Volume 47, Issue 5 - June 2008

Hard Bending Vinyl Beyond PVC Profiles

Fencing, Decking and Railings Have Become A Window of Opportunity for Ventana USA
By Alan B. Goldberg

It was a fluke. You may wonder why a manufacturer and supplier of architectural shapes for vinyl window fabricators would possibly want to fabricate poly vinyl chloride (PVC) for the fencing, decking and railing industry (FDR).

Tony Pauly, vice president and general manager of Ventana USA, describes the company’s entrance into the FDR market as a complete fluke. 

“Our entrance into FDR began when a PVC extrusion salesman asked us to do him a favor and bend some profiles for one of his fence extrusion customers. Our efforts to help this customer were successful, and he not only encouraged us but helped us get further involved in this business.”

Today, more than 100 fabricators are being supplied with bent components for products that range from arbor arches and bends to gates and reinforced deck railing. The total output for window and fence shapes exceeds 45,000 shapes a year with a workforce of approximately 146 employees. Total annual sales are in excess of $14 million. 

A Custom Operation
Like the company’s PVC window profile operation, FDR production is also custom but on a much smaller scale. Eight people are currently responsible, although during peak periods, “we can draw from other departments,” says Bob Colchagie, production manager.

What is most unique to this operation is least visible to visitors. Both tooling and equipment are engineered and built in-house to meet the specifications for the variety of shapes and sizes of bends.

Colchagie points out that this in-house capability makes it possible to achieve quick start-ups or adjust tooling when profiles change slightly.

Saws, welders, corner cleaners and CNC routers are used to create the designs and shapes that are specified.

Colchagie explains that there are four stages of production: bending, cutting, welding and routing.

In the initial fencing manufacturing process, four-inch by four-foot and five-inch by five-foot posts are bent to make 48-inch arch tops, and convex and concave shapes are bent to make privacy fence caps as large as two inches by seven feet. A wide selection of profile shapes and sizes are available to bend radius corners, S-bends, scallop rails, arbor arches, slotted and sloped rails.

“For PVC deck railing, we bend the rail and rout the picket holes. Almost all of these are template-based because every deck is unique,” says Colchagie.

Components are cut to specified sizes, welded with a single-point welder and routed using a 3-axis CNC unit. 

Many types of deck board, 5⁄4-inch by six inches, are provided by PVC extruders. These are bent to a radius as small as 36 inches. 

Anne Wittman, FDR sales, points out that aluminum reinforcement is supplied for installation into the bent deck railing to comply with the code requirement in most parts of the country.

Components are generally shipped on the company’s fleet of trucks. In an effort to minimize lead time, a drop-shipment service is available.

“Often our fabricator customers want us to drop-ship directly to a site. This is another way we try to be responsive to their needs,” Wittman adds.

Improvements in efficiency have been achieved during the past two years through lean and 5S projects. Colchagie says there are a number of lean projects in bending, fabrication, purchasing and customer service that will save steps and simplify tasks.

“Part of the success of the program is that we involve our people in decision-making and provide the means for them to achieve their objectives,” he says.

Some of the improvements include more open workspace, increased production and a friendlier environment. One of the biggest improvements was eliminating production bottlenecks. This was done by introducing cross-training and building flexibility into the workforce and scheduling. 

A Totally Different Market
In spite of a large potential for growth, the FDR business is not without its challenges. Comparing it to the window market, Pauly says it is totally different. 

“We realized that our window sales channel could not properly service our fence, deck and rail customers,” he says, “The result was the creation of a separate sales team to focus on this business.” 

Both the window and FDR businesses depend heavily on the residential and commercial construction markets. 

“The biggest impact on our overall business is the strength and/or weakness of the residential new construction market,” Pauly says.

He points out that while residential remodeling is improving, it cannot replace the volume of new construction that has decreased due to the downturn.

One of the big challenges for many distributors and dealers is what Pauly refers to as “sticker shock.” He describes vinyl fence as a low-cost product with many benefits, such as being low maintenance, compared to wood. Low cost in a very competitive market equates to low margins which can discourage dealers and distributors, but he says the company can help its customers in many ways.

“[Distributors and dealers] can offer more than the plain vanilla version of the fence and rail,” adds Pauly. 

Wittman explains the many ways dealers and distributors are supported. 

“We develop promotional tools, such as literature and product displays. We provide extensive training and we generate sales leads from our website and advertising campaigns,” she says.

Pauly describes the typical Ventana customer as a vinyl FDR fabricator who supplies FDR distributors and dealers with prefabricated fence, deck and railing systems. 

