Incorporated: 1942 as Wood-Metal Industries, Inc.
Sales: $110 million (1997 est.)
SICs: 2434 Wood Kitchen Cabinets; 2541 Wood Office & Store Fixtures, Partitions, Shelving & Lockers
Wood-Mode, Inc. was the leading nonstock cabinetry manufacturer in the United States in the late 1990s. The company was offering semi-custom and custom cabinetry for the kitchen and also for other rooms of the home in several woods and styles and a great variety of finishes.
Wood-Mode was founded by four men who had been salesmen for Whitehead Monel Kitchens Co., a division of International Nickel Co. that was selling the white metal kitchen cabinets popular throughout the 1930s. The four—Ted Gronlund and Dick Nellis, Sr., of New York City and Charles Wall, Sr., and Caswell Hollo way of Philadelphia—realized that, with the imminent involvement of the United States in World War II, the production of steel would be shifted to the war effort, leaving them with nothing to sell. The four founded Wood-Metal Industries, Inc. in 1942 in a small lumber-planing mill in Kreamer, Pennsylvania.
Wood-Metal’s initial client was Uncle Sam, seeking production of military needs such as cook’s tables, coops for the Army’s carrier pigeons, shell cases, ladders, and Signal Corps equipment cases. The government set exacting specifications for these products, especially for the finishes applied to the Signal Corps cases. These cases, earmarked for use in the South Pacific, had to be sealed against fungus growths and waterproofed by varnish that sometimes required as many as 11 coats. The company’s experience in meticulous wood finishing during this period would prove invaluable in the development of its cabinetry finishes.
As World War II neared its end, military contracts began to dwindle, and Wood-Metal turned its attention to making kitchen cabinets. The company met its difficulty in buying top-grade lumber by purchasing timber rights on a tract of land in the Beaver Springs, Pennsylvania, area for $2,000 in 1943 and building a sawmill to provide the raw material. Wood-Metal never made a metal cabinet in Kreamer, but it acquired a manufacturing plant in Beech Bottom, West Virginia, to make such cabinets once steel became available after the war. This operation was moved in the 1950s to McClure, Pennsylvania, where it began making and marketing a line of institutional and residential cabinets.
By 1945 Wood-Metal was producing enameled finishes for a contemporary cabinet-door style and had begun to offer special purpose items that included a telescoping towel rack, cutlery trays with linoleum bottoms, and a broom/linen-closet combination. During the late 1940s the company also was designing and manufacturing cabinets and casework for schools, hospitals, and other institutional customers. By the mid-1950s, the institutional line was offered in three woods, with a choice of six natural and 12 enameled finishes.
All four founders had other business interests in New York and Philadelphia, so C. K. Battram, Sr., was brought in as general manager in 1944. Holloway withdrew from participation in the firm in 1948, but Nellis, the company’s president since its inception, moved to Kreamer to assume day-to-day leadership, while Gronlund and Wall also began to devote greater time to the fledgling company. When the firm celebrated its 50th anniversary in 1992, members of the Battram, Gronlund, and Wall families were still active in management. Corporate headquarters remained, however, on Park Avenue in New York, until 1953.
The Wood-Metal product line in 1950 included 14 enameled finishes and one natural wood finish. The company also introduced “customized” natural finished doors and drawers on enameled cabinets and manufactured the first built-in unit to accommodate a Thermador range/grill-and-oven combination. The first Wood-Metal knotty-pine cabinets were introduced in 1951 to accommodate the Early American home decor so popular at the time. These cabinets featured authentic V-joint construction and were in the forefront of design.
Wood-Metal originally shipped cabinets to its customers by commercial carrier. This proved less than ideal because at times the products were not properly handled, leading to damage and delays in installation. In 1952 the company began to use its own fleet of trucks to deliver to markets in the East, thereby greatly improving service to dealers and customers. The following year Wood-Metal decided to launch a modest advertising and promotional program to support its sales representatives and dealers. Its first advertisement in a national consumer magazine appeared in January 1954. The number of sales representatives reached 21 by the end of 1955. Advertisements were placed in magazines like House and Garden and Good Housekeeping (the latter in conjunction with the famous seal of approval).
Cabinetry into Every Room, 1956-89
The name of the company’s residential line of cabinets was changed to Wood-Mode Kitchens in 1956 because wood, rather than metal, kitchen cabinets were growing in popularity, reaching 70 percent of the total installed that year. (The corporate name was not changed to Wood-Mode, however, until 1990.) In a full-page ad appearing in Kitchen Business that year, the company explained its decision as intended “to better describe the finest line of all-wood kitchens.” For a 1958 issue of House and Garden, Wood-Mode designed and built a kitchen that could be taken along when the homeowner moved. The company’s products also appeared on several television game shows, including “The Price Is Right,” in which the grand prize was a custom-built kitchen.
