Framed In, Company Moves To Grow

Fairfield County Business Journal, October 1, 2007

Vol. 46, #40
By, Bob Chuvala

Church Hill Classics is one of those companies with legs, picking up and moving to bigger digs every few years as the company grows, and not afraid to look across town lines – or even state lines, for that matter – to find the best facility to house its growth.

Its latest move is from 30,000 square feet of leased space in Danbury to a 47,000-square-foot building in Monroe, just over the town line from Newtown, where the company began back in 1991 when Lucy Voves had this idea to make spiffy frames for college diplomas in the basement of her home.

“It was a part-time, evening venture,” said her husband, Joe, now vice president of the company. And in one of those little coincidences life loves to spring on people, the Mail Boxes Etc. outlet in Newtown’s Sand Hill Plaza where the basement business had a post office box in the 1990s is now a Panini Café, where the Voves had lunch on the day they closed on the Monroe building.

The move to Monroe was the third for the business. The first was in 1996 from the Voves’ Newtown basement to a house they built in Ridgefield that was closer to Joe’s business in Hawthorne, N.Y., and had a larger basement, “probably about 1,000 square feet,” he said. The business expanded its product line to organization-specific presentations for diplomas, credentials, certifications and, eventually, coordinated medallion desk accessories. Two years later, when Roadway trucks were making too-frequent deliveries to the residential neighborhood, they moved the business to 5,000 square feet in Danbury. “We thought, ‘Holy cow, this is swallowing us whole,’” Joe Voves said of the new space.

Inefficient work flow

The Danbury building had been subdivided into smaller industrial spaces, and within another two years, Church Hill Classics moved into a 15,000-square-foot space in the same building. “We thought that surely this would last forever,” he said, but three years later they took on an additional 10,000 square feet a good distance away in the building, followed by another 5,000 square feet in another part of the building. “Even with 30,000 square feet, the business was growing north of 20 percent a year,” he said, and began offering frames for military memorabilia and framing services to major corporations and mail-order retailers. This year Church Hill Classics will produce more than 110,000 custom frames, up from 90,000 last year.

But the company’s production was suffering from a disjointed work space and “a very inefficient work flow” in Danbury. The tenants next to the Voves’ largest space were not interested in moving “so we couldn’t merge the two units,” he said. They began scouting around for new quarters.

“We looked high and low in Danbury, but there’s really not a lot available on the market in midsized buildings,” he said, and their search went north to Brookfield and west to Putnam County in New York state.

“We actually had our eye on property in Brookfield for quite some time, but the owners were negotiating with somebody else,” he said. “It would have been a great fit, 40,000 square feet with room for expansion.” But the negotiations were dragging on with no end in sight, so the Voves began looking in New York state as far west as Interstate 84’s exit 20. “But Danbury was really where we wanted to stay,” he said. “There’s not much in Newtown and we didn’t want to look in Monroe until we found this on the north end, about a quarter mile from the Newtown border.”

Add some, lose some

The 47,000-square-foot building had been built in 1999 by Dow Corning, and had more recently been the home of the German-based Bock USA’s injection-molding operations. Bock’s German parent purchased a plastics company in Ontario, Canada, and moved its operations there to be closer to its customers in the Midwestern states. “They manufactured high-end office furniture,” Voves said. “The majority of their customer base was in the Midwest, so it was a smart logistical move.”

The new building, with 15,000 square feet of headquarters office space, is on 9.5 acres that provide room for expansion “in three or four years, if we need it,” has five loading docks – back in Danbury the company shared a common loading dock – and was already equipped with a compressor system for power tools, a security system and 32,000 square feet of warehousing and assembly space.

Church Hill Classics picked up seven Bock employees and lost a few of its own who didn’t want to make the commute to Monroe, leaving the company with 51 full-time workers, Voves said. And all of them pitched in to make the move of 60,000 pounds of molding, 2,200 pounds of glass, pneumatic lines and tools and a full computer operation in an over-the-weekend move late last month “We pulled our computer network down on Friday and by noon Monday it was pretty much functional,” Joe Voves said. “Customer service could answer phone calls and know where customer orders stood.”

Production changes were similar. “Within three days, everything was moving at 100 miles an hour,” he said.

National recognition

The Monroe site should keep Church Hill Classics in one spot well into the future. “For the next five years we’re looking to maintain our 20 percent annualized growth,” Voves said. The private company’s revenue forecast for this year is $6.1 million, growing to $7.5 million in three years, he said. And that growth should bring continued national recognition to the company.

Last year the company was the recipient of the International Torch Award for Marketplace Ethics awarded by the North American Council of Better Business Bureaus. This past August, Inc. magazine ranked Church Hill Classics 2,991 on its list of the 5,000 fastest-growing private companies in the country, and 95th among the 100 fastest-growing consumer-products companies. And Lucy Voves was recently named one of three trailblazers by the National Association of Women Business Owners.

When the Voves were standing in their new warehouse and the walls and ceilings were being painted, wires and pneumatic lines put in place and the building generally being readied for production, Joe Voves once again was awed by the open space he stood in. But this time his thoughts were a bit different. “Wow,” he thought, “this is really the starting point.”