In early 2005, if you happened to have been stopped at the traffic light at the intersection of Interstate 25 and Arapahoe Road in Denver, your eye might have been drawn to the dilapidated eyesore that was once a Chevy's Mexican restaurant. The restaurant, closed for several years, occupied a highly visible location. Boarded up, it had attracted squatters.

Today, after extensive renovations, the same building is a 6,500-square-foot “Window Design and Expo Center.” It features a media room with DVDs about window installation, a space with toys and videos to occupy kids while parents consult with sales reps, a science center where fenestration technology can be demonstrated and explained, and walls showing windows with interior and exterior trims and many different textures and colors, including stucco, brick, river rock, and fiber-cement siding.

“We found that one of the biggest obstacles to a sale was the inability to show the customer ahead of time what the finished product looked like,” explains Randy Shepherd, co-owner of Renewal by Andersen of Colorado Springs and Denver, our Replacement Contractor of the Year. Shepherd says that roughly a third of RBA of Colorado Springs and Denver's customers visit one of the company's three showrooms, and two-thirds of those who do make a purchase.

COVERING ALL BASES At a time when many home improvement companies see their sales sliding backward, RBA of Colorado Springs and Denver posted a sales increase of almost 26% last year. Average annual sales increases for the last five years were 19.3%. Of the company's 27 salespeople, 11 generated revenue in excess of $1 million, three had pushed past the $1.5 million mark, and one was a $2 million seller. Last year RBA of Colorado Springs and Denver's marketing department produced 7,200 leads for that sales team, an increase of 12% over 2006. This at a time when marketing departments at many home improvement companies are issuing fewer leads.

OK, so how do they do it? First off, there's consistently superior installation. Shepherd and co-owner Kevin Orf would tell you that RBA of Colorado Springs and Denver hires the best technicians to install its windows. Their installers must be able to open up a wall and frame a door or window as skillfully as finish carpenters. The company pays them roughly twice the prevailing piece rate for window installation. (Installers include both company employees and subcontractors.)

Then there's customer communication and service, something RBA of Colorado Springs and Denver has worked hard to perfect. General manager Brett Ortengren says that there are seven points of contact between scheduling the appointment and following up with customers after their windows or doors have been installed, much of it before the product actually gets to the door. Far from snagging a signature and hanging the customer out to dry for six to eight weeks while waiting for the windows to arrive, the company issues a series of messages, including thank-you notes and a gift, to make clients aware of when windows were ordered, shipped, and delivered.

SELL THE EXPERIENCE Of course, there's no point in creating the ultimate home improvement experience unless you can market and sell it. RBA of Colorado Springs and Denver has plenty of experience canvassing (currently 12% of leads). But the company typically produces leads across at least five or six major sources, including events (23%) and direct mail. And then there's the sales process. To get on the RBA of Colorado Springs and Denver sales team, the aspiring salesperson takes two personality profile tests, spends some days in the phone room, receives training in the product, then does a stint with crews installing both windows and entry doors. After all that, there's classroom training in how to handle objections, then running leads with a senior member of the sales force. “People hate it,” Ortengren says. “They just say, ‘Let me go sell.'”

Like many businesspeople, Shepherd and Orf were enamored of Michael Gerber's The E-Myth, a book that famously prescribes systematizing an operation for success. So enamored, in fact, they hired the Gerber organization to be their business coach. Unfortunately, it didn't work out. “We knew the importance of documenting, streamlining, and perfecting systems,” Orf says, “but no one had the time to do it.” A year and a half ago, Ortengren hired an operations analyst, Michael Welch, who does nothing but analyze and improve systems. “As owners,” Orf says, “we're visionaries, big thinkers. We can't think in the terms this guy thinks in. It's an area of expertise we just don't have.” The operations analyst, for example, reduced the two days it once took to unload a truck full of windows and store the inventory in the warehouse to a half day's work, thereby saving 15 man-hours per week. “Multiply 15 hours times 50 weeks, and that's a lot of savings,” Ortengren notes.

BLACK SHEEP, PURPLE COW The company hasn't really even been a Renewal by Andersen affiliate that long. Seven years, to be exact. When Orf and Shepherd joined forces in the early '90s, they took a look at the home improvement scene and decided that the important thing was to be different. Not exactly an original idea, but one that few home improvement company owners ever succeed in achieving. In this case, it was another business book — the popular Purple Cow, by Seth Godin — that pointed the way. They would be the “purple cow” of Colorado Springs home improvement. That is, they'd create a company that stood out by being remarkable, then market that difference.

It's easy for a window replacement company to become invisible in the eyes of local homeowners, especially when, as Shepherd notes, seven companies might be carrying the same manufacturer's window at the same home show. Initially, at least, the way Orf and Shepherd intended to stand out was by offering alternative products, or by offering products on an exclusive basis.

Shortly after launching their company in 1997, they took on fiber-cement siding, still an unknown quantity in Colorado Springs. Next, they added a vinyl window line, then Thermoline, a composite/plastic window. Their major lead source at the time was a sell-furnish-install program run out of Sam's Club stores. The company was doing “three or four million a year,” Shepherd says, when they encountered Renewal by Andersen at a Denver home show and immediately decided that Andersen's composite window was the ultimate alternative product and that they had to have it. “I thought: RBA, Fibrex, Andersen brand,” Shepherd says. “Long story short, we chased Andersen.”