Volume 11, Issue 6 - July/August 2010

feature


Going Direct
Spells Success for Thompson Creek
by Tara Taffera

Most window companies talk about the hundreds of door and window configurations they offer. Most window companies have dealers or distributors to sell their products. Well, Thompson Creek Windows in Landover, Md., doesn’t operate like most window companies.

For one thing, it only offers one window and two glass options. And, it sells directly to the homeowner.

“We keep it very simple,” says company president Rick Wuest. But the growth for this regional window company has been anything but that.

Taking Over and Making Changes
Rick’s father, Fred Wuest, started Thompson Creek in 1980 to serve the Washington, D.C., Maryland and Northern Virginia areas. The company manufactured windows and “sold them to guys operating out of their pickup trucks,” says Wuest. For years, that was the company’s business model.

Rick and his younger brother (by nine years) Brian grew up working in the factory. For Brian, that even meant doing installations, and today he oversees that portion of the business. Rick went to Penn State and majored in economics, but says he always wanted to come back to the family business.

“The challenges were different than I would have anticipated,” he says. “This is the toughest college course I’ve taken,” he jokes.

Ultimately, Rick took over in 2000 and changed the company’s focus.

“We found this wasn’t a sustainable market as some of these companies couldn’t stand by their claims,” says Wuest. “We changed our focus to go right to the homeowner.”

He admits there were challenges involved with this move, including educating employees on in-home sales, but the move paid off.

“We’ve had fairly rapid growth, and we’ve had to absorb all the challenges that come with that,” says Wuest.

The company grew from $1 million in sales in 1980 to $40 million today. Wuest says this growth continued even through the economic downturn.

“We’re fortunate that we escaped all of that,” he says. “Consumer demand hasn’t waned.”

Today the company sells approximately 40,000 windows per year. “Some make close to that in a week,” Wuest admits. But their methods seem to be working, as that translates into approximately 800 to 850 windows per week.

As of May 2010, Thompson Creek was up $7.5 million in sales from last year. The average window sale is up by $500. Though windows account for 75 percent of the company’s business, it also manufactures gutter and gutter protection and just added roofs to its offerings. Thompson Creek also re-sells entry doors supplied by ProVia based in Sugarcreek, Ohio, and patio doors supplied by Window Shapes of New Jersey.

Going to Market
“We’ve done a good job at controlling costs and I believe that’s due to how we go to market,” says Wuest.

The company manufactures its windows and sells them directly to the homeowner and installs them as well. Wuest points out that Thompson Creek has a unique marketing differentiation that most companies can’t offer.

“We tell people ‘Come watch your windows being built,’” he says.

The company also sells to the multi-family market, but has a separate company set up for this business segment: St. Claire Windows.

“If it’s apartment or government work, then it goes through St. Claire,” says Wuest. He adds that St. Claire’s business has picked up in recent months as the commercial market has been on a slight uptick.

Also unique to both companies is the fact that it performs all of its installations—4,800 last year.

“We have our own procedures and we do a very good job at preparing for jobs,” says Brian Wuest.

This preparedness apparently makes a difference as the company has a very high success rate when it comes to consumer satisfaction and referrals—97 percent of customers say they will recommend Thompson Creek, according to surveys the company has conducted.

“This lowers our marketing costs and adds to the bottom line,” says Wuest.

The company takes a good deal of pride in its customer surveys, and, though it used to perform these itself, began outsourcing them to Guild Quality 2 years ago—upping its response rate from 34 to 80 percent.

“You know when someone complains when they are not happy; but how do you know if they are unhappy if they don’t call?” says Wuest. “Hearing customer feedback is how you make the most improvements.”

“When we’re not perfect, we jump right in and fix it,” he adds.

And it’s not just after a sale that consumers are satisfied. Wuest says the company’s warranty numbers are extremely low and “very rarely do we have a failure due to a product.”

“It’s touch-up,” adds Brian Wuest. “It’s not fixing what we build.”

Plant Basics
When it comes to building windows, workers do this in the company’s 40,000-square-foot plant, which the Wuests purchased in 2008. Previously the company worked out of three buildings each housing a separate division, but here they were able to put all operations under one roof.

