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Volume 6   Issue 11               December  2005

After 68 Years of Service
by Alan B. Goldberg

In a sequence of events that is as intriguing as the changes that have taken place within the past 12 months, a window operation has opened its doors for the second time since its founding in 1937. 

“One day [about a year and a half ago] I got a call from a longtime friend [Jim Poma, former owner of Poma Glass, Boardman, Ohio] who says, ‘how would you like to go on an adventure and be my partner in the purchase of a struggling window operation?’ I reminded him that I am a CPA and just a numbers guy. I know nothing about making windows. And he said, ‘But I know about making windows. All you have to do is watch the numbers,’” says Keith Jarmusch, CPA and president of Graef Windows.

In March 2004, with the restarting of Graef Windows, which was on the verge of closing, Jarmusch and Poma took the first step in their joint adventure. 

Sixty-eight years ago, the company began by making quality Redwood storm windows. As the market changed, so did the company’s focus and Graef Windows became a manufacturer of aluminum storm windows, aluminum prime replacement windows and composite aluminum and vinyl replacement window products. What also changed was ownership and throughout its long history, the company was bought and sold several times until ending up in the hands of Jarmusch and Poma.

Improving Plant Efficiency
The new owners recognized that one of the most immediate needs was a different facility. The old building, the 45,000 square foot plant in Austintown, Ohio, was hardly conducive to improving efficiency. Six months after acquiring the business, Jarmusch and Poma moved the company into a modern 70,000 square foot warehouse, 10 miles away, in Boardman. 

“The facility was not set up for manufacturing. As part of our major investment, we purchased new equipment, a software package to bring the company in line with the industry and our own fleet of trucks,” says Jarmusch. 

It was a new and bright chapter in the company’s 68- year history. But three months after moving into the new facility, tragedy struck. Poma died suddenly from an aortic aneurism at the age of 49. Jarmusch became even more determined to fulfill his friend’s dream as Poma’s wife, Kim, assumed her husband’s role as partner. 

“He gave us the blueprint for success,” says Jarmusch, of the plan the company continues to follow. 

One of the goals was to make a better window and to make production more efficient.

“Although we face many challenges, so much has been accomplished in a relatively short period of time,” says Pat Thompson, vice president of operations who joined in April 2005. “We turned this into a state-of-the-art facility.”
A typical plant tour begins with a blueprint that shows the flow of production. 

“The flow was very important to us if we were going to improve efficiency. The previous facility was not laid out for manufacturing and it made production cumbersome,” says Thompson.

Fifty people work in the 60,000 square foot manufacturing area, on a single shift, five days a week. The daily single-shift capacity is 250 units and at the present time, the plant is averaging 900 units per week.

Jarmusch pointed out the comfort of air conditioning in the manufacturing area (especially during 90 degree weather) which is hardly typical of a window-making operation.

“The facility used to be a Kraft Foods distribution center for chocolates and it had to be temperature-controlled. The refrigeration units Kraft installed are extremely efficient and have a very small impact on our utility costs. So it is probably the only manufacturing facility that is air conditioned,” he says. 

As part of quality control, all raw materials are checked as soon as they arrive. 

“In the future, we will have a system that efficiently measures a sample against specifications. The software package we are considering will compare a blueprint from the supplier to a cross section of a sample to assure us that specifications are being met,” says Thompson. 

Array of Equipment
He pointed out that, unlike other production operations, Graef does something that is unique. 

“We do not use one particular manufacturer for certain types of equipment. We are big believers in hybrid systems. That seems to work best for us,” he says. 

The saws, for example, use components from Joseph Machinery and Sampson. The four-point welders, which are used to weld vinyl replacement windows, are a combination of Joseph Machinery and Urban Machinery. The two CNC cleaners, the most recent acquisition, are the exception. They are from one supplier, Stürtz Machinery.

“These two units made a significant impact on our operation. We cut our labor in half, doubled our throughput and reduced the footprint by 20 percent. The difference between the hodgepodge of equipment we had (in the previous facility) and these cleaners is like night and day.”

Thompson said the sash cleaning unit replaced five pieces of equipment and the frame cleaner replaced two.
The decision to go with Stürtz was based on three factors: reputation, service and location. Stürtz is located a short distance from the facility. 

Distance and service were also factors with the selection of an integrated computer network. 

“We use (Fenetech’s) FeneVision for many reasons: It is designed strictly for manufacturing. It is intuitive. It is modular-based for added flexibility and it is so user-friendly that I was sold on the system. In fact, it grows on you,” says Thompson.

He explained that the initial purchase was the basic package and, as the company started to grow, more modules were added. All saws and welders are linked to the file-server and all batches are optimized. 

Another characteristic unique to Graef is in the way production lines are set up. 

Thompson explained that the lines are set up by component, not the traditional way, by product. 

“All sash goes down a sash line. All frames go down a frame line. We have one welding area and one glazing area.

This arrangement gives us a lot of flexibility. If we need more output, we can add to one area. Theoretically, because of the way we assemble, it is possible to triple our output.”

Insulating glass units are supplied by AFG Insulating from a facility nearby. 

“Because of their close proximity, we can get IG units the next day,” adds Jarmusch.

The Maxim hardware system from Truth Hardware is used for many configurations in the casement and awning lines. Multipoint hardware is standard on all units and double locks are standard on all double-hung units 23 inches wide and sliders 23 inches high.

