From Rags to Riches
BF Rich’s Innovative Philosophy Spells Success
by Alan Goldberg
At first blush, the sound of vinyl being sawed, drilled and welded at 322 Ruther Drive in Newark, Del., could give the impression that this is a typical window-making operation. But BF Rich does things that are not so ordinary or typical. What has transformed it into a significant and successful company, serving the new construction and retrofit markets in the highly competitive Northeast corridor, is more about the intangibles not easily seen at its facility.
The company was started in 1957 in Richardson Park, Del., by Benjamin Spiller, Frank Chaiken and Richard Guyer from whom the name BF Rich was derived. Armed with their combined expertise in marketing, manufacturing and administration and five employees, the new entrepreneurs began operations in 5,000 square feet of leased space. They were challenged financially in their initial year with high start-up costs and the need to extend credit to new customers. Formed at a time when the industry was plagued with deceit, shoddy workmanship and broken promises, the young company had to show it was different.
Promoting a new and refreshing philosophy to the market, the owners established a guarantee of quality and integrity. Promises were kept. Deadlines were met. Specifications were maintained. Quality was backed by this unconditional guarantee. The owners persevered. After 12 difficult months, BF Rich started to operate in the black where the company has remained ever since.
But success can bring its own challenges. Within two years, volume tripled and more space was needed. A move to a larger facility proved to be short-lived as growth continued at a rapid rate. In less than two years, the company found itself in the same predicament, operating inefficiently with satellite facilities. A much-needed expansion took place in 1963 with the purchase of five acres in Stanton, Del., and the construction of a new home. The 25,000-square-foot office and manufacturing facility was expanded four times, adding 38,500 square feet to the plant for a total of 63,500 square feet.
In 1981, several changes in ownership marked a turning point. The Rich Vinyl™ window, a mechanically fastened sash and frame with insulating glass, was introduced. As the vinyl window business grew, so did sales for the new product. In 1985, the company expanded this line to include welded vinyl products, by offering casement, picture, bow and bay windows—considered the latest in welded vinyl technology.
The following year, the company expanded its marketing region to Virginia and North Carolina. As a means of attracting discriminating buyers in search of premium features at affordable prices, the Cabernet ™ series was introduced in 1989. One year later the company was sold to The Chariot Group, which had manufacturing facilities in Tennessee and Florida, so the company’s market expanded to include those states.
In 1992, many new products were introduced including the Series 2000 ™ vinyl patio door, premium line Cabernet windows in wood grain finish, the Vintage™ line of welded windows and its industry-unique garden window.
In 1998, BF Rich built a 120,000-square-foot manufacturing facility, which remains in its present location (with plans to add another 40,000 square feet in the near future). With the new facility came additional product lines developed for the new construction industry including the Town & Country series and the Series 1000 patio door. Since then, there have been several new developments: a Marketing Solutions Program to assist dealers with their marketing needs; an architectural and commercial products division to focus on the needs of residential builders and commercial developers; a family of specialty windows to meet the growing demand for curved and architecturally shaped units; and the addition of Pilkington’s Activ™self-cleaning glass.
Flexibility Makes the Difference
Tony Parkinson, vice president of manufacturing, said there are things about its Delaware plant that make it distinct, even though it may not be apparent to visitors.
“We designed it to give us maximum flexibility so we can make changes at any time to suit our customers’ needs,” he said.
Parkinson said that capability is critical to the way BF Rich does business. For example, the company’s entire electrical system is flexible and allows Parkinson to make electrical changes quickly, should he have to modify a particular line.
Improving Quality Through Equipment
Replacing equipment is a never-ending process.
“We have a budget and we have to evaluate each piece of machinery in terms of how much a replacement will improve the quality of the product [which is always the highest priority] reduce man hours or make us more competitive,” said Parkinson, who leads the committee for purchasing equipment. “We must function as a team and get everyone’s input. Even though I am the head of this committee, I have only one vote. That is the way we operate.”
The architectural shapes bending system, located in the high skilled specialty area, is one of many examples where new technology has affected the operation.
“Before we brought this technology in-house, we had to outsource architectural and special shapes like other manufacturers,” Parkinson said. “With this vertical integration, we can now make virtually any shape in-house and provide better service and lead times to our customers. This has become the fastest growing area in the plant. In one year, the combined specialty area has grown 400 percent.”
Another part of the specialty area, referred to as Simulated True Divided (STD) lites, is where internal and external grille systems are fabricated.
“We design what the customer wants and presently we offer a wide array of grille options,” Parkinson said.
“This is our new niche and it has been competing with high-end wood products,” added Terry Rex, director of marketing.
On the new construction line, the totally programmable, four-point welder is another example of state-of-the-art equipment.
“The driving factor in purchasing the four-point welder was quality and volume,” Parkinson said. “With four heads, it makes a perfectly square sash bead and there is no chance that anything will be out of line.”
Like the four-point welder, the fully automated master-frame saw is connected to the mainframe computer.
Computerization is Key
Eighty-five percent of the company’s units are computerized and 75 percent are connected to the mainframe computer so the company is able to optimize almost every operation, according to Parkinson. The sawing/mitering is optimized because all the specs for every type of window are on the screen. The computer establishes the angle of the cut, 45 or 90 degrees, and the right saw blades. The company can produce more than 300 windows during an eight-hour shift.
He added that for BF Rich, service is the biggest issue.
