Volume 8, Issue 8 - September 2007

Plant Tour 
Championing the Cause 
for Replacement Windows 

A Pioneer in the Window Replacement Industry

by Alan B. Goldberg

Al Levine and Art Stevens had no idea that they would be leading the way in the window replacement industry when they founded Champion Window Manufacturing in 1953. That’s when Levine and Stevens began to make aluminum home-improvement products. The custom-made storm windows, storm and screen doors, porch and window awnings and siding were produced in a factory, approximately 15,000 square feet, near downtown Cincinnati, according to company history. The business thrived as the name Champion Window Manufacturing became synonymous with quality. Nine years later, the company moved to a larger facility in Woodlawn, Ohio. Its products also expanded with the manufacture and installation of screen rooms. But it was in the next decade, when energy costs began to rise, that the company pioneered the window replacement industry through the development of custom-made, double-pane vinyl windows. Its market continued to be the greater Cincinnati area until 1988.

The passing of Stevens and the retirement of Levine, Ed Levine, Al Levine’s son, and Bernard Barbash, a long-time employee, marked a turning point. The duo developed strategies and expanded their market. The opening of a satellite operation in Lexington, Ky., was not only a “first,” but its success confirmed the merits of a business model developed by Levine and Barbash. In 1995, an 85,000-square-foot facility that would set the standard for vinyl window production was built in Cincinnati. To support future growth in western states, a 185,000-square-foot window manufacturing plant was built in Denver in 1997. Champion entered the millennium with its own milestone. In 2000, the company was listed as the largest home improvement company in the country, serving the window, siding and patio room industries with 47 factory showrooms located from coast to coast. It also relocated to a modern, 500,000-square-foot manufacturing campus in Cincinnati. The following year, the company earned the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval on its windows and patio rooms. Basement Living Systems was created in 2002 and Comfort 365 Glass® was launched in 2003. 

Here and Now
Today, Champion Window Manufacturing has 2,500 employees, with ten percent of its workforce located in Cincinnati. The showrooms number 60 and at least six home improvement centers are scheduled to open this year. Sales volume for 2006 was approximately $340 million. 

As part of their management succession plan, Champion recently partnered with a private equity group. Currently, Levine, formerly chief executive officer (CEO) and Barbash, former president and chief operating officer, are co-chairmen. Dennis Manes, who served as vice president and general council, is CEO and Don Jones, who was vice president and general manager, is president and chief operating officer.

“We Make What We Sell”
If there is one characteristic that sets Champion apart from its competition, it is the company’s vertical integration from manufacturing to installation and service after the sale.

“We believe very strongly in single-source accountability,” adds Jones.

Other manufacturers, he points out, sell through dealers and distributors. By supporting its 60 locations across the country, the company is in direct contact with the consumer.

“There is no disconnect between consumer and manufacturer,” says Jones. “From the feedback we get, we can maintain our pioneer status by offering additional options and features desired by the consumer.”

One of the best examples is in providing a variety of exterior window colors through the company’s ColorBond™ process. 

Making Doors and Windows to Order
Within a 500,000-square-foot campus, there are three manufacturing operations: replacement windows, entry doors and patios. What is common to all three is that every product is custom-made. Visitors will not see doors and windows for new construction, which are regarded as commodities.

“We do not build to an inventory. We build to an order. No door or window is scheduled until an order is placed,” says Ron Baroni, plant manager for the door operation.

He explains that one of the many challenges is to provide features that will be suitable for each market. From an engineering standpoint, it is no easy task. To build efficiencies into a custom operation, the company relies on current technologies from many equipment suppliers.

IG Fabrication
For insulating glass (IG) fabrication, Champion uses any one of its three Intercept lines. Most recently, the new i.3 model was added to the window operation with a new GED washer, oven and butterfly table. Al George, the plant manager for window production, points out that this equipment is ergonomically efficient, which is a manufacturing goal for replacements. In one of the final stages of IG manufacturing, gas filling is done with an FDR sensor control. George explains that there are now two systems and eight filling stations. Recently the company started using GasGlass, as a means of assuring gas insertion and retention in IG units (see the June issue of DWM, page 33).

