In a marketplace crowded with windows that homeowners can't tell apart, some companies have found that manufacturing your own has real advantages — and disadvantages.
For instance, in the early '80s quality issues drove Gilkey Window Co. in Cincinnati to manufacture its own vinyl windows. President Mike Gilkey says he was “humiliated beyond humiliation” when the mechanically fastened product his company installed repeatedly leaked and didn't hold up well. He found a welded window technology that solved the problem.
CONTROL OVER OUR DESTINY The way general manager Sven Kramer looks at it, “we can control all aspects: quality level, turnaround time, and changes” because Cleveland-based Stanek Windows has its own manufacturing plant. Stanek Windows has been manufacturing vinyl windows since 1988.
Wolfgang Wirthgen, co-president of Win-Dor in Anaheim, Calif., cites customer service as a big benefit of manufacturing. If a mismeasure or broken glass means a window needs to be replaced during installation, “we can have it there within two to three hours,” Wirthgen says.
And that kind of response plays into the marketing advantage that Gilkey sees. “Homeowners like to buy straight from the factory,” he explains. “You say, ‘Buy factory-direct,' and homeowners respond.” Rick Wuest, president of Lanham, Md.-based Thompson Creek Window, has watched sales of his company's own manufactured product steadily grow. Among the reasons for that, Wuest cites the ability to micro-target the marketplace, which in his case consists of Maryland, Virginia, the District of Columbia, and a portion of Delaware.
DOWN SIDE However, retail companies that have moved into manufacturing also cite its downside. Machinery breaks and must be repaired, Kramer says, and factories require a lot of space. Gilkey, whose company operates a 55,000-square-foot plant, says the first year of production can be the most costly. And afterward, capital that normally might be invested in other assets instead must be diverted to machinery and upkeep. For window retailers, manufacturing can be like having the tiger by its tail.
Even after the factory is up and running, the product line and equipment may need to change as customers expect updated products. To decide what features to add, Wuest goes to trade shows, “so as not to be behind the curve,” he says. “But sometimes you pass on technologies that aren't proven sound.” Some, such as self-cleaning windows, may not work as well as salespeople claim. Price also matters, Wuest adds. “It's half science, half art deciding what to put into the product.” — Diane Kittower is a freelance writer in Rockville, Md.