All the Right Moves
Careful Planning and Investments Help Soft-Lite Maintain
Growth and Stability
by Ellen Rogers
Streetsboro, Ohio, is a long way from Roy
Anderson’s home in his native South Africa. A CPA by trade, Anderson was
working for Deloitte, Haskins & Sells (now Deloitte & Touche)
in Johannesburg when he decided to transfer to the firm’s Toronto office
in 1979. Less than two decades later Anderson was serving as the president
of Better-Bilt Windows when a broker called him and told him about a window
company called Soft-Lite that was for sale. Today he is the owner and
“Soft-Lite has been around for more than 70 years and was originally made
up of three companies called the Soft-Lite/Mintz/Valu-Line Partnership.
Soft-Lite made storm doors and windows; Valu-Line made specialty products,
such as bays and bows; and Mintz made the traditional products, double
hung, single-hung, etc.,” says Anderson. “It was a pretty complex thing
[to have three company names] so we re-named the company Soft-Lite, got
out of the storm products business in 1998 and re-focused solely on vinyl
Anderson says that though he had never heard of Soft-Lite before the purchase
what attracted him to it was the longevity of the employees and the customers.
“We have customers today who have been with us 20, 30 years,” says Anderson.
And the same goes for the employees, some of whom have been there more
than 30 years and one who has been there more than 40 years.
“Thirty percent of our employees have more than ten years with the company
and about 10 percent have more than 20 years,” says Anderson. In all,
Soft-Lite has 158 employees; during the busy season (usually June through
November) that number peaks to approximately 225.
Today, with annual dollar volume in the $40-$50 million range, Soft-Lite
produces more than 200,000 doors and windows annually for the retrofit/remodeling
While the Streetsboro facility is the company’s lone manufacturing location,
warehouse and distribution operations are located in Baltimore, Md. and
Charlotte, N.C. Last year measurement and installation services were added
to the Baltimore location and plans are in the works to do the same this
year in Charlotte. The company also expects it will soon be adding the
same type of facilities in Columbus, Ohio, and Rochester, N.Y.
“The measurement and installation program contributed an additional million
dollars in sales for us last year—that’s 300-percent growth in that area,”
says John Patrick, chief financial officer. “In an environment where customers
and leads are precious, we’re trying to give more total value to that
customer sale by offering this program.”
Going as far west as Colorado, north to New England and south through
Georgia, Soft-Lite serves 34 states. The company follows two distribution
channels to bring those products to market. According to Greg Irving,
vice president of sales and marketing, selling both dealer direct as well
as through one-step distribution has helped the company expand its business
base and increase its revenue stream.
“Since we have distinctly different products that we market through
each channel we eliminate conflict when dealers from both channels meet
in the marketplace,” Irving says. “There are geographic/logistics advantages
in certain areas of the country where distribution dominates and small
volume dealer purchases are not cost effective to ship on a direct basis.”
Despite the struggling residential construction market, Soft-Lite is still
With expanded distribution and service centers, new accounts and more
products, it may sound as though this is a company immune to today’s challenging
economy. But it’s not. Anderson admits that the first months of the year
are still the slowest, that seasonal layoffs were made after Thanksgiving
last year and that, yes, like everyone in the residential building industry,
his company has felt the economic impact.
“Anyone who says they have not been affected [by the economy] is lying.
If we did not have new business [we would be down]. Flat is the new up.
But, quite frankly, I believe this is going to be [our] best year because
of where we’ve positioned ourselves with new customers,” says Anderson.
“We signed up a tremendous number of new customers at the end of last
year that have not started buying yet and with other companies having
difficulty and going out of business there is a lot of market share to
be gained. I think it’s sad what’s happening today, but when those companies
go by the wayside [their customers] are going to have to buy from somebody.”
Built to Perform
At a time when so many other door and window companies are either shutting
down or cutting back, Soft-Lite is continuing to move forward. How so?
For one, Anderson has always sought ways to re-invest back into the company.
One of those investments came in 2001 by way of their current location—a
200,000-square-foot plant designed specifically for window production.
“We placed the production lines so that they run from six receiving doors
with materials coming into six shipping doors where we load our product
on our trucks going out,” explains John Ryba, director of manufacturing.
(Editor’s note: Since this interview was conducted, Mr. Ryba has left
the company.) “We ran all of our power via overhead bus ducts and all
of the air lines are run with 2-inch pipe using a specific grid layout
also overhead so that it’s not in the way of production or our associates.
Through the use of AutoCAD and the evaluation of new automated equipment
we laid out the entire production facility to be as lean and efficient
as possible with ample space for growth.”
That same year Soft-Lite decided it was ready to move into automated production.
“When we were preparing to move into this building a couple of us went
to the Fensterbau trade show to look at automated equipment, and we saw
lines from Wegoma, Urban, Sturtz … but there were two driving factors
involved with our decision,” says Ryba. “First, the equipment had to produce
the highest quality products ensuring the tightest tolerances on a consistent
basis coupled with being able to perform multiple tasks within one processing
center. Second, was the company’s location.” Ryba says that while two
of the companies are both within a half-hour drive from his plant, in
the end they decided to go with Sturtz.
“We thought, in the long run, the equipment was going to do all that we
needed it to do,” he adds. “We have six four-point welders, all with automatic
offload tables that move product through three four-head CNC cleaners
with integrated tilt latch routers. We have three semi-automatic, self-feeding
processing saws and two fully automated flex fabrication centers that
not only cut the product but completely process both frame and sash so
they are ready to be welded,” says Ryba.