Erdman Automation equipment is used for glazing systems with a two-part silicone sealant. Champion uses rapid-cure sealant, which allows for quick and efficient delivery of custom-made products to the customer. Standard silicone systems require 24 hours for curing. A GE, rapid-cure, two-part material takes 12 minutes. 

“Many companies outsource their IG fabrication,” says George. “We want to keep our manufacturing in-house for quality assurance.”

All frames and sash are foam-enhanced, using an injection system to provide additional insulation.

“We consider this procedure to be unique,” adds Jones. “We do it because our customers benefit from an insulated frame. It is labor intensive but there is value.” 

“We’re always looking to take advantage of advances in equipment and technology,” says Jones.

“Champion’s vinyl welding operations are moving away from large, automated transfer lines to a more cell-based approach that allows for greater labor flexibility and efficiency,” adds George.

One of the best examples is the new Famatek lift device supplied by Automated Machinery. With this pneumatic system, a patio door sash that weighs as much as 150 pounds can be moved easily while reducing an employee’s risk of injury. One of the most significant improvements took place in the door operation. Baroni explains that the Knoefller coating system, which makes use of an infrared oven that reaches 165 degrees Fahrenheit, is the foundation of the entire door line. 

“It’s a $400,000 investment that has made a tremendous difference. The coating cures in ten minutes—this used to take three days and we’re producing a top-quality finish that will not scratch or fade,” Baroni says.

Aside from investment in equipment, the company expects to add efficiency through its software system. Since Champion’s products are custom-made, timely delivery to the customer is a priority. Lead time is five days.

“Whatever we manufacture is generally being shipped within 48 hours,” George says. 

In keeping with its philosophy, the company ships on its own fleet of trucks. 

Operators Take Ownership
According to Baroni, the company follows the same guidelines that have been used successfully in Japanese auto plants; the emphasis is on people and teamwork. Each operator must take ownership and assume responsibility. 

“We have a supplier-customer relationship among ourselves. Each cell can accept or reject a product as part of total productive maintenance (TPM).”

Baroni says operators also do their own light maintenance as part of TPM. 

An example of the success of this program is one hour of down time for a conveyor within the past year. 

Operators do even more. They have been trained to be craftsmen as well. 

“We have turned our operators into craftsmen. They don’t just push buttons. As a result of our extensive training, we have increased productivity by 73 percent while reducing our cost of labor by nearly 16 percent,” says Baroni. 

Constant Challenges
There are many company-wide training programs, safety in particular, for all employees. For operators, training includes inspections, statistical process control in gas filling, lock-out/tag-out and lean manufacturing. The extent of these may vary from one location to the next based on the needs of a facility.

Recognizing the importance of ergonomics, the company has redesigned work areas so they are in the right position. According to Baroni, the operator who works in a cell-based environment is most productive.

As with most companies, Champion’s biggest challenge is attracting good people. Fewer and fewer people join the company with the skills that are needed. Jones points out that the company would like to be able to partner with local schools. 

One challenge, he says, is controlling the cost of glass (see page 34) which continues to increase. Globalization is not a great concern at this time, according to Jones.

“We will keep an eye on foreign imports but globalization is not considered a threat when every product we manufacture is custom-made,” says Jones.

Looking ahead, he sees a lot of opportunity in the renovation market and is very optimistic about future growth.

“Even when new home sales are up, there is a lot of renovation activity, particularly in older homes. And when new construction is down, homeowners have tendency to fix up their homes,” he says.

Championing the cause for replacement windows more than a half century ago proved to be a worthy cause as the company continues to follow a path of steady growth. 

Champion University
Established in 2001, Champion University offers a monthly, hands-on installation training program based on the AAMA Installation Masters Program. It is taught by employees who have become certified trainers. 

“This is a good opportunity for our reps to learn about proper installation,” says Jones.

AAMA certifications go beyond proper installation. In another part of the plant, an AAMA-certified test wall is used for air, water and forced entry testing.

“Any product that we take to market is fully tested. Our test wall is vital to be sure the product is meeting specifications,” says Jones.

Alan Goldberg is a contributing writer for DWM.


DWM

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