When Larry Knust came to Harpers Inc. last fall after nine years of managing auto parts factories, he found a plant that needed a tune-up.
“I think we may have been a little too aggressive here when we first started out,” said Knust of the 18-month-old Post Falls furniture plant. “This has been a more difficult start-up than the other two plants I’ve dealt with.”
Five months after Knust’s arrival, Harpers appears to be a smoother-running machine. The plant has enjoyed record sales for three months, and actually turned a profit last month for the first time.
“Come talk to me in three months and see if I’m still smiling,” he said. “But our results have been much better.”
As its performance improves, Harpers continues to reach for the high expectations that greeted the company when it arrived in North Idaho.
Those expectations focused mainly on providing 600 decent-paying jobs to a Kootenai County economy choking on low-paying retail positions.
Four hundred now work in the cavernous plant off Seltice Way for an average of $9.50 an hour with performance incentives included, Knust said.
Knust credits the improvement in the plant’s performance to experience workers gain with each additional day that they operate its state-of-the-art equipment.
“These people know their jobs now,” he said. The kinks are out of an irksome and complicated automated painting machine that gummed up early furniture production because of frequent shutdowns and paint quality problems.
Knust also has created an aggressive cost-control program, devoting one of his assistant managers to the task of finding ways to save money, and has worked to free up the lines of communication from the shop floor to the management offices.
The plant could be a world beater in efficiency, but without sales to keep the lines running, Harpers wouldn’t be here. The plant custom manufactures filing cabinets, desks and chairs for its customers.
The plant doesn’t stockpile inventory, since each order is custom manufactured. However, to give his customers faster access to some of Harpers’ more popular furniture, Knust has created an experimental program allowing the company to make a small number of furniture pieces in stock colors.
This allows customers to order these pieces and have them delivered in 48 hours, rather than waiting for the order to be produced. So far, customers have “responded pretty well” to the program, he said. The sales staff at Harpers also benefited from last year’s decision by parent company Kimball International to let all sales representatives of the furniture giant sell Harpers’ products.
The plant’s performance could get even better this fall, when Harpers will debut its new furniture line, Knust said. “It’s a more rounded, modern look,” he said. “And it’ll be less expensive for us to produce.”
If sales of the new line take off, Harpers could begin to add people and slowly climb toward the 600 employees the company touted when being recruited from California. “It would be tough to manage very quick growth,” he said. “We’d prefer to grow steadily.”
According to Kimball’s latest filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission, Harpers continues to become more efficient and lose less money for the large furniture and piano maker based in Jasper, Ind.
Kimball’s SEC reports for the three months of 1995 ending in December suggests that Harpers could turn a profit this year. January was a great start toward that goal, Knust said.
All manufacturers have their ups and downs when starting from scratch, Knust said. While managing assembly plants for DNL, a Midwest auto seat maker, Knust saw similar difficulties in starting plants up.
A determined group of workers helped iron things out, and the same held true here, he said.
When Knust replaced Greg Davis as general manager in September, he inherited a facility still smarting from growing pains. Among the problems the plant faced in its first year:
Harpers paid $9,500 in Occupational Safety and Health Administration fines in May for violating safety procedures and failing to provide proper safety equipment around its complex paint machine.
Harpers faced a union drive on its shop floor after moving away from its former Torrance, Calif., location to escape from the high-wage union contract. Workers complained about wages and changes in health benefits.
However, Teamsters spokesman Larry Kenck said his union has no plans to hold a vote to ask the NLRB to supervise a unionization vote. Kenck had originally hoped to have a vote within a few months of the drive’s start in December 1994.
The company faced a charge of unfair labor practices after employee Michael Lane was fired for telling a co-worker to slow down production.
However, the National Labor Relations Board in Seattle dismissed the unfair labor practice charge brought by the Teamsters. The firing of Lane was legal, said Terry Jensen of the Seattle board office.
Former maintenance employee Scott Battien, now an inspector with the Idaho Housing Administration in Lewiston, said dissention on the shop floor may have led to some of the problems at Harpers.
“Basically, you had 400 people who never built an office desk before,” Battien said. “They had to produce a lot of junk, and they had a lot of learning to do about how things worked.”
That problem appears to have lessened under Knust.
He said monthly turnover has been cut to around 1 percent of the Harpers work force. “I think we had only 3 people leave us in January.”
Knust wants to create a contagious positive attitude throughout the building. He hopes the record sales, improved plant efficiency and better on-time performance for orders shipped keep the momentum up.
“The people here are just excited to help us,” he said, saying that Harpers workers were as motivated and committed as those he supervised in Nebraska. “In both places people had a very die-hard attitude.”
For Knust, who before being recruited by Kimball had never been to the Northwest, life here so far has been a pleasant surprise for him, his wife and three children.
“I’m a Cornhusker fan,” Knust said, “so I’m really happy that I work for a company that has red as a color in its logo.”
, DataTimes MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: A look behind the scenes at Harpers Work force: Employs 400 workers, nearly all of them full time, at its 440,000-square-foot Post Falls plant. Product: Harpers makes steel office furniture and sells it nationwide for its parent company, Kimball International Marketing Inc. of Jasper, Ind. Finances: After struggling for its first 15 months, the plant recorded record sales of its furniture for the last three months of 1995. The plant turned its first profitable month in January, and Kimball expects the plant to continue improving as the year goes on. Strategy: Harpers will retool and start selling a new line of office furnishings this fall, which could mean more sales and more employees.