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October  2004

 

"Why are You Doing This?"
Creative Entrepreneur Prevents Closure of a 
Manufacturing Plant and Revitalizes Thermal-Gard
by Alan B. Goldberg

In the quiet town of Punxsutawney, Pa., where the groundhog has not only gained prominence but one day of recognition on the calendar, there are cheerful signs that Punxsutawney Phil is visible in some form every day of the year. Not that long ago, there were other less cheerful signs throughout town when a major employer decided to close a large window and door manufacturing operation that employed 140 people. What followed was more like fiction than fact when a local builder purchased the operation and restarted it with the key people who made the product for more than 30 years.

“‘Why are you doing this?,’ my friends asked. ‘You are a successful builder and developer. Don’t you have enough to do? And what do you know about manufacturing windows and doors?’”

But having a vision was not new to Mike DeFelice, excavator, contractor and a builder of more than 100 homes in Punxsutawney. In this case, he saw an opportunity to offer consumers high-quality products that were also affordable. At the same time, he could become a component supplier to his own business, and he could keep open the doors to a plant he knew too well. 

“I spent a lot of time in these buildings as a contractor, building offices and various additions. I am very familiar with windows and doors because I buy them all the time for my homes. I felt I could make this work with the right people in place,” he said. 

In March 2004, DeFelice purchased the assets of Thermal-Gard Inc. and hired 25 senior production people who ran the plant, with ambitious plans to streamline production, make improvements and manufacture windows and doors that he believed would be more in line with the needs of working class consumers. 

History
In 1972, the company, then named Season-All, began as a window and door operation in what was once a factory for making men’s apparel. In that initial year, the company introduced the country’s first vinyl-clad, aluminum, thermal-break replacement window, earning it a reputation as an innovator in replacement units. The slogan, “America’s #1 Insulated Replacement Window,” was born and is still promoted actively. Ten years later, Thermal-Gard was available as double hung, slider, casement, bow, bay and picture window. The products were well-received and demand remained high. 

The 1990s marked a decade of new product introductions. The Conserver™ patio doors, with beveled returns; elegant brass hardware; a six-point, multi-point locking system; and many energy-saving features were introduced in 1993. A year later, the company started producing custom-built specialty shapes. Vinyl-clad, steel replacement doors that were much more energy efficient than a standard wood door and a storm door combination were introduced as the Defend-DoorTM in 1995. These were followed by a line of products in 1996 for patio rooms. The company started using warm-edge technology in its production a short time later and, according to its literature, offered the world’s only structural spacer. UV-GardTM, known as the line of brown windows, was launched in 1998 and included double-hung, slider and casement windows and patio doors. In early 1999, the company introduced welded corner casement windows. 

Approximately ten years after the Punxsutawney operation was opened, it was sold. During the next two decades, Thermal-Gard had numerous owners. 

When DeFelice decided to restart the business he was faced with many issues, all equally as critical.

Installation and Distribution
Installation issues were affecting the reputation of Thermal-Gard and required immediate attention. 
“I know the installation side of this business very well. Without proper installation, the best product cannot survive. I needed to have excellent installers,” said DeFelice.

Of the 80 dealers/installers that were part of the original company network, only ten were selected. According to DeFelice, these core dealers will establish and become responsible for their own network in a specific geographical area, most likely the entire state where they are located. The arrangement with each core dealer is similar to a franchise (each one referred to by its state, such as Thermal-Gard of Ohio) except that all manufacturing will be done in Punxsutawney.

Marketing

DeFelice described an ambitious schedule of new product introductions. In 2005, he plans to introduce a high-end (and affordable) series of windows for new construction, with a four-position, deadbolt locking system that is unique to the market. In the immediate future, the plant is gearing up to offer a similar series, but for the replacement market, later in the year. Also scheduled to be introduced this year is a step-down window line for new construction and replacement, where price is more of a factor than an auto-locking system. Both product lines will be marketed under the name Conserver be-cause of the history of name recognition.

DeFelice has his own style of marketing and likes to learn first-hand what consumers want.