Everything comes together at the final assembly area where each window goes through a 114-point inspection.

One piece of equipment that has made a significant difference throughout the operation is a simple, conveyor system.

“What sold us on Wakefield conveyors was that they were lighter [than others] and simple in design. They give us the flexibility we need,” says Thompson. 

In the packaging area, several polysystems are used to protect the windows in transit. Ninety percent of the products are stretch-wrapped. Cardboard caps are used on the corners for added protection. Plastic strapping and cardboard is used with some of the large windows.

Using FeneVision, each window is scanned and a label with all the pertinent shipping information is printed. Even the name of the room where the windows will be installed can be included on the label. Completed windows appear in the system as a green symbol, making it easier for anyone checking the status of an order. 

Smooth Delivery
Units are shipped on the company’s fleet of new trucks. Thompson pointed out the advantages, especially when the drivers are employees and have the same routes.

“Our drivers are our regular contact with customers. We regard them as route salespeople and an extension of our sales force. We get a lot of feedback from them, especially since they have established a rapport with the customer.”

Jarmusch takes pride in the level of efficiency that has been established since the move to the new facility. 
“From the time we receive an order from our customer, it takes only about 2 1/2 days to complete. We have no back orders because we don’t hold orders,” he says.

While delivery is based on the individual customer needs, the average for standard products ranges from one to two weeks.

A driving force behind the smooth operation is communication, specifically morning meetings that take place in what Thompson refers to as the “control room” and the daily meetings on the production floor between supervisors and their teams.

“It is critical that the priorities we establish on a daily basis and the issues we discuss are communicated to the shop floor and the rest of the organization,” says Thompson.

Cultural Shift
This level of communication is actually part of an overall plan to change the way things are done. Thompson explained that the company is in the beginning stages of a major culture change. One of many guidelines being used is the Baldridge Performance Excellence criteria, which address all the components of a business including leadership, strategic planning, customers and markets, knowledge management, human resources and process management. 

“We have many dedicated employees who spent many years at Graef Windows. We have to give them additional skills and knowledge so they can play an integral part in moving this company forward,” says Jarmusch. 

Kaizen (the Japanese term for continuous improvement) is only one tool that is being used very successfully. 

“We’ve trained every employee on the Kaizen process and so far the impact on our operation has been significant.

As a Kaizen project, we formed a team of representatives from various departments to help resolve some key issues. One major accomplishment was the dramatic improvement in material handling flow, resulting in a 70 percent elimination of waste and doubling of our saw capacity,” adds Thompson. 

He said the purchase of the Stürtz cleaners was the result of a Kaizen event on finding ways to eliminate waste and improve efficiency. The purchase of any equipment requires justification to Thompson, Jarmusch and Poma and must include a cost versus value study.

“I remind anyone with a request for capital investment that Keith is still a CPA and looks at numbers with a very watchful eye,” says Thompson.

Supporting The Customer
Thompson pointed out that competition is greater at the dealer level because “the closer you are to the homeowner, the higher the demands and the more competition a business is up against.”

“We must train our dealers and educate them on the value and benefits of our products,” he says.

This is often done by the outside sales representatives. According to Thompson, they must translate a product feature into a benefit to help the dealer promote Graef windows.

“We must help them run their business. We must help them track their (operating) costs and their installation costs,” adds Jarmusch.

He explained the company’s measure/install program that is done as a service for local dealers. Other ways dealers are supported are through product literature and various marketing aids, such as an extensive lead generation program.

The company promotes its strong warranty program heavily which it describes as the “most comprehensive consumer product warranty available.” All Graef residential products carry a lifetime warranty. Options include: a double lifetime transferable warranty; a lifetime glass breakage warranty and a natural disaster and relocation warranty.

“We have a complete window and door program so a dealer can come to us and we can offer everything that is needed,” says Jarmusch.

Graef manufactures four product lines of vinyl replacement windows. In addition, there are many specialty products including bay and bow windows, garden windows, casement and awning windows and a full line of vinyl patio doors. Also located in the manufacturing facility is a building product distribution center to service local contractors. 

Presently the company’s windows are marketed and sold in Ohio, Western New York, Western Pennsylvania, Michigan, Eastern Indiana, Kentucky, Chicago and Atlanta. Future plans call for expanding the area to include Eastern Pennsylvania, New Jersey, North Carolina, Tennessee and Tampa.

According to Jarmusch and Thompson, the challenges change with the times. Five years ago, the challenge for Graef Windows was to produce a quality product, in a timely manner, with a qualified work force and quality suppliers and dealers.

“Today, in addition to the above, we must establish more formalized employee and customer training programs and the company must continue to find ways to reduce costs in order to remain competitive in a market that is projected to remain flat while all operating costs continue to increase. The size of the pie hasn’t changed. Everyone is fighting for a bigger piece and there will be fall out over the next few years. Other challenges are acquiring additional dealers and finding the next niche where we can expand,” says Thompson.

Long-term, the company and industry face the impact of foreign windows and extrusions on the U.S. market and the long-term availability of glass. 

“We must take advantage of new technologies and develop new products to provide even better service to our customers,” says Jarmusch.

Challenges aside, change is in the air at 365 McClurg Road, although the most significant one took place in March 2004, ten miles away, when Graef Windows was given a new lease on life after 68 years of service. 

Alan Goldberg is a contributing writer for DWM. He has more than 30 years of experience in the insulating glass industry. 

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