“When a unit is down and I need a part, I want our supplier to respond the way I do to our customers,” he said. “While we certainly consider the cost of a unit when making a purchase, it is not the driving force.”
The XY glazing table, built and designed for BF Rich by George Daley of Philadelphia, is a two-sash, easy-maintenance unit.
“Two years ago, we were using pneumatic caulking guns. With this change, we’ve eliminated 16 man-hours a day,” Parkinson said. “The payback was about one hour.”
Another piece of equipment, the Sampson multi-processing corner cleaner, performs multiple steps. It cleans finger latches and the inside and outside of corners. According to Parkinson, it could replace some of the single-step units on the other lines in time.
“We are replacing mechanical screen saw stops with a computer-generated unit mainly because it is more precise and gives us another opportunity to improve quality. We’ve even replaced the rubber tires on our trolleys with pneumatic tires because there is no bouncing and that lessens the chance of possible breakage.”
In another part of the plant, glass is cut, washed and sealed, using the latest technology.
The CNC glass optimizer (cutter) has increased yield and minimized scrap. The machine cuts 4,500 pieces of glass in eight to ten hours. The glass is washed at 140 degrees Fahrenheit with purified water to remove all impurities. Since the company uses no chemicals, Parkinson says there is no residue on the surface.
According to Dan Dingman, assistant plant manager, the units are heat-sealed using either Swiggle™ or DuraSeal™ and are filled with argon or krypton gas. All of the units are tested for structural integrity by an independent firm and are certified by the National Fenestration Rating Council and Energy Star™.
BF Rich is always looking to purchase new equipment. The company has two new pieces of equipment on order currently.
“Quick-Dose GF, developed by Besten Inc. and TruSeal Technologies, will fill our insulating glass units with liquid argon to offer maximum gas fills and better thermal and sound insulation properties while lowering the dosage time to fill a unit from two minutes to five and a half seconds,” said Dingman.
The other product, Perfect Glaze, is a wet glazing automated system that Dingman said will allow the company to make more units with less labor.
“It will permit us to package our windows within minutes of completion and ship them within an hour and will allow us to meet short-lead-time orders,” he said.
Emphasis on Quality Control
Posted at every workstation, but hardly noticeable to visitors, are quality-control checklists for each operator.
“One of the first things a new operator learns is the meaning and significance of this checklist,” Dingman said. “If at any time, something is not right and does not conform to the standards described, it is up to the operator to notify a floor supervisor.”
In the final assembly, every window is put into a frame assembly table, or buck, simulating an actual application. One last check is made to be sure the locks work, the window opens properly, the hardware is in place, the unit is clean and all standards are met.
“We place a small label that identifies the operator inside the header of every unit. Chances are, no one will ever notice it,” he said. “But, if at any time in the life of the unit there is a problem, we can track the unit to the operator. By the same token, if we receive compliments about our windows, we can recognize the individual for workmanship. This simple system gives operators a sense of responsibility.”
Just as the labels are an integral part of quality control, Dingman said the cardboard displays in every department are the key to self-motivation. With numbers that show daily goals and units completed, operators check the boards constantly to see progress and measure themselves against other departments.
“It creates a friendly competitive spirit that is good for everyone,” Parkinson said.
While the company places great emphasis on the workmanship of its units, Parkinson said preparing the units for shipping requires no less care.
“Not too long ago, packaging required six to seven people. Today, our Mima customized stretch-wrapping machine, with three operators, packages each unit automatically and we save 16 man-hours a day,” he added.
The window manufacturer offers many styles and accessories. These include: casement, double-hung, picture, slider, hopper and garden windows; specialty windows in a wide range of shapes; aluminum storm windows; patio doors; and vinyl grids as standard, contour, V-groove, Simulated Divided Lites and STD. Every window has a ‘Euro,’ an extra groove, so it can accept a J channel. This extra groove makes it a multi-purpose window.
According to Parkinson, the company also developed its own garden window because it felt there were no quality units in existence. Its creation includes a unique drainage system so water is kept away from the glass, as well as operating trapezoids and self-locking rotary hardware.
BF Rich was also ahead of the curve as it was one of the first companies to offer self-cleaning glass in its windows.
“We saw it at a show, learned more about it and decided that this was an exciting technology with benefits that would be very appealing to consumers,” said Rex. “We like to be the pioneer with the new technology.”
BF Rich’s latest and most innovative programs to support customers is called Power Bids. Clay Chianese, director of information services, said it will simplify quoting and ordering and reduce paperwork substantially. With the PC-based program, customers will be able to add their margins to every product, provide instant estimates and with CAD drawings done to scale, know exactly what is being ordered. Chianese said he hopes to have the first Power Bids system online by the end of the year.
Investing in People
What makes BF Rich unique has to do with its philosophy on quality, innovation and service. But company president George Simmons will tell you the common denominator is people.
“We have more than 240 talented and dedicated people, many of whom have worked here for a long time,” he said. “Our customer service people have been instrumental in establishing close and informal working relationships with our dealers.”
Simmons attributes much of the company’s growth to the accomplishments of his management team. (BF Rich announced at the end of July that the company will have new owners consisting of the management team and Michael D. Sifen, a real estate developer from Virginia Beach, Va. They are purchasing the company from the Chariot Group). He adds that this is a testament to a company that puts as much faith in its people as in the products it manufactures.
Alan Goldberg is a contributing writer for DWM. He has more than 30 years of experience in the insulating glass market.
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