Volume 48, Issue 5 - September/October 2009

Sibling Revelry
Brother and Sister Team for Success in the Stairway Business
by Samantha Carpenter, editor of Shelter magazine

It was a momentous occasion for the two die-hard Green Bay Packers fans. Tom Stilp and his sister, Sharon Stilp-Kressin, were sitting down with former Packers coach Mike Sherman and his wife helping them choose which handrails, balustrades and design they would like for a new stairway in their foyer.

While the two Stilps love their NFL football team, they both are equally as passionate about another love—their company, Arcways, a custom stairway manufacturer, in Neenah, Wis. Tom Stilp handles sales, marketing and engineering, and Sharon Stilp-Kressin handles operations.

The brother-and-sister team is the second generation involved in the business which was founded in 1966 by their father, Don Stilp, and his partner, John Boehme.

“My dad actually was the contractor building John Boehme’s home at the time, and Boehme wanted a curved stairway, and there was no one in the industry [doing curved stairways at that time],” Stilp explains.

So his father went to the local library, did some research and built the stairway in his own garage for Boehme.

“My father took it over in his truck pre-assembled and put it into Boehme’s home,” Stilp says.

Boehme told Don Stilp that they should start a stairbuilding company and ship them all over the world, and Stilp said, “Really? Sure. Let’s give it a shot.” It would take them a month to produce a stairway in the beginning and, according to Tom Stilp, for the first seven years, very few, if any, stairways stayed in Wisconsin.

“They were going to Atlanta, New York, Florida and everywhere but the Midwest,” Stilp explains. “Boehme had all these contacts through distribution. We really are recognized as the very first pre-assemble curved stairway company in the country.”

It wasn’t until 20 years later that any Stilp children came on the scene. Tom Stilp bought Boehme out in 1989, and Sharon Stilp-Kressin bought out her father’s part of the company in 1999.

Over the past 43 years, the company has had the opportunity to become a huge stairway manufacturer, but, by choice, management has always decided to keep it small.

“All we do is construct curved and spiral stairways. We have not ever involved ourselves with straight stairways unless they are extremely unique stairways,” Stilp explains. “Our niche has always been preserved, and I think that is what has contributed and assisted us through these slow times. We didn’t grow commensurate with the requests; we remained somewhat a small company. We have grown through the years, but it has been extremely controlled, and we are still surviving this downturn rather well and have remained a profitable company through these slow times.”

While the company employs only 40, the projects they do are anything but small.

“We put glass on our stairways, stone and panelized forged iron, like in the Maui, Hawaii, project we just finished. The stairway had parrot flowers and elephant plant leaves that were hand-forged over an anvil which swept up the staircase. This project took months and months to fabricate the iron itself, and it was all individually designed.”

It’s this individual attention to projects that is so appealing to the company owners and employees.

“We spend an awful lot of time with our customers understanding what is on the outside of their home. It’s become even more fun in our business because we actually get to work more than we ever have with the decision maker,” Stilp says.

“The stairway itself becomes a very large focal point or first impression or a signature trademark to a builder or homeowner when you first enter that entranceway door,” Stilp explains. “We consider ourselves experts on entranceways and foyers. We make suggestions, such as inlays to really define the center of the foyer, etc. That’s when you walk into a home and you think, ‘Wow, there is something incredible about this home compared to something that is being more mass produced and hasn’t been thoroughly thought out.’”

And customers seem just as happy with the individual attention they receive from Arcways.

Kathy and Mike Duda of Geneseo, Ill., built their dream home to include an Arcways-designed symmetrical curved stairway.

“At the same time, we were working with a local Iowa company to design the wrought iron railing and handrails to go with the stairway,” Kathy Duda says. “It was only after the stairways were installed in our home that we were informed by the wrought iron company that there were no other options for the handrail other than the one we originally told them we disliked. After much consideration we decided we couldn’t live with a thin handrail and chose to switch to a wood handrail instead.”

The Dudas drove six hours to Wisconsin to visit Arcways and discuss alternative solutions.

The Dudas looked at many options for different handrail styles in Arcways’ showroom.

“We ended up not only switching to a wood handrail, but we also switched our railing from wrought iron to a beautiful handcrafted wood baluster from Spain that we saw in the showroom during our visit,” Duda says. “We now have an impressive symmetrical stairway with wood balusters that are handcrafted and hand-painted from Spain and a wood handrail custom-made by Arcways. Our stairway is always a central focus in our home when people come to visit.”

To produce its stairways, the company uses a variety of machinery, including CNC machines and high-accuracy robotics. Stilp explains that the kind of robotics his company uses isn’t “trainable” robotics, like what would be used at General Motors, but robotics that can manufacturer products with seven axis for stair parts that twist and turn.