Nellis resigned as president in 1959 and was succeeded by Wall. In 1961 the company initiated a “picturebook” that afforded a view of actual installations of Wood-Mode cabinets in oak, maple, and pine, in four different styles and 22 natural and 12 enamel finishes, with a variety of hardware and a choice of more than 50 special purpose cabinets and accessories. Wood-Mode was letting it be known that its custom-built cabinetry could be made to order for any room in the house. In 1970 the company logo was changed from “Wood-Mode Kitchens” to “Wood-Mode Cabinetry.”
Gronlund succeeded Wall as president in 1963. He died in 1967, and Battram, his successor, passed away in 1969. Charles Wall, Jr., succeeded Battram as president. In 1970 Wood-Mode added 180,000 square feet of manufacturing and warehousing space, and in 1972 it opened a factory showroom across the highway from the plant. This facility contained a full working kitchen and an auditorium that would be used for the longest continuing training school in the industry. By 1992 more than 6,500 students had attended classes there. In the early 1970s Kitchen Business named Wood-Mode one of the two largest manufacturers of custom cabinetry in the nation. Robert Gronlund, Ted’s son, succeeded Wall as president of the company in 1974. The company honored nine representatives in 1975 whose territorial sales volume reached or exceeded $1 million a year.
During this period Wood-Mode introduced two new special purpose units: an improved version of its chefs pantry, and a hutch that was the company’s first small step into “furniture” manufacturing and that helped to popularize the idea of built-in cabinetry in every room of the house, a concept the firm called “RoomScaping.” Wood-Mode was offering its clientele custom and built-in cabinetry as an alternative to the limits of freestanding furniture, in a choice of six different styles available in three woods and more than 35 finishes, including wood-grain PVC plastic laminate. The company also introduced vinyl interiors and five new door styles and, in the late 1970s, Hallmark cherry cabinets and the Alpha and Citation door styles.
By the end of 1981 Wood-Mode had expanded its distribution into the Southwest and Pacific Northwest. It now held about 20 percent of the total factory-built custom-cabinetry market. Sales grew from $30 million in 1980 to $75 million by 1988. Wood-Mode introduced a line of six door styles of frameless cabinets in 1984, and this line in turn inspired the creation of new door styles.
Always at the forefront of environmentally conscious manufacturing, Wood-Mode in 1988 added a 600,000-pound thermal incinerating system to eliminate potentially harmful emissions from the finishing process. It also installed a cogeneration system using scrap wood and sawdust to produce electricity for both its own needs and the local power system. In 1989 the company added a second floor to its warehouse in order to create 160,000 additional square feet of manufacturing space. This brought its total amount of production and warehouse space to 1 million square feet.
Wood-Mode in the 1990s
Brookhaven, a made-to-order, semi-custom cabinetry series introduced for the mid-range market in 1988, garnered $26 million in sales within three years. This helped to resuscitate Wood-Mode’s growth rate, which had been slowed at the close of the 1980s by a leveling off of new housing and the consequent demand for high-end home furnishings. Company sales reached $96 million in 1994, of which semi-custom, rather than custom, cabinetry accounted for 56 percent of the total.
The mission of Wood-Mode is to work together to continually improve the quality of our cabinetry products, service, and support in order to meet or exceed customer expectations.
Wood-Mode was offering cabinetry in cherry, oak, maple, and pine woods, and laminate in traditional, country, and contemporary styles in 1997. Design Group 42 offered traditional framed-construction cabinetry, including 30 door styles. Design Group 84 offered an extensive collection of frameless cabinetry in the same woods, including 24 door styles. In addition, 12 specialty cabinet-door styles were available, included leaded glass and mullion styles. Drawers and shelves were also offered. A wide variety of hand-rubbed stained, opaque, glazed, and cottage finishes were available in a palette of more than 50 colors.
Wood-Mode’s customized solutions to manage storage space were numerous and included a rollout serving cart, several chef s pantries, a pull-out table, a wine rack, and an appliance garage. Cabinetry for rooms other than the kitchen included living room/ den bookshelves and bookcases, family-room entertainment centers, TV and bar cabinets, and shelving for art, collectibles, and trophies; dining room hutches; home office storage drawers and pull-out tables; bedroom dressers, armoires, and vanity tables; bathroom cabinets and “his and her” vanities; and even storage units for laundry and utility rooms.
“A Family Custom: The Wood-Mode Story,” Wood and Wood Products, Annual 1995, p. 290.
A Half Century of Fine Cabinetmaking, Kreamer, Penn.: Wood-Mode Cabinetry, 1992.