custom built-in?’ ‘Yes we can.’”
Quest grew quickly and moved to bigger space seven months after opening. The company also moved away from store fixtures and into architectural casework, selling commercial cabinetry directly to contractors. That worked well until the economic challenges that began in 2008. The Lefebers, who already had a strong customer base, transitioned to a dealer sales model and now leave the selling to independent representatives who work with dealers.
Another big step came in 2010, when Quest landed its first big multi-family contract. Quest got the nod to build cabinets for 240 kitchens for a customer in Milwaukee. It was big money for the company at the time, and it allowed Quest to test its capabilities.
“It allowed us to prove our true capacity. It’s when we really started to recognize our potential and tweak our efficiencies,” Chris said. “From 2010 to now, we produce twice as much with the same amount of people and the same equipment with our integration methods and just our efficiencies that we have in place.”
In 2011, Quest began dabbling in textured thermally fused laminate, and that led to a big change in the company’s business. In 2012, textured TFL exploded, Chris said, and Quest made a major shift into the residential kitchen business.
“Quite frankly, it was a leap of faith,” Chris said about Quest’s aggressive move into textured TFL. “We’re in Richfield, Wis. It’s pretty conservative. Most of the kitchens in this area are still oak.”
But textured TFL took off, and Quest went with it. Quest now has its own line of TFL called CABnX. It started with five offerings and has grown to 11. The company also has a line of high-pressure laminate that it partly uses to test the market for the better-selling TFL. Flakeboard is among its primary suppliers.
About 90 percent of Quest’s residential work is TFL, and for good reason.
“The new TFLs that everybody is excited about, they have texture; they have different structures in them. It’s not just the traditional solid colors. They have different structures, different grains, different wood takings or textures – some very deep textures that are very attractive, to the point where a lot of people have a hard time distinguishing that finished panel from a real wood finished panel.”
TFL is also more economical. “A TFL kitchen comes in at 10 to 20 percent of the cost of a hardwood kitchen. Even HPL is 30 to 40 percent different,” Chris said.
“Three years ago in the conservative upper Midwest, we were one of the first to jump on the wagon for textured TFL and offer that in a kitchen product. Since then, there has been an explosion of different offerings … that people have grabbed onto. The design world has migrated back to it and grabbed ahold of it,” Chris said.
The company’s output is now about half residential and half commercial. About 15 percent of the residential is single family, and that’s an area that Chris and Todd plan to grow. They eventually would like single family to be 50 to 60 percent of their residential work or 20 to 30 percent of their overall business. Quest also is relaunching a closet line under the name CLOzX.
While Chris wouldn’t disclose Quest’s annual sales numbers, he noted that the company expects 50 percent sales growth in 2015 from 2014, and 2014’s numbers were 60 percent higher than those in 2013. Quest’s production capacity is 140 cases per shift, he said, and that will increase to 240 cases per shift with new equipment and a plant reconfiguration.
While the brothers drive this business, both acknowledge that their wives have played critical roles in the company’s success. Todd’s wife, Pam, has provided unwavering support through the ups, downs and demands of building a business. Chris’ wife, Angie, is “all in” and, as director of administration, manages human resources and accounting.
In line with its residential leanings, Quest became a major sponsor of the mHouse, which is a materials display house being constructed in Watertown, Wis., by Surface & Panel. Quest is providing CABnX Elite cabinets and fabrication for the kitchen, master suite, garage, hall and office.
Chris was aware of the mHouse when Surface & Panel Publisher John Aufderhaar asked him if he was interested in participating.
“It coincided with our launch of CABnX, so it was the perfect match. I love the idea of the project. It’s just stellar,” Chris said.
What else is ahead for Quest?
Chris’ eyes widen and light up when he talks about the company’s continued growth and expected move to a bigger building in a few years, just as they do when he talks about the enormous musky he caught in Green Bay, a replica of which sits just outside his office. The monster was 54 inches long and weighed an estimated 69 pounds, putting it in elite company. A replica of another huge musky landed by Todd is perched nearby.
Whether it’s landing the big one or making cabinets, Chris and Todd Lefeber know what it takes to be among the best. From the beginning, their company has reflected that standard, and they will accept nothing less in their continual quest for innovation, efficiency and quality.
“We knew when we started that we were not going to accept the status quo. We weren't going to accept the box that every other cabinet maker in the world was living in.”
Chris Lefeber, President of Quest
One-of-a-kind Integration Powers Quest
Panel-processing cell is unique in North America.
In an hour-long conversation about what sets his company apart, Quest President Chris Lefeber returned several times to the critical importance of integrating machines and ensuring they have the correct specifications.
Given that emphasis, it’s not surprising that Quest – a cabinet maker based in Richfield, Wis. – is working with Biesse, a leading manufacturer of high technology equipment, to create an integrated panel-processing cell that doesn’t exist anywhere else in North America.
“The machines individually exist in North America,” said Chris, who founded and owns the company with his younger brother, Todd, who is vice president. “But how they are going to communicate and work with each other does not.
“This is something that Todd and I designed and engineered with Biesse’s help. So even though there’s four other plants that have these four pieces of machinery working, it’s the machines working together and the software that really pays the dividends in being efficient.”
Chris described the combination as “a high capacity, yet very flexible panel-processing cell.” The goal, he said, “is efficient, near batch-one manufacturing.”
The cell is powered by a Biesse RBO Winstore 3D K1, which is a 30-by-70-foot automated material storage and retrieval system. Todd said it’s “basically a giant vending machine that houses panels” with a robotic arm that retrieves those panels and feeds live-feed machines.
“So the Winstore will set the pace, not an operator,” he said.
The Winstore will automatically load both a Rover B 1536 G FT nested base machining center and a Selco WNT610 Twin Pusher beam saw. Both machines are equipped with automated labeling, plus secondary labeling stations.
Todd stressed the benefits of the nested-base CNC router. The sheet goes in, and all of the cutting, drilling and shaping is handled in one pass, which optimizes material use and reduces handling.
“When you handle material, especially TFL, you have the opportunity to damage it. The less handling, hopefully less damage.”
Materials coming off the Selco have the opportunity for secondary machining on a Biesse Bre.Ma EKO 902 vertical machining center.
“This is a true batch-one machine, requiring zero set-up,” Chris said of the vertical machining center.
Microvellum design software is also a key element in Quest’s operation. The company chose Microvellum in 2006 after looking at many different software packages.
“We felt it was the best core package for what we did – building cases. It truly excels at that. To us, Microvellum is the perfect parametric engineering package for the casework business,” Chris said.
Quest, which has a dedicated Microvellum manager, has since taken the software above and beyond what the vendor offers through custom development. For example, Quest created a program to streamline the creation of packing lists and has developed other tweaks for solving queries and problems in the software, enhancing speed and smoothing integration, he said.
— Scott W. Angus