“We have also supported our fabricator customers, particularly with new designs and layouts for privacy fences and gates, deck and railing,” he says.

The Future of the Market
Wittman says there are many opportunities in deck and railing.“

As we gain more (dealer and distributor) customers who know how to sell to high-end homebuilders and homeowners, we see the demand for our shapes increasing.”

He says PVC cellular deckboard can be bent to match a curved railing as an accent. It gives homeowners the opportunity to do something different.

Presently, FDR accounts for ten percent of the overall Ventana USA business, but Pauly sees a large potential for growth. He predicts that vinyl fencing, decking and railing will be as attractive to consumers as vinyl windows. 

“We’re just scratching the surface with bent components. Vinyl is a baby in the FDR market,” he says.

He believes the company is well positioned for growth, attributing success to its expertise and technology in vinyl bending and its long-standing reputation for being responsive to its customers.

“They respond to us in every way, from quoting to CAD drawings,” says Cindy Zwergel, president of The Vinyl Answer in Imperial, Pa. “They provide excellent customer support.”

Mike Lovewell, vice president of Lovewell Fence, in Davenport, Iowa, agrees.

“I have always had fantastic service and responsiveness from all of the Ventana team,” Lovewell says.

To Gordon Clark, president of Vinyl Fences Inc. in Dover N.H., “Ventana has always been what we set the bar at for innovation, quality and mostly personality. The entire sales team brings their product line to market with open ears … to get feedback and, in turn, to develop more specialty systems. They are most talented in understanding people. A great company.”

Responsiveness and creativity are among the qualities that Dick Sheridan, president of Phoenix Manufacturing in Eatontown, N.J., admires.

“When there is a problem, they are quick to respond and that is very helpful to us. They are also very accommodating,” Sheridan says. “We like to create and try new things and they like to be creative so we work very well together. Their service is excellent and they say what they are going to do which is very important.”

A Unique Blend
Pauly believes the company’s ability to serve both the window and FDR markets is unique.

“I have yet to see another window manufacturer that has been successful (in bending vinyl extrusions) serving both markets,” he says.

He points out that by dealing with all the extruders that serve the North American market, the company has access to extrusion profiles that FDR fabricators use for their extrusion lines. As far as demand for vinyl, he sees encouraging signs such as growth in western Canada in the past six months and, in particular, coastal regions which he describes as a natural for vinyl products. 

“We’re selling nationwide, in Canada and the Caribbean,” he says. 

But Pauly knows that market penetration is going to take creativity and hard work and he wants his distributors and dealers to recognize the rewards and the potential.“

Get creative and challenge us (Ventana USA) to help you give your customers the fence or deck railing that makes them stand out in their neighborhood and gives you the edge in the market,” Pauly says.

For Ventana USA, bending vinyl beyond PVC profiles has made FDR a window of opportunity.

A Look Back
Twenty-one years ago in 1987, Ventana Plastics, Inc. was formed in Plum Boro, Pa., as a poly vinyl chloride (PVC) profile bending operation with three employees in 3,000 square feet of space. According to Tony Pauly, vice president and general manager, “Our majority partner, Guenther Pennekamp of Ventana International in Vreden, Germany, recognized the need for vinyl profile bending in the North American vinyl window market.”

Within one year, the U.S. company outgrew its space and moved to a 9,000 square-foot facility nearby in Murrysville, Pa.

Pauly attributes the company’s early and sustained success to two key factors: dedicated people and responsiveness to customers.

“We built our organization to be responsive to our customers’ needs. We view ourselves as an extension of their production floor from stocking of materials and simplified ordering to fast and prompt deliveries.”

In 1993, the company expanded again, this time to a new 35,000 square-foot plant in Export, Pa., 25 miles east of Pittsburgh. The new building had the space to serve a growing market and there were now 45 employees. Nineteen ninety six marked a turning point, with major organizational changes that would significantly impact growth. Pauly joined the company as a partner, responsible for managing the business. A sequence of events followed. Lead-time decreased substantially from a two- to four-week average to seven days. The plant experienced high volume, the size of the workforce grew to more than 70 people, and another expansion occurred one year later, as 7,500 square feet of space was added to the facility. 

By mid-1998, more space was needed and that was leased nearby in the same industrial park. The rate of growth increased from 25 to 38 percent, and in the midst of these changes, the company name changed to Ventana USA. Yet it was 1999 that marked a milestone, a new window of opportunity: fence, deck and railing (FDR). The company purchased the leased building of 25,000 square feet (plus five acres for future expansion) to manufacture its FDR products and to produce its garden windows.

Alan B. Goldberg is a contributing writer for Shelter magazine.

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