“Our direction is to be different than the previous managements. I don’t really know if they focused on the consumer, but that is where I get my information. People in this town could not afford Thermal-Gard products. As a builder, I know what people want and what they are willing to pay for a quality unit. They also want better security, yet I don’t see better locking systems on the market.”

To meet the security needs of those who have purchased Thermal-Gard windows in the past, the company is offering an unusual service. It will rebuild units that were purchased after 1982 with the new self-locking system and provide a 25-year warranty. 

Manufacturing
When it was determined that a locking system would be a key selling feature of the high-end window, the idea was given to the machine shop to develop.

“We make many of our own machines and we’re very excited about being a part of these new challenges,” said Bernie Busija, inventor of the new locking system. 

“I enjoy taking a raw piece of material and making it into something that is useful in the plant,” added Sandy Hobba, 

A number of the processing machines used in the plant were made by Busija and Hobba, a duo that has working at Thermal-Gard for more than three decades.

Much of the existing equipment is being used—for now. Take for instance the glass washing machine and network of rollers used to move the clean glass easily to the appropriate station. 

“We designed this layout ourselves about eight years ago to make the flow as efficient as possible,” said Dave Conrad, glass room supervisor. 

He pointed out how much time was saved when their fully automated glass cutter was first installed. With five stations on two sides, it picks up the correct thickness of glass, carries it to the table and cuts in a random sequence to give the best yield. According to Conrad, it replaced a labor-intensive, hand-cutting operation, reducing labor cost drastically and cutting down on the amount of glass scrap.

“We now do in-line gas-filling which became possible when we switched to Edgetech’s Super-Spacer. Within our first year of making the change, sealant failures in the field were practically eliminated,” added Conrad.
He said that the change in sealant and use of hot-melt butyl as the secondary seal has made the operation much more efficient and cleaner.

Unlike many insulating glass units, Thermal-Gard windows are triple-glazed. 

“Because our units are high-end, we are 95-percent triple-glazed. When triple-glazing started in the 1970s, it was very popular. But that was short-lived. Its popularity has been up and down. We never dropped it,” said Conrad.

To make the new windows, a new saw line was needed. A partnership was formed with Chelsea Products which is installing the line. Rather than replace the old line, DeFelice explained that it will be fully utilized so a second line can be run simultaneously when two product lines are being produced. Other equipment will be replaced as the operation grows.

Wooden frames and trim for windows and doors are built in the wood shop.

“I will build anything,” De Felice added, “but it has to be done right.”

The door operation is located in another part of the plant and headed by Gary Sprankle.

Describing the doors, he said they are vinyl over 24-gauge steel. The vinyl is actually laminated onto the steel. The doors are available in five different door widths, from 28 to 36 inches in 2-inch increments, at a height of 76 to 84 inches. 

“The vinyl laminate is what makes our doors a little different, durable and easy to clean. They won’t mark,” said Sprankle.

Four types of glass are used including laminated glass for the protective series. With an in-house paint line, doors can be fabricated and assembled under one roof. 

Packaging for doors and windows is more than standard plastic and cardboard. Attractive cardboard frames identify Thermal-Gard and the product name clearly. 

Challenges
There is no shortage of challenges for restarting the Thermal-Gard operation, from manufacturing to marketing to distribution and installation. DeFelice sees these as opportunities and, as he has done in his business, relies on skilled craftsmen to successfully pursue them. It’s all about people, he says, whether building a house or making a window. If all goes well, De Felice hopes to expand the operation and add 25 more people. 

“I have been here the longest and I’ve seen all kinds of changes. But what is happening here now opens up all kinds of opportunities for us that were not available before,” said Tom Lovelace, supervisor of double-hung windows. “Our window units are really solid, more so than the competition, because of the thermal-break. Now that the cost will be less, we will be very competitive.” 

The news in Punxsutawney about the fate of the Thermal-Gard operation changed as dramatically when the sale was announced in March 2004 as the culture and direction set by the new owner. After all, how often does a local builder come along when a plant is about to close and create new life for an old name? 

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