Volume 8, Issue 11 - December 2007

Plant Tour 
Balancing Act

R.O.W. Combines a Tradition of Wood Windows 
with a Changing Market

by Alan B. Goldberg

The R.O.W. Window Co. in Joliet, Ill., is proud of its long-standing tradition of making wood windows—they use it as their slogan. But what is most significant is how the company has balanced tradition with the reality that the market is moving in another direction. 

Humble Beginnings
The business was founded by Al Beirnes in 1948. About the only thing that has not changed in nearly 60 years is its location, although the facility has been expanded many times, increasing its size four-fold from less than 50,000 square feet to approximately 200,000 square feet. In the early 1960s, there was a change in ownership as Jim Beirnes, the owner’s son, took over the business, and it continued to grow.

The name R.O.W. has its own history. A hardware company in Royal Oaks, Mich., R.O.W. developed its own window hardware and also provided details for companies that were interested in making what was considered the first removable, single-pane wood window. According to current owners Glen Brooks and Bill Gebhardt, R.O.W. windows could be found in many states east of the Mississippi. Since there were no exact specifications for making the windows, every manufacturer made them a little differently. 

“We were the last company to remain a R.O.W. window manufacturer and therefore, we retained the R.O.W. name,” says Gebhardt. In the late 1960s, the company opened a facility in Sturtevant, Wis., to make insulating glass. It was not by coincidence that the plant was located near the port of Racine/Kenosha.

“At the time, we were importing glass from Germany. There were some quality issues in the States with float glass and the feeling was that we could get better glass from outside the country,” adds Gebhardt.

By the mid-1970s, the original R.O.W. windows began to phase out. R.O.W. hardware became extinct and the Joliet company started to make windows of its own design. It would be nearly 20 years before the last of the authentic, single-pane, divided lite windows was made. Today, a few of the original R.O.W. manufacturing plants still exist but under different names such as Sun Windows in Owensboro, Ky., and MW Windows and Doors in Rocky Mountain, Va.

Market Changes
The shift in the market was not only from single-pane to insulating glass, but from wood to vinyl. The response to a low-maintenance material was dramatic and the demand was overwhelming. R.O.W. faced the dilemma of maintaining tradition versus responding to a market that was going in another direction. Brooks says the message they were getting from customers was loud and clear.

“It became very obvious that we had to make this change. Our customers were telling us it was time. In 1994, we entered the vinyl business, a decision which shaped the evolution of our business,” he says.

In spite of what appeared to be a bleak future for wood, the company continued to support its traditional products while actively promoting its new vinyl windows. Wood windows still account for approximately 40 percent of the business. If 1994 was a turning point with the introduction of vinyl, 1995 represented another milestone with the first change in ownership in three decades. 

“In July, 1995, Glen Brooks (who joined R.O.W. in 1974 as a salesman) and I purchased the business. Even though our backgrounds are in sales, I had some familiarity with window manufacturing so I assumed responsibility for production and Glen took over marketing and sales,” explains Gebhardt.

The first major change by the new owners was closing the plant in Sturtevant as a cost-savings measure. “We were not only making insulated glass in Wisconsin, our vinyl line was running there as well,” adds Gebhardt. In order to accommodate that operation in Joliet, a 25,000-square-foot expansion was added. 

A Change in Doing Business
Instead of selling its products through dealers, Brooks and Gebhardt decided to sell directly to the public and to contractors. They described their reason in one word: survival.

“In the Chicago market, the big guys (lumber yards) were getting bigger and bigger. A few lumber yards were doing all the business,” says Brooks.

He points out that as a regional manufacturer, the company always had close contact with contractors. “Every time we sold to a dealer, we would work with the contractor,” adds Gebhardt, who emphasized the importance of this decision. “This [change in policy] was more important to our survival than our decision to make vinyl windows.”

In 2004, ten years after the introduction of vinyl windows, the company introduced its new, fully extruded, aluminum-clad wood casement and awning window line. “Our old casement windows were made with roll-formed aluminum sash and extruded aluminum frames. The new units are totally extruded aluminum on the exterior,” says Gebhardt, who sees a future with aluminum-clad.

A new clad, double-hung wood window will be introduced in late spring 2008. 

Mode of Manufacturing 
Although all manufacturing is under one roof, there are two distinct areas—wood and vinyl—with loading docks at either end of the plant to accommodate each product line.

What is characteristic of the wood manufacturing side is the extensive inventory that is required. Gebhardt points out that what is now a large warehouse was once stocked with 1.5 million square feet of raw lumber, which arrived by rail car. After initial processing and sorting, the wood was moved to the milling area, where it was machined and cut to specifications. 

“We had gang rip-saws, cut-off saws, finger-joiners and moulders and it was quite an operation when I joined the company in 1972 as a salesman,” says Gebhardt. “We created our own cut stock and wood parts. With 23 people in the milling area, we did it all.”

Today, what remains in the millroom are two moulder complexes run by two people. Most of the wood is now received from the West Coast as cut stock in various sizes or finished window parts. If there is one machine that exemplifies a change in manufacturing, it is the frame assembly unit for making the new casement and awning windows. Manufactured by Carlson Engineering, it was custom-made for this operation. 

