Volume 10, Issue 9 - November/December 2009

A Complex Company
A Memphis-Based Manufacturer Finds Success Manufacturing Iron Doors Overseas
by Samantha Carpenter

Though Jerry Lee came to the United States to study computer science, it was his interest in metalworking that brought his company, Complex Industries, to stardom. With three manufacturing facilities in China and a 200,000-square-foot distribution center in Memphis, Tenn., the company offers a variety of products in the building products and home décor markets.

The company began by selling iron lighting and lamp components to manufacturers. From there, it transitioned into iron fencing, an idea company owners received from its lamp parts customers.

“In the process of calling on iron fence customers [three years ago], one of them said, ‘You’re in the iron business; I can’t find anybody that builds a good iron door. I can sell them, but the quality is bad and the lead time is poor,’” says Randy Miller, eastern regional sales manager.

“With input from this particular customer we began making doors for him and once we were comfortable with our process and product started marketing them elsewhere.”

The company’s building products division includes iron doors, fencing, security doors, mailboxes and some decorative iron casting parts.

Miller explains that the company has a catalogue of items that it stocks in Memphis. If it’s in the catalogue, it’s a stock item, but the company produces custom doors as well.

“Custom projects are about a nine-week lead time. That’s a little unusual in this business. If a customer orders one iron door, we don’t wait to fill up a container [of doors],” Miller says. “We have other items that need to come in; we’ve got stock doors, home décor, fence and a variety of products, so that door gets made, put on a container, and it’s here.”

Answering the Competition
Asked how Complex Industries competes against North American-based companies that might argue it’s more difficult to gain satisfaction when products get damaged, Miller has a simple answer.

“Certainly in extreme cases, there are domestic manufacturers we could turn to for help to repair things or have a door made. There’s ways of accomplishing that,” he says. “There are a certain number of days that it takes to float a ship across the sea, and there’s not much you can do about that. Can we hurry up the manufacturing process a little bit? Yes, we can.”

Dave Rizk, western regional sales manager, says the company also has skilled and talented employees who can weld doors, who can re-glaze glass and move hinges around.

“The doors are basically indestructible. You can scratch them or dent them, but they are fixable,” Rizk says.

“The boat would almost have to sink to have a catastrophic situation,” Miller adds.

To manufacture its products, Complex employs 45 in the United States and 45 in China.

Miller is willing to answer questions from those who may fault the company for manufacturing in China.

“Being a United States based company we would naturally prefer to manufacture our products domestically,” he says. “Unfortunately, the market conditions are not such to support this method.  In an ideal world, we could market a ‘made in America’ product and command the necessary premium; however, this has been proven to be an unsustainable proposition in today’s building products industry.  That said, we are very proud of the 45 domestic jobs created by our activities and of the various downstream jobs, logistics, distributors, dealers, installers, etc., associated with our products.

Up to the Finish
The company uses a variety of machinery in the manufacturing process of its products. “We use steel, so we use machines that can bend it, for the radius-top. Probably the most important aspect of our process isn’t machinery, but the way we coat the material—paint it and finish it,” Rizk explains. “Once the door is welded up, it’s in an open warehouse and has rust on it, so you have to do a good job of cleaning the door and getting it ready for the final finish.”

The door also goes through a series of baths as an assembled door—not in parts and pieces—and before it is foam-filled.

“Different chemicals prepare it for the e-coating which is where the paint is electronically charged and the entire door unit is dropped into the bath,” Rizk says. “It gets into every nook and cranny of the door to prevent future rust. Past that, we come back and powder coat it and take it to the oven for a final finish. I don’t know of anyone that has a more durable finish on their product than we do, just because of that extensive finishing process.”

Through the Looking Glass
When it comes to glass, Miller says the company can ship its doors one of two ways–either with glass supplied by
Complex (which it stocks in a clear glass and a hammered glass), or without the glass installed, if the customer chooses to use a different type of glass.

Despite some misconceptions about iron doors and their energy efficiency, Miller says the company uses insulating glass in its doors, which are fully weatherstripped.

“It’s an iron door, so there is some heat and cool transfer. It is fully foam-filled, but there’s not really a thermal break so to speak. Normally when someone starts to really question us about U-values and R-values, we usually look at them and say that they probably don’t really want an iron door. Most people want the look and we do things to make them as efficient as possible,” Miller says.

But how do the company’s doors differ from competitors?

“We use thicker steel than our competitors do,” Rizk says. “We use 14-gauge for the door and frames, where many use 18 gauge. It’s a 5/8-inch bar, where most of our competition uses 4/8-inch bar. We use 5/8 inch solid steel for the scroll work and most use ½-inch.”

Miller says the doors only require two people for installation, despite their heavy weight. “It was designed that way; it didn’t just happen. It also allows us to package it in a very damage-free manner and ship it less-than-truckload,” he says.

The company tries to be accommodating to customers not just in installation, but in the whole ordering and shipping process, and sometimes that means going “beyond the call of duty” for a customer.

“There have been times we’ve shipped a door the same day we’ve gotten the order. There have also been times we’ve gone out to the jobsite and refinished the door to factory-finish quality because somebody got acid on it or the brick masons messed it up,” Miller says.

No Obligations
The company has a variety of means to help its customer base, which includes two-step and one-step distributors, pro lumberyards and OEMs, promote the product.

“Beyond the website, catalogue and exhibiting at the major shows, we have a ‘no obligation’ display program that we offer to our dealers. We’ll set a display for a timeframe, and if the customer doesn’t like it, he can bring it back, but if he likes it, he can keep it. We don’t ask for a commitment up front. We make it easy for people to get in the business,” Miller says.

Fast Facts
Company Officials:
Jerry and Anne Lee, Owners; Dave Rizk, Western Regional Sales Manager; Randy Miller, Easter Regional Sales Manager; Jade Tang, Iron Door Assistant
2008 Revenues: More than $20 million (company total); Slightly under $5 million for Building Products
Number of Employees: 90
Facility Size: 200,000 square feet in Memphis, Tenn.; 280,000 square feet in China

Samantha Carpenter is a contributing writer for DWM magazine.

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