Tod Colbert remembers the aftermath of September 11, 2001, in a way many home improvement company owners might not. Where lots of companies of all kinds found silent phones and sales slowing to a crawl as Americans reeled from that experience, Weather Tight, the company Colbert founded in 1986, continued to grow at a steady clip in the months, then years, thereafter.
Steady as in not just double digits but nearly doubling in size. Weather Tight sold $5.4 million worth of windows, siding, roofing, sunroom, and other home improvement products in 2005. Last year sales reached $9.5 million. This year Weather Tight's management budgeted for, and is on track to sell, $15 million worth of roofing, siding, windows, sunrooms, doors, and gutter protection, and a brand new showroom will be key to making it happen.
Colbert and co-owner Todd Schulz say that it was about four years ago that they started thinking about a new building for their company; a building that would include a state-of-the-art showroom.
The idea came from a round-table group of home improvement company owners they were involved with at the time. Many of those companies had showrooms. At that point, Weather Tight was operating out of the same leased space it had started in. Offices were cramped and square footage at a premium. Forget about displaying product.
Before committing themselves to a new facility with a showroom, Colbert and Schulz decided that they wanted a first-hand look at how it might work. They arranged to visit companies at or around their size that operated showrooms. The tour included American Home Design, in Nashville, Tenn.; Tony V.'s in Detroit; New York Sash, in Whitesboro, N.Y.; and Peoria Siding, in Peoria, Ill. This took time, but, "it was such a large investment, I thought that it was the right thing to do," Colbert says.
They learned a lot. They found out about essentials such as layout, design, lighting, and promotion. But the biggest lesson learned concerned location. To succeed, a showroom ? or at least their showroom ? had to be high profile and in a high-traffic spot.
Soon they found what they believed was a suitable site, bought the land ? 2.5 acres ? and invited bids from architects and design/build firms. The projected costs of the land and construction were $3.4 million.
Before proceeding, Weather Tight's owners needed a clear idea of the financial risk they were taking, both in terms of initial investment and additional overhead. So they went to the accounting firm the company uses and asked for a review that would compare the costs of operating the facility with the company's projected growth. "They looked at taxes, insurance, loan payments, and the additional investments we planned to make in marketing," Colbert says, "and how much we would have to sell to cover those additional costs." For instance, after looking at the numbers, Weather Tight figured it would need to spend at least $250,000 more in marketing to generate showroom traffic and to build brand.
Many home improvement companies end up shoehorning a showroom into any available space. Weather Tight and the design/build company it hired, Wahlgren-Schwenn, in Menomonee Falls, Wis., decided to allocate 4,500 square feet of a total of 25,000 for the company's showroom. The building itself was finished in time for employees to move in at the beginning of the year.
The showroom, though, remained a work-in-progress. A few months prior to the building's completion, in the fall of 2007, Weather Tight hired showroom designer Gary Wolfe, of Oh Monah Design, to do the space planning, lighting design, and color selection, a move that Colbert describes as "expensive, but well worth it."
In the meantime, the company made a deal with each of its vendors. TEMO, for instance, provided components for the three sunroom units constructed in the showroom. Sunrise supplied the windows for window displays. Vendors, says Colbert, agreed to supply materials "in return for a commitment to dollar volume targets at the end of the year."
Weather Tight scheduled a soft opening for early May, and a grand opening for mid-May. Work on the showroom went on literally until the Friday night before the official grand opening. In the days before that opening, ads and leafleting by canvass crews brought in a small trickle of walk-ins.
The Right Time
Management of Weather Tight had two reasons for building a new facility and opening its showroom. "We would've stopped growing," Colbert says. The company needed more physical space, but it also needed to reach out to a new kind of customer, in a new way.
Weather Tight had built its lead procurement model on marketing programs such as canvassing, shows/events, in-store SFI, and a trailer display. While that was the case, the company's marketing was able to produce more leads every year, and with more leads, sales grew. "All our stuff has been face-to-face," says marketing director Michelle Vincent. "We never really had a showroom because a showroom didn't fit in with our marketing model." Showrooms require promotion, and Weather Tight relied little on media to generate its leads. Face-to-face marketing had proved to be recession-proof.
But with its showroom grand opening scheduled for mid-May, the company invested heavily in television, radio, and a newspaper insert offering a $250 gift card to the first 250 people to schedule a sales appointment.
"We'd been expecting maybe 10 people a day to visit," Vincent says. Ninety-one leads were set the first weekend. Co-owner Schulz says the company sold $175,000 on those first four days of the grand opening, and a total of $522,000 the first month the showroom was open.
Weather Tight had budgeted for $750,000 in showroom sales in 2008. Colbert says he thinks the showroom will soon transform the company. "It's going to change our business in a lot of ways," he notes. Weather Tight's commitment to its tried-and-true methods will continue. But the showroom "opens up a whole new avenue, a kind of marketing that up to this point we haven't been able to do." The showroom will allow the company to "make a big jump" this year, he says.