The move to automation also led to more efficient production. Prior to
the new equipment Soft-Lite ran two full shifts plus a partial shift.
Now, the company runs one to one and a half shifts six days a week during
peak production season and typically four days a week in January and February.
“On the first shift there are 125 to 150 employees and the second is a
split, anywhere from 50 to 75,” says Ryba.
And, Soft-Lite does not have to look far for production help and support;
the head of its maintenance department worked previously for Sturtz servicing
its automated equipment.
“Sturtz gave me the heads-up that they were going to lose a tech because
he had given a notice since he did not want to travel,” says Ryba. “So
I gave him a call, interviewed him … It helps to have [someone] who [knows
and understands the equipment].”
Software also plays a significant role when it comes to the company’s
“We use the Friedman Frontier system, which controls all aspects of running
our business, everything from entry to invoicing and also what’s happening
on the shop floor,” says Patrick. “It starts with an electronic order
entry system called Power Bids, which allows our dealers to enter orders
remotely from their individual sites or even from within the consumer’s
home. All of the documents they [receive from us]—acknowledgements, invoices,
etc.—are electronic and are sent either by e-mail or auto fax. When an
order comes in electronically it moves directly to the production scheduling
department. From that point, the scheduler takes control and batches it
according to how it will be manufactured and then transmits all of the
screen information to each piece of the production equipment.”
In order to ensure the highest quality and product performance, Soft-Lite
has incorporated a hybrid version of lean manufacturing, which uses a
combination of Kaizens, Six Sigma and ISO. “The journey began more than
eight years ago and is all about driving waste out of the organization
and getting people to buy in,” explains Ken Miller, director of quality,
who provides an example of how they have used Six Sigma. “We had a problem
right before the holiday where we were getting an abnormal defect incidence
rate on one of our lines. Through the Six Sigma methodology we were able
to drill down to the root cause and eliminate the problem. To close that
loop, we immediately updated our quality control procedures and said here’s
the specific controls to make sure this doesn’t come back.” He continues,
“Those methodologies are now part of our strategy … in that we know we
have to teach people this disciplined way of finding these issues and
ISO is used in areas of engineering changes or a corrective action format.
“Systematic approaches to make sure when you do a corrective action you
close loops with revised work construction, proper training and adjustments
in your control plans so again you’ve resolved the issue so that it does
not come back,” says Miller.
In that same regard, quality control is also a top priority. This begins
before the door or window is even produced.
To start, the company’s products are both AAMA Gold certified and NFRC
certified (the company also participates in Energy Star®), and these
programs, according to Miller, do a good job of making sure that audits
are done back at the supplier level. This ensures that they are making
products that exceed the highest industry standards.
Sample weigh inspections and critical dimension inspections are conducted
on incoming materials, which include extrusions supplied by Deceuninck
North America and the Royal Plastics Group of Georgia Gulf and insulating
glass units supplied by Intigral.
“If there is a problem with the material it goes on a material non-conformance
log so that it’s quarantined every time it comes in,” Miller says. In-house
quality control steps include process inspections such as sample checks,
as well as a 139-point inspection that’s done randomly on finished products.
And when the time comes to ship, careful effort goes into packaging and
protecting the products.
“Everything gets cardboard corners, all the wood grain is protected with
cardboard,” says Ryba. “Our painted and wood grain products are foam-wrapped
and then completely covered in cardboard. Everything is stretched wrapped
and never hits the floor once wrapped. It goes right onto a cart, which
is next placed onto air ride equipped trucks that we own with drivers
who are our employees,” he says, adding that the materials are loaded
according to their stops.
“Anyone who says they
have not been affected [by the economy] is lying.
If we did not have new business
[we would be down]. Flat is the new up.”
A safe and productive work environment is another aspect of quality control
and continuous improvement. In fact Anderson says the company’s lost-time
accident ratio is low—1.29 per 100 employees—and last year there were
six fewer accidents altogether than the year before.
“We are always driving safety and we have a safety committee that meets
each month. During the meeting a representative from every line is represented
and all of the safety topics are discussed,” says Ryba, who adds that
the company is a drug-free workplace and a number of safety measures are
followed by everyone in the plant.
“Anyone who is glazing must wear mandatory safety gloves and glasses;
anyone who touches glass, including the glass handlers on the dock, has
to wear the Kevlar sleeves,” he says.
Anderson adds that they also have outside sources come in and do reviews
of the company to make sure everyone is in compliant with safety procedures.
“We also reward people who do not have accidents or work safety violations,”
adds Anderson. “Some people get up to $1000 a year just in safety bonuses.”
Secrets to Success
The bottom line behind Soft-Lite’s business infrastructure is simply to
benefit the customer. And the only way a company can meet customer needs
is by listening.
“I started this job just out of graduate school and the first year I thought
I knew everything,” Patrick shares. “And then I spent nearly one year
on the road traveling and visiting customers and that was my greatest
learning experience in my whole career. When I came back from that I had
a very different perspective on financial management and control within
the organization because it became centered around what the customer wanted.”
He continues, “We used to manufacture what we wanted to make; today we
are very much focused on manufacturing to meet customers’ needs.”
And listening is exactly what the team says it’s going to continue doing,
as listening is what will help steer the company through these tight times.
As Irving puts it, “We’re here for the long run and we will make it through
this because we have positioned ourselves that way and we will stay that
way—it’s a mandate for the people here.”
Ellen Rogers is a contributing editor
for DWM magazine.
© Copyright 2009 Key Communications Inc. All rights reserved.
No reproduction of any type without expressed written permission.