Volume 10, Issue 6 - July/August 2009

Plant Tour
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 president.

“Soft-Lite has been around for more than 70 years and was originally made up of three companies called the Soft-Lite/Mintz/Valu-Line Partnership.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 products.”

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 industry.

Branching Out
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.” 

Survival Tactics
Despite the struggling residential construction market, Soft-Lite is still enjoying growth.

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 production capabilities.

“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.”

Operation Methods
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 solving them.”

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.”
—Roy Anderson

Safety First
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.

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