But Wuest says “things are starting to get tight again” and a renovation is planned sometime in the next six months.

“We grew four times in this facility,” he adds.

The company has a total of 214 employees and continues to add to its ranks.
Stacy White, employed ten years at Thompson Creek, serves as general manager of manufacturing and she stresses that manufacturing operations are run separately from other business operations such as sales or installation though they all operate as Thompson Creek Windows.

The plant is set up pretty simply with one sash line, one frame line and one glass line that operate utilizing a continual flow.

White explains that the Fenevision software supplied by Fenetech is integral to its processes and keeps the plant running smoothly. First, the Fenevision software sends precisely what to cut to the saws. The frames and sashes then are ready to be welded. One of the machines used to accomplish this is Urban’s vertical four-point welder. The plant also has a horizontal four-point welder by ProLine. Two ProLine corner cleaners then clean the welded frame and sashes, then routes for the hardware, which is supplied mainly by Truth Hardware and Ashland Hardware.

Thompson Creek offers two glass packages, double or triple units. For double-glazed units argon is used and for triple-glazed argon is used in one cavity and krypton in the other. All the glass is supplied by Guardian Industries. The spacer, Duralite, is supplied by Truseal Technologies. White says the company uses the wet-glazing method, allowing “for easy glass replacement if needed on-site.”

The Fenetech system is crucial as the manufacturing software tells plant workers how many pieces of glass to cut with the least amount of waste. But the glass is all recycled, along with other scrap such as vinyl and aluminum.

Glass is processed using an automated cutting table from PTC for glass processing, and a Besten washer then cleans glass using a specific amount of detergent (for more on glass cleaning, see June 2010 DWM, page 6) and a Besten oven seals the insulating glass units.

In the final assembly, frames are joined with sashes and screens as employees make sure the windows operate properly. The windows then are taken to a warehouse next-door to the plant and trucks pick them up from that location.

While Wuest says, “We’re pretty vanilla when it comes to our window options,” Thompson Creek can offer different variations depending on consumer preference. The company installed a paint line from Royal two years ago to free up space on the plant floor of different profile colors. Employees paint about 50 windows per week offering 12 standard colors with the option to customize colors.

While “vanilla” may be boring to some, Wuest says the company’s set-up makes it easy to make changes when necessary.

“One of the things we like is that we can make adjustments on the fly,” says Wuest. “We can change to a different profile, for example, if we need to.”

"You know when someone complains that they are not happy, but how do you know if they are happy if they don’t call? Hearing customer feedback is how you make the most improvements. "
—Rick Wuest

A Proactive Stance
Thompson Creek takes a proactive stance to many matters, albeit lead or pending Home Star legislation. For example, when the EPA issued its lead renovation requirements for houses built prior to 1978, Wuest immediately had his installers trained so they would be ready.

“We had everyone trained,” says Wuest. “We did that very early on.”

And while the Home Star legislation would require Building Performance Institute training, Thompson Creek employees have already gone through this as well—and the legislation isn’t even final.

“Rather than waiting and scrambling to get in, we would rather be ready,” he says.

Wuest seems to be prepared for anything.

“When .30/.30 came out we were already making a window that met it, but this created a marketing opportunity for us,” says Wuest. “We knew there were people that would have to scramble so we got to market ahead of others.”

And because the company completes all functions in-house, all Wuest had to do was walk down to the marketing department who then had marketing materials available on the tax credit the next day.

Thompson Creek was prepared for the lead requirements as well and while he may disagree with removal of the opt-out requirement and the necessity to raise prices on these jobs, Wuest hasn’t noticed a dip in sales because of it.

“The homeowner is not hearing about them [lead-safe work practices] from everyone. That raises the customers level of confidence in us, because our employees can speak confidently.”

Wuest also says he doesn’t view the regulations as much of a negative as the rest of the industry.

“We have to accept it and move on,” he says.

In fact, for Wuest, he says there are issues he worries about more—namely healthcare.

“That’s a huge issue for me. What burdens will that put on us? A lot of that legislation has yet to be written,” he says.

As for the future, Wuest only will say, “We’ve always had expanding geographically in mind.” But for now it will “settle” with being a small regional company with national-sized growth.

Tara Taffera is the editor/publisher for DWM magazine.

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