How does a crib manufacturer win a Defense Dept. contract?

With state help, Whitney Bros. of Keene is awarded an Army contract for 3,000 cribs

When you hear of the government awarding a defense contract, it's typical to think of heavy machinery, perhaps even weaponry. Whatever the image, pretty wooden baby cribs generally aren’t among the things that spring to mind.

But a defense contract won by Whitney Brothers Inc. in Keene — a manufacturer of wooden early learning toys and materials and children's furniture — may just change that.

Earlier this year, the firm was awarded, and is in the process of filling, an order to supply the Army with roughly 3,000 wooden cribs before the end of the year.

"The federal government in particular is involved in more activities than most of us can imagine," said David Pease, program manager for the New Hampshire Procurement Technical Assistance Program for the state Department of Resources and Economic Development. "It's not immediately obvious why the army would need cribs, but the Army has a large number of employees, mostly younger people, many of whom have families who need daycare. So they wind up providing daycare on military bases around the world. And thus, cribs."

It turns out the Army needs the Whitney Bros. cribs to replace old cribs at child care centers that do not comply with new safety standards established by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. The commission said all public childcare facilities will have to replace cribs with drop-down sides and others that failed to meet new, more stringent safety mandates by the end of this year.

Because of the contract, Whitney has hired 13 new employees, increasing its workforce by 32 percent with the hopes of adding more employees if more government orders materialize.

Open-source contract

To put the importance of the contract in perspective, Brian Vaillancourt, director of sales and marketing for Whitney Bros., explained that, whenever possible and financially feasible, the federal government has to buy from an American supplier. But there are scant few wooden-crib makers in the United States.

"At the same time, when this request for bid came out," Vaillancourt said. "It came out of the Department of Defense under their open source contract program, which means that any agency within the federal government is able to buy off of this contract. So that's significant."

That means that any branch of the government that needs baby furniture or other wares made and sold by Whitney Bros. can buy from Whitney Bros.

The Army contract is for three years, with two one-year renewable options. In the first year of the contract, Whitney received the order for 3,620 cribs for about $866,000.

"While we don't think there will be anywhere near this kind of volume in subsequent years of the contract, we do know that when we sell one of our cribs, usually shortly after that, the customer will buy one of our changing tables, or crib dressers and other furniture-related products that are kindred to the whole concept of early childhood furniture,” said Vaillancourt. “So while we don't know yet what will happen, if history tells us anything about what's happened in the past, that will happen here too."


Changing with the times


Whitney Bros. is by no means a new kid on the block. The nearly 110-year-old firm has survived family tragedy, the Great Depression, devastating fire, changing hands and market whims.

The original factory was a two-story wood structure in nearby Marlborough that at times was a grist mill, at others a manufacturing hub for octagonal buckets. It was Charles Whitney who got the idea to make toys there and got his brothers Fred and Mark Whitney to join him in that endeavor in 1904. By 1908, the company was incorporated.

Unfortunately, shortly after that, Fred Whitney was killed on the job, crushed by a revolving ceiling shaft. The remaining brothers carried on with the business, which boomed in the early 1900s. Out the doors flew toy wagons and wheelbarrows, laundry sets and wooden shovels, all packed in crates and protected with newspaper.

Charles was next to pass away, leaving the business in 1925 to Mark Whitney and his son Roland. After 1929, with the Depression in full swing, the company had some lean years. Business started to pick up in 1933, only to be knocked down by a devastating fire in November of that year that gutted the factory.

Yet the Whitneys carried on. They figured out that some of their equipment hadn't been destroyed, but merely frozen by water used to fight the fire. They jury-rigged a system of piping-in steam to thaw the machines. With a newly thawed water wheel, they were able to get power to the gutted plant. By 1934, they were able to rebuild.

After World War II, toy tastes changed. Small toy wagons were replaced with flashy red-enameled wagons with hardwood wheels. But the wheel toys were eventually repurposed by the company as children's doll furniture.

Mark Whitney eventually left the business to his son Roland, who in 1962 brought in a investor — Griffin Stabler, a former executive of Carpenter Steel Company in New Jersey. They started to expand, and by 1964 started subcontracting with Creative Playthings, becoming its major source of wooden toys, which included easels and chalkboards.

Creative Playthings was eventually sold to CBS. Around the same time, one of the original Creative Playthings partners Bernard Barenholtz, bought out Roland Whitney, who retired in 1969.

By the 1970s, Barenholtz and Stabler had transitioned the company into making early learning and preschool materials. In 1980, the company moved to a 90,000- square-foot, three-story brick complex in Keene.

The firm’s learning materials line is sold nationally to 300 school distributors, specialty toy stores and Head Start programs.

Today, the firm makes arts and crafts, benches, blocks, toys, imaginative play items and of course, children's furniture.

Categories: Business Profiles