Volume 8, Issue 5 - May 2007

Plant Tour 
Unique Processes and Product Choices Make One Skylight Manufacturer a Success 
by Alan B. Goldberg

Start with a small skylight business, mix in a forward-thinking owner, an investment banker and a key supplier. And, don’t forget to throw in a strong reliance on German equipment and machinery. The result is a homegrown company that has turned into a widespread success. 

This mix all started when one entrepreneur recognized the potential of skylights and established a business in 1973, using a rented garage in Patchogue, N.Y. Harry Jensen and his family did more than manufacture skylights in their modest facility. They recognized the value of providing unparalleled service for a high quality product. The result was success at an early stage. In 1982, the company moved to a 6,000 square-foot building in Yaphank, where it still operates today but with 55,000 square feet. 

With an eye toward expansion, Jensen hired Bill Stauffer, a former chief operating officer/chief executive officer with a strong background in investment banking, as CEO in 2003. Stauffer’s immediate challenge was to find a way to grow the business beyond Long Island. 

“With my broad financial and operating experience, I see the company from a different perspective and some things became very apparent,” says Stauffer. One of the company’s key suppliers, Roto Frank of America, had the ability to help him meet his goal.

A Successful Acquisition
“The more I talked with Roto Frank [about Insula-Dome’s plans for growth and Roto Franks’ long-term plans], the more willing they were to sell this business,” says Stauffer. “They would focus on hardware [their core business] and we would take over their skylight business.”

In May 2005, Insula-Dome announced the acquisition of Roto-Frank’s roof window and flashing manufacturing division in Chester, Conn.

A number of significant events followed that not only helped the transition but the growth of the business.

In 2006, Peter Kroes was hired as director of marketing and sales. 

“I started Roto Frank of America in 1981,” says Kroes who was president and chief executive officer until his retirement from Roto Frank in 2002. “I knew Bill [Stauffer] and hooked up with him in 2006 to talk about opportunities at Insula-Dome.”

Another change was the establishment of an office near the Roto plant. Locale was critical for the sake of transition as well as to ensure optimal customer service access to the Northeast corridor says Kroes. 

“We decided to do the transition in two phases,” says Stauffer. “The first was to move manufacturing to Yaphank where we have been making skylights. The second was to set up marketing, sales and engineering offices in the Chester area.” 

A small facility in nearby Essex, Conn., proved to be a practical, although temporary, solution. Research and development and a call center were also set up at this location, giving all New England-based customers access to an extensive product inventory, product specialists and a local pick-up and delivery service. But the flashing business was still at the Roto plant and there was not enough room in Essex to include it.

So, in the spring of 2006, the company acquired a 38,000 square-foot building, once used for manufacturing, in Chester.

“This enabled us to combine the flashing operation with everything we had at Essex,” says Stauffer.

Even though it required extensive renovation, the building was ready for move-in three months later, he says. He points out that the renovation was done by the company’s own people (former Roto employees), under the direction of Skip Branciforte, the company’s veteran plant manager of 25 years and Dana Fargnoli, director of engineering and development and former quality control manager at Roto.

“All of our people are experienced and cross-trained so we can easily move them around if we have to,” says Brancifort.

Reflecting on the success of the acquisition, Stauffer says he is very pleased with the transition that he describes as seamless. 

“We have been able to utilize everyone and [with the benefit of automated machinery] double production, cutting cost in half by eliminating unnecessary steps,” says Stauffer. 

He explains that while the cultures of the two organizations are very different, there was the feeling that “we could learn from one another and that is the way it has been.”

Flashings: An Integral Component
The process of making flashings, which diverts water away from the skylight, begins with large coils of aluminum or copper. Where aesthetics is a factor, copper is the material of choice.

One of the things that set Insula-Dome apart, according to Stauffer, is its use of copper flashings.“They really refined the use of copper and in time, it became their signature,” he says.

“We continue to see regional preferences to different materials in spite of copper’s aesthetic value.” The metal is cut, bent and formed to make the various components. The actual shape and size are determined by the type of flashing or related piece that is being specified. For example, there is a shroud, a decorative piece of aluminum that covers part of the unit. Step flashing is weaved in between the shingles and can be aluminum or copper. 

U channels or mullions channels are used for skylights that are side by side. And the head (upper part of the skylight) and sills (lower part) are the critical components of the flashing package.

Regardless of the product, automated programmable presses with different dyes are used to meet precise specifications. In the initial step, which is 90 percent of the applications, flat cuts or a flat piece of metal is cut from the coil. 

“These presses are made by Heller Sutherland and are good quality machines for heavy-duty fabrication,” says Branciforte. 

After all the cuts are made, the bends must be produced which is done on automated roll-forming units made by Braun Company in Germany. Every change in the metal, whether it is a bend or creating a flange, must be done with a high degree of precision. If anything is off by a millimeter, the fit will not be perfect and neither will the seal, which will cause the roof to leak.

Tom Saunders, manager of maintenance, explains that tooling is made for precision and close tolerance. 

The steps for fabricating the head and sill are similar to the other flashings. Both are designed to divert water away from the unit. An additional piece, a water deflector, is put on the head as added protection. 

