Q&A with EBC Presenter Michael Thornberry, Powell Valley Millwork

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colorado — Powell Valley Millwork (PVM) is a progressive manufacturer of primarily primed poplar finger-jointed interior trim sold through a North America-wide distribution network, as well as OEMs that include customers engaged in door hanger, interior shutters and recreational furniture.

The family-owned company, founded in 1993 near Lexington, Ky., now employs approximately 200 people in two facilities with a total of 320,000 square feet of manufacturing and warehouse space. Over the years, the company has made significant investments in technology to increase production, lumber yield and quality.

Woodworking Network/FDMC chronicled one of PVM’s largest and most recent capital investment projects to expand and modernize the rough mill at its Clay City, Kentucky mill.

jimmy thornberry
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Michael Thornberry

Father and son duo Jimmy and Michael Thornberry, both directors of PVM, are scheduled to attend the 2022 Executive Briefing Conference, Sept. 15-17 at The Broadmoor in Colorado Springs, Colorado. They will be featured guests in a live audience interview conducted by FDMC Editorial Director Will Sampson. The interview will be immediately followed by a question-and-answer session with the EBC participants.

Woodworking Network caught up with Michael Thornberry to get a sense of how the wood products manufacturer has continued to grow despite multiple challenges created by the pandemic and supply chain disruptions. Here are excerpts from a recent telephone interview.

Carpentry network: How would you describe the current state of Powell Valley Millwork?

Michael Thornberry: We are emerging from a global pandemic where our company and other domestic manufacturers have been called upon to fill supply gaps for customers large and small. Like everyone else, we have been affected by supply chain challenges. We realized the significant increase in the cost of wood, glue, paint and packaging. I’m proud that we were able to weather much of the storm. We have never lacked any of our raw materials. We have been able to meet the needs of our customers and respond in the best possible way to a strong increase in demand for the products we manufacture.

We are in good financial health. We have always reinvested in this business and continue to do so today with equipment upgrades and new buildings, and we are continually adding staff. I feel very confident in the short term, in the second half of this year and next year. Even with an impending recession, I feel comfortable and confident due to the diversification of our products and the breadth of regions we cover in North America.

WM: Can you give an example of one of your company’s most recent capital investment projects?

Thornberry: We just completed a crude crusher upgrade at our Jeffersonville site. We installed a new scanner and a new resaw with the various handling equipment that goes with it. We have increased our throughput and adding this scanner, where there was none before, has increased our throughput by several percentage points. While a few or three percent may seem low when you consider the volume of wood products moving through this resaw, it’s a significant dollar value every year.

WM: Speaking of value, what is Powell Valley’s value proposition to its customers?

Thornberry: I think the first thing we offer is that we are a family business. When our customers communicate with us about their various programs, perspectives, quality control issues, new ideas, or even old ideas, they know they are talking to a business owner who has a vested interest in the success of their program and their sales. When I review some of our competitive threats in the marketplace, I feel that Powell Valley is positioned to be more nimble, more accountable, and more dedicated to customer needs than most of the major competitors we face.

WM: At the start of this interview, you talked about the pandemic and some of the related challenges it has helped create. At the same time, we have seen a surprisingly high demand for wood products. What do you think would be the biggest challenge you are currently facing and what are you doing to overcome it?

Thornberry: The biggest challenge that we have faced during the pandemic and that we will have to face over the next few years will be work, not having enough staff with dedicated people who want to join the labor market to meet the demand that we have before us. There are ways to improve this. We have increased salaries every year since we started operations and especially in the last two years. During the pandemic, we have been really focused on improving employee morale, including ensuring that our employees understand the value of their work. If I look at this at a macro level, new hires need to understand from day one why moving wood from one location to another is important. We need to remind everyone, from someone on their first day to someone in their 30s, just how valuable they are. I think we’ve accomplished that, but there’s always room to keep growing.

On another front, we have a long history of engaging with our local communities to encourage high school students to participate in studio classes. We also invite members of the community to visit our facilities. I think a lot of people walk past one of our locations and see a pile of wood stacked outside and think we’re a lumber yard or we’re a sawmill. In reality, we are quite a high-tech manufacturing company. As more and more people get to know us and learn about what we do, how we do it and what we make, I think they see that this is quite an exciting career field for those who have a fondness for mechanics. You can have a great career working for Powell Valley.

“We need to do a better job of educating consumers about the value of our solid hardwood products and the importance of having a healthy national supply chain.” –Michael Thornberry

Although labor is the biggest challenge that I constantly think about, there is another huge problem that all domestic lumber manufacturers face. We need to better educate consumers about the value of our solid hardwood products and the importance of having a healthy domestic supply chain. I don’t think Powell Valley or any other national supplier can track the volume of millwork consumed in this country in any way, but we certainly have a place at the table to even out some of the peaks and valleys in the supply chain. To do this, we need to educate the end user about the value of hardwood lumber. This is where the Real American Hardwood Coalition comes in. It is supported by 30 industry associations and we, as a company, actively contribute to it as well as in kind with time and resources. All domestic hardwood producers should strive to better tell the story of American hardwood production. When consumers visit a home center or their local lumber yard, they must ask themselves why they should buy real hardwood floors or moldings instead of plastic or fiberboard products.

WM: What could Powell Valley Millwork hold in the next three years?

Thornberry: Over the past three to five years, we have completed many cap ex projects. We added several big pieces of equipment. We acquired another site. What I would like us to do over the next three years is focus on all the other parts and pieces that go into what we make and how we make it. Our first objective is to refine the skills of our employees. In January, we began revamping our induction and training program.

We also need to look at all the different tweaks we can make to our existing gear, small upgrades, not the full overhaul to incrementally improve them. We will look for opportunities to modify every piece of equipment around the edge to make it faster and more ergonomic for the people using it. We will involve the machine operators to get their feedback on how we can bring the machine to its maximum capacity. This is what I hope we can focus on over the next three years, but it is true that new opportunities may arise and draw our attention elsewhere.

About the Executive Briefing Conference
Since 2002, EBC has been the place for leading manufacturers to network and explore new ways to succeed. By providing strategic and practical information that addresses manufacturing challenges, the EBC provides a unique forum to learn about new technologies and methods, and uncover opportunities in a non-commercial environment. For sponsorship opportunities, contact Harry Urban at 708-373-4344, [email protected]

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Closets Conference & Expo co-located with Wood Pro Expo Florida, April 12-14, 2023, Palm Beach County Convention Center, West Palm Beach, Florida.

Wood Machinery & Supply Conference & Expo (WMS), November 2-4, 2023, International Centre, Mississauga, Ontario.

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