“It has so much potential. Imagine: a machine running for 70 hours, unmanned with the lights off, cutting every component out offline, and [you] coming in on Monday and grabbing everything and assembling the product. We aren’t entirely there yet, but we’ve made progress [and that’s where we are headed],” Stilp adds.

The company also uses a variety of wood species to make its stairways and has worked with the same supplier for 38 years.

“They understand the quality requirements. It’s been an incredible marriage. I think building that longstanding relationship is way greater than jumping on the 50 cents a board less. We will not use materials that don’t have preservation policies intact, such as Honduran mahogany,” Stilp says. (The use of Honduran mahogany is fraught with controversy because forests have been clearcut and not managed with sustainability in mind.)

To give its customers a visual view of what their stairway will look like, Arcways can render an entire foyer and adjoining rooms in 3-D then e-mail photographs of 18 or 20 different views to them.

Sometimes these 3-D renderings have made all the difference in finishing a job.

“We’ve actually gotten several projects off of the fence, where the homeowner was undecided and didn’t want to proceed. We 3D-rendered the stairways, the foyer and additional suggestions as to balcony layouts, and [that sealed the deal],” Stilp adds.

The company uses a software package with Arcways’ handrails and baluster profiles. Stilp says his software package has been a wonderful selling device because his customers can visually understand all of the options the company is putting in the proposal.

But 3D renderings aren’t the only selling tool the company uses. It has put together a 96-page binder of its projects over the years.

“We collate and punch it in-house, and we customize it to anyone who is sending in plans. We still believe in [a hard copy of projects]. We also have CDs that are password protected, which is unique. We know when they are using the CD because they have to log in. We are able to talk to those people right when they are looking at our product,” Stilp says.

Arcways’ CD login section also has a comments section for interested parties to talk about the project on which they are working. Stilp says some of the architects are tough going and don’t want to put comments in (which gets rid of the tire-kickers), but he says the ones that are serious will tell you a whole book about their project.

Since Arcways produces custom stairways for projects all around the world, they have learned a lesson or two about shipping.

“We just shipped a project to Hawaii and, in this instance, we got the steel container and had it sent here. We literally strapped everything down and against all the walls in case the container were to tip on its side,” Stilp explains. “They must have dropped or put that container on its side, and, sure enough, when they got it to the jobsite, and they saw that it wasn’t upright, they were very fearful.”

Arcways employees were there opening the container, and when they opened it, there was absolutely no damage.

“You throw in a few hundred dollars worth of straps and you spend an entire day [strapping the product down], put two-by-four bracing in the container, and we basically own the inside of that container. It’s not going to work if you have one job a year where everything is damaged,” Stilp says.

You may wonder where Arcways gets the quality and talented employees to build its stairways known worldwide.

“We’ve given away wood to all the local school systems and Fox Valley Tech for years. The WoodLINKS curriculum [a secondary and post-secondary woodworking training program] is in just about every Fox Valley school,” Stilp explains.

“We hire the best of the best because we don’t lose the ability to find those individuals in their infancies counselors are given Arcways’ information.”

Stilp says Arcways has quite a unique company culture.

“Everyone has a key to the facility. The outside door is locked, but no internal doors are locked. There is nothing locked inside—offices, the shop, etc. We are a complete open book,” he says. Stilp expands on this saying that the open book refers more to not locking everything on the inside of the company’s buildings and giving most employees an Arcways’ key to access the buildings from the outside.

The company also allows employees to work on their own projects at the manufacturing facility.

“All of our employees are allowed to work on personal projects at our shop on Friday’s, and it works out nicely because of our four-day work weeks,” Stilp explains. “Arcways charges for the cost of the material only. This year, we’ve had to limit the magnitude of the employee personal projects due to the economic downturn.”

Arcways believes in “paying while you play,” too.

“We do luncheons that are catered and cookouts. We’ve even taken the employees laser tagging, to Wisconsin Badger football games and skiing.”

But the past year hasn’t come without its hard decisions, too.

“Our revenues last year will be near identical when we end this year in September. We have held the line as far as sales, but we’ve also become more profitable this year in a down market than last year, believe it or not,” he says. “[To do that,] we looked at every little corner, and we did lay off [eight people] here and there, although we have brought back two of the employees this last week. We had to make those tough decisions, but actually with making those decisions in the early Spring of this year [we’ve remained successful].”

The stairway company has remained more successful this past year than the NFL team that so many of its employees, including owners, love. When showing their stairway and Packers pride after producing John Elway’s stairway, employees put Packers bumper stickers on the back of the stairway. The Washington Redskins’ owner Dan Snyder indicated in his contract that Arcways couldn’t show any other NFL colors or teams than the Washington Redskins. So what did the Arcways’ driver do? He showed up in Packers apparel to deliver the stairs.


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