In an automated, multi-step operation, the four sides of the wood frame are fastened together simultaneously and then the four extruded aluminum frames are assembled in a similar manner. In the next stage, Truth’s Encore hardware is added and weatherstripping is applied. Mulled casement units (two or more casement windows) are made nearby. All mulled units are made with a drip-cap nailing fin that covers the entire top of the window so water cannot enter. While the frames are being assembled, the sashes are being made in another area. A Carlson machine is also used for assembly of the sash. Following the weatherstripping, the glass is glazed into the unit.

Gebhardt explains that for all units, it is easier and safer to make the frames without the sash and add it at the end of the process.

Various Window Styles
In addition to casements, the company also makes double-hungs, bays and bow windows although the preference has shifted to casements.

“We’re making more casements than double-hungs which is the reverse of what we were doing years ago. That’s because casement is being used in more higher-end homes,” says Gebhardt.

Although bow and bay windows are a smaller part of the business, they require the work of a craftsman, like Juan Guzman, the lead assembler.

“I joined the company in 1982 and I never thought I would be making bow and bay windows, which are more involved than the other windows. I have assembled just about all of them. The windows we are making today are very different from the ones we had 20 years ago,” says Guzman.

In the glass area, both clear and low-E glass, supplied by Cardinal Glass, is cut to size using an XY-optimizer. Gebhardt points out that only 35 percent of the windows are made with low-E glass. That percentage is growing quickly, though. Glass is cleaned with a long-time performer, a Billco washer, and a di-ionized water system helps maintain a level of good water. 

To prevent any possibility of delamination, all low-E glass is edge-deleted. “Some glass suppliers have said this step is unnecessary, but I am not taking any chances. For me, it is not worth the gamble,” says Gebhardt.

Technology Transformations
With the emergence of new technologies, such as warm-edge spacers, there have been material changes in the insulating glass operation. Convinced of its benefits, the company switched from Tremco’s Swiggle to TruSeal’s Duraseal system. “We used Swiggle from 1995 to 2003 and we were very happy with it,” says Gebhardt. 

“Our failure rate was nil. But we were attracted to warm-edge technology and we liked what we saw with Duraseal.”

Within the past year, Duraseal has been replaced with TruSeal’s new Duralite system, which uses corrugated polymer material instead of stainless steel. All low-E units are argon gas-filled. Vinyl windows are made in another part of the plant. The company buys lineals and cuts them to specifications. Two-point welders made by Urban Machinery are used in conjunction with a four-point welder by Carlson Engineering. “We’ve been very happy with the four-point welder. It makes a better weld and a better window,” adds Gebhardt.

After the frames and sash are welded, corner cleaning is next, a step that is about to become more efficient with the installation of a new Greller corner cleaner.

“To accommodate our builders who at one time were using wood windows, we offer an installed extension jamb so they can trim out the window with a casing, in a traditional fashion,” he says. 

Most of the vinyl windows are single-hung although the company does offer double-hung, gliders, casement, awning and picture windows. Steel doors, interior doors, mouldings and Fypon, a decorative, molded millwork product, also are offered and outsourced.

“We outsource so we can provide a full package of doors and windows to our customers and promote ourselves as a one-stop shop,” says Gebhardt.

Service Matters Most
A number of factors have contributed to the company’s success. In addition to its quality products, Gebhardt refers to a skilled and loyal team and the way the company does business as the most significant.

“Because we sell direct, we are a manufacturer and distributor,” he says. “I believe one of the reasons we are successful is because we do both well. We give exceptional service to our customers. To be blunt, my service is the best.”

Serving its primary market, the Chicago area, the company uses its own fleet of trucks for all deliveries. Gebhardt says there are some customers in Milwaukee and Madison, Wis. but as far as future growth, he looks to southern Michigan and northern Indiana as the next step. 

Moving aggressively toward certification, the company expects to be NFRC- and Energy Star®-certified before the end of the year. A test room onsite makes it possible to do water and air tests as one indication of long-term performance. 

Times are Changing
As the market has changed and the company has grown, the challenges of the past are not necessarily what the company is facing today.

“The transition of the market from wood to vinyl and our decision to sell direct were considered monumental challenges for us at the time,” says Gebhardt.

In one word, he sums up one of the biggest challenges the company faces today: competition.

“We’re competing with large brand names. That can be tough,” he says.

Another challenge is technology. Not too long ago, the company recognized what it needed to do. “We had been using home-grown systems for our plant and we realized that we needed to make dramatic changes,” he says.

The company has been working with Friedman in developing a fully integrated, configuration-based system. Friedman was selected for two reasons: its expertise in door and window manufacturing and its location. “We’re very excited about this new system. We’ve been working with them for two years and we are very close to full implementation,” Gebhardt adds.

The economy is yet another challenge for R.O.W. Gebhardt points out that “new construction is our market and we, like the industry, are looking for a turn-around. Our level of business reflects the soft housing market in the Chicago area.”

In spite of these challenges, R.O.W. has a track record that spans nearly six decades as it continues to balance the tradition of wood windows with a changing market effectively. 

Alan B. Goldberg is a contributing writer for DWM magazine. He has 31 years of experience in the door and window industry. 


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