Kroes explains that there was a time when the head and sills were built by carpenters and the units leaked eventually. 

Even with the sophisticated machinery, not everything can be done automatically. Some products must be made by hand. One example is incline curb flashing which is needed when the pitch of the skylight unit must be raised to achieve a certain angle. 

“This is pretty labor intensive,” says Stauffer, “yet it only accounts for five percent of our business.”

“All of our machinery comes from Germany,” he adds. “We’ve worked very closely with the Germans. In this operation, specifications are critical. There is virtually no tolerance for error and we rely on their expertise.” 

He explains that Europeans have been involved with skylights much longer than the United States.

“Roof windows are serious business in Europe because the units replace vertical windows in sloped roof applications and provide egress,” says Stauffer. 

He points out that most of the European roofs are tile, unlike the United States where asphalt represents 90 percent of the market. 

Skylights are sold as a total package with flashing components or, for standard asphalt shingle roofs, with flashing kits as a separate package. According to Kroes, most contractors buy the skylights with the flashing kits.

“We do not install,” he says. 

He explains that contractors must follow instructions for proper installation. Every skylight unit does come with an instruction booklet and for larger companies, there is a training program. 

Working closely with the Yaphank plant, the Chester facility not only produces the flashing components but warehouses and ships the finished product. 

Assembly and Quality Control
Assembly of the skylights is done at Yaphank, and one of the innovations that characterizes this operation is the PVC welding equipment made by Stürtz.

“Four pieces of PVC extrusion reinforced by steel are welded and cleaned at the same process. This is unique to the industry,” says Stauffer, “and it adds both stability and a maintenance-free feature to the skylight.”

While other companies offer a PVC sash, no one offers it as one piece. 

He points out that the reason for using Stürtz is that it is not only well-established but provides a very good support system.

“Our relationship with Stürtz began in Germany and we have been working closely with the group in Ohio,” he adds. 

Another long-time supplier is Cardinal that supplies the glass for all the skylights.

Kroes points out that one of the highlights in the company’s history was the change from acrylic to glass.

“There were a number of reasons to replace acrylic (which at one time was very popular) with low-E tempered glass. The most obvious was cost. Another was quality. And so we found ourselves gradually phasing out [but not eliminating] acrylic,” says Kroes.

He says there is still a market for acrylic so it remains available.

The quality control program at Insula-Dome may be new to the company but it is not a novel concept. 

“We spent a lot of time on quality control at Roto and we brought that program here,” says Fargnoli. 

He says the program is patterned after ISO. The fact that some of the products are Hallmark-certified means that there must be some type of in-house program in place.

“We get inspected two times a year for Hallmark and that includes product compliance as well as record-keeping,” says Fargnoli who points out that the company’s products also carry the Energy Star label.

One-Stop Shop
Flexibility for the sake of efficiency and to accommodate customer needs is a key factor says Kroes.

“We are the only skylight manufacturer to offer one-stop shopping. We supply custom replacement sashes and countless other types of replacement parts.”

Kroes says the company is getting more requests for replacement parts because of deterioration from old units in the field. He says there is a very bright future for the replacement market. 

“It’s not just the capability we have, but solutions we can offer when there are problems relating to unusual applications. This expertise is what makes us unique.”

Choices and More Choices
For Insula-Dome, choice is as important as the quality that goes into the unit, the service behind it and the installation that assures a leak-free application. Choice ranges from materials to models, from venting and fixed skylights for pitched or flat roofs to roof hatches and roof access skylights. Custom skylights can be parallelograms, triangles and trapezoids or rounds in seven standards sizes. Custom sizes are available if none of the 50 standard sizes is workable. There is even a Succah skyhatch model designed for the Jewish holiday of Succot that opens to a full 10 feet by 15 feet. Material choices can be energy-efficient, low-E argon-filled glazing in certain models or tempered safety glass, tempered over laminated safety glass, clear double-dome acrylic, bronze laminated glass or bronze acrylic. Knot-free, clear furniture-grade pine frames can be stained to any natural wood finish or painted to match an interior color. Shades can be manual or motorized. And flashings from the Chester facility can be step, tile roof, metal roof, head-sill combination, U channels, additional water deflectors and built-up flashing.

Today, the company services the Northeast corridor, from Eastern Pennsylvania to Eastern Canada including all of New England and New Jersey. Customers include window manufacturers, lumberyards, roofing supply houses and roofing contractors.

Through independent reps, the company is selling in the Midwest—Michigan and Ohio— and the Southeast—Virginia, the Carolinas and Tennessee.

The next step, according to Kroes, is the South, the last phase being Florida.

“Eventually we want to become a national organization, as was Roto,” he says.

He points out that one of the company’s challenges is the Miami-Dade protocols for hurricane resistance. 

On a broader scale, brand recognition is another challenge, adds Stauffer.

Referring to one of his competitors, he says, “We’re competing against an 800-pound gorilla.”

Insula-Dome considers its skylights to be the best built in the business. To founder Harry Jensen, they are grand openings where the sky is the limit. 

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


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