Opening Doors In a Traditional Industry
The building supply industry may be a male-dominated business, but that hasn't stopped Jeanell Pate from making her mark in it. In fact, Pate, president of Dor-Mate Co. in Fort Worth, Texas, thinks the industry could benefit from a bit more female influence. She says she's been treated courteously for the most part during her 20 years in business, but she's happy to see more young women getting involved.
"When I started, you didn't run into too many women. It was really a man's world," she recalls. "But women have so many skills to offer, and I think that's something that can help the industry. The changes that have taken place over the past two decades have been very interesting to watch."
Pate speaks on this issue, as she does on all issues, with an equanimity and centeredness that comes through clearly in conversation. No doubt, those qualities have helped her succeed in guiding her business through several economic cycles. Along the way, she's run into many challenges-and found ways to deal with them all.
Pate's career as an entrepreneur got its start in 1979. Her husband, now deceased, had an opportunity to buy the assets of a small manufacturer of pocket doors. It was a business he was already familiar with due to his background in the millwork industry. The idea was that this would be a good business for Jeannell to run and for their high school-aged son, Danny, to work at part-time.
"Time passes pretty quickly, and before I knew it, Danny was off to college," Pate relates. "The business was growing, and 1 needed to find some people to work with me." Facing a tight local labor market, Pate found her answer through what might be called "divine intervention." Actually, it was the nearby Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.
Pate theorized that the student body at the school might actually represent a valuable untapped labor pool, and she turned out to be right. Many of the students were anxious to earn some extra money, and the part-time hours they were interested in meshed well with the flexibility Pate needed to schedule production runs.
For the most part, the seminary students were sorely lacking in carpentry and woodworking skills, but they had the kind of attitude and enthusiasm that Pate felt was more important. "We could teach them how to do what needed to be done. That was really the easy part," she says. "It's more important in a small, family-run business to have a team that works well together and can interact well with your customers." The seminary students turned out to be top-notch in that regard, and Dor-Mate continues to recruit employees from the school to this day.
As Pate learned from her experience, when seeking to fill a business need, sometimes looking at a nearby resource from a different perspective can do the trick.
Despite the ups and downs of the general economy and the impact of forces peculiar to the building industry, Dor-Mate grew at a steady pace. Pate's son Danny came back to the business after finishing college and is still there today, as vice president and production manager. The company added a new building in 1986 and another one in 1994. Today it serves customers in six states and employs between eight and 16 people, depending on demand and production runs.
As the company grew, however, so did one troubling offshoot of its manufacturing process. Dor-Mate's pocket-door frames are made from high-grade pine lumber, but there is a lot of waste in the manufacturing process. Short pieces and odd sizes of wood ended up on the scrap pile and had to be carted away, which was how the previous owner had dealt with the problem. Then one day Jeannell had a brainstorm.
"I realized that some of those odd-sized pieces of wood just had to be right for some other purpose, but the problem was figuring out just what that was," she says. Before too long, she came up with the idea of using them to build decorative but functional wood gable louvers in various shapes. "That is how the second major line of the Dor-Mate company came into being," she says.
Finding new uses for what had been expensive scrap became something of ongoing mission for Pate and her associates. Louvers were developed in a variety of sizes and shapes, including full circle, rectangular, half-circle and domed. Eventually, fixed and operable octagon windows and a line of cupolas were added to the mix. Left-over pieces of pine that didn't find their way into one of DorMate's product lines began to be finger-jointed and used for doorjambs and other components in the pocket-door manufacturing process.
"Over the years, we went from a big scrap heap to a whole line of new products," Pate says. The company greatly reduced its carting costs and gave a nice boost to the bottom line at the same time. Pate adds that they continue to look for new ways to use those leftover links of short lumber on a daily basis.
She adds that she learned a valuable lesson from that experience: "Because it's always been done that way" is not a valid argument for continuing any business practice. Creativity in finding new uses for existing materials can go right to a company's bottom line.
Being a small company in an economically sensitive business means that Dor-Mate has had to find ways to do more with less. Because production demand can come in bursts, staffing levels tend to fluctuate. But losing the expertise of trained workers during slow periods represents another kind of danger. Pate has found several ways to deal with this issue.
The first is by relying on her immediate family and long-time acquaintances to help carry the load. For example, Pate's 25-year old grandson has been working in the production department for the past four years. Dick Bischofhausen, a close family friend who was an associate of Pate's husband at the time they bought Dor-Mate, also continues to be involved with the company as a mentor and advisor.
"The team that we put in place in the beginning has been the key to the success of this company, and Dick has always been an important part of that team," Pate notes. "My husband was my mentor. He was a great teacher and one of the sharpest, keenest minds in the millwork business, and Dick is much the same way. I've tried to learn from them both."
Another key to Dor-Mate's success in stretching its resources is that Jeannell and her son are willing to wear as many hats as necessary. Danny earned a degree in computer science at Texas A&M, and besides managing the production side of the business, he is also its resident computer guru. Pate describes his contributions in that regard as "indispensable."
Jeannell herself is always ready to pitch in wherever another hand is needed. While her main duties involve sales and running the administrative side of the business, she's not above muscling a table saw across the shop floor or setting up a production run if that's what's called for. Growing up on a non-irrigated farm in central West Texas, she developed a sense of self-reliance that has served her well in the business world.
"You didn't have a repairman to call when something went wrong on the farm," she recounts. "You had to be multi-talented and always ready to take care of what needed taking care of."
Pate has also gone out of her way to avoid layoffs of talented workers, even during tough economic times. At one point in the early 1990s, Dor-Mate had branched out into manufacturing stair parts, but it relied on a single large customer for that business. `They jumped the fence one July," is how she describes that customer's abrupt departure for another supplier. "With a department to close, we had to find a way to keep those employees and restore the lost sales in some other manner." The company did just that, mounting a concerted sales effort in its other departments that made up for the lost volume within a period of 12 months. "Our main concern through all of it was not to lose our good trained people," she says. "By everyone pitching in and working together, we were able to achieve that goal."
Skilled employees can be a small business' most valuable asset, as Pate discovered. Finding a way to keep them, even when times are tough, can provide a payback that can't always be measured in dollars and cents.