At first glance Russ Berry seems a contradiction. As a young man he gave up law school to become a sculptor, then entered into a type of middle-class bohemian lifestyle by creating art for its own sake while his wife worked to pay the bills. Later, as financial circumstances changed, Berry learned woodworking, and excelled at creating and installing high end residential millwork. That stint came to an end when he realized many of his customers had accumulated their largess on the backs of the less fortunate, and he couldn't bear to enhance their already opulent lifestyles. So he got a job as a project manager for a commercial millwork firm.
Berry's talent for organization and thoroughness gained him the attention of the company's owners. He was eventually promoted to executive vice president, overseeing all of the architectural millwork operation. One of his first duties was to improve efficiency within the operation which, after considerable research and planning, led him to the conclusion that he must release a third of the workforce. And even though company sales jumped from $3.5 million to $8 million while reducing total employees from 62 to 40, Berry grappled mightily with his acknowledged role as "hatchet man."
In 1998 he joined with his employers in forming a new corporation -- Allegheny Solid Surface Technologies -- which specializes in providing fabricated solid surface for commercial applications. To some, commercial work may seem slightly detached from the hub of social interaction, but for Berry it is an opportunity to work with many people from widely varied backgrounds. And, as a born problem solver, he seems to thrive on the many challenges and opportunities that abound in commercial construction.
A No-Frills Operation
There isn't much about the shop and offices of ASST, located in Hanover, Penn. to inspire the imagination. The exterior looks like any typical industrial building constructed in the mid-1900s -- long on utility and short on aesthetic design. Stepping inside, the "suite" of offices does little for the imagination. A two-story structure clad in plywood and glass, with bare plywood floors and gray exterior insulation board walls for dividers, it hardly seems the nerve center for one of the most forward looking and dynamic fabrication enterprises in our industry.
The fabrication area is another matter entirely. It is well laid out in modules connected by roller tables. When a project enters production, a worker uses pneumatic lifters to load the solid surface onto a computerized panel saw where it is cut to size. The material then travels to the CNC for further machining before stopping at the glue-up station. From there custom jobs move into a special fabrication area, while non-custom jobs go directly to the edge routing section. After that, the solid surface is sanded and prepared for delivery.
Turning Problems Into Products
Part of the mission statement for ASST is to "identify and solve problems in commercial construction and turn those solutions into products for residential use." A case in point might be St. Joseph's Hospital Labor and Delivery Unit located in Baltimore, Md.
"We supplied a number of countertops for nursing stations and vanities on the project," Berry recalls. "Part of the specification called for a solid surface baby bathtub, using a design that was not especially baby friendly. The vertical sides joined at right angles with a thermo-formed sloping bottom, which didn't match a baby's body very well."
The hospital staff was so displeased with the design that plans were made to drop the solid surface tub from the specification and substitute it with an undermount porcelain baby bath bowl. But, that wasn't a very good solution either.
"The silicone joint where the bowl and the solid surface came together was not very sanitary," Berry says. "So I went to the head of nursing and asked her what it was she was looking for. She indicated there should be a soft bump in the base for the head and another to follow the contour of the baby's back. Plus, all the inside corners of the bowl should be rounded. I told her I thought I could come up with something, and asked her to give me a week to work it out."