Volume 41, Issue 12 - December 2006

Still Going Strong 
Wausau Celebrates 50 Years of Success
By Heather West

Over the past 50 years much has happened—in the United States, in the world and also in the glass and glazing industry. Codes and laws have been written; national, international and local leaders have come and gone; new products, technologies and innovations have been developed, designed to not only save money for consumers, but also to help make the world a better, safer place. One company that has continued to find ways to innovate and develop products to meet the ever-changing industry and global demands is Wausau, Wis.-based Wausau Window and Wall Systems, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year.

The company has come a long way from its start as Wausau Metals, which manufactured handcrafted church windows and glass-block ventilators in a former beer distributor’s warehouse in the Wisconsin city of the same name. Today Wausau has more than 500 employees and operates three plants in Wausau and one in Stratford, Wis., with total fabrication space of more than 300,000-square-feet. The company produces a variety of products including curtainwall systems and window systems, terrace doors and sliding glass doors, sunshades and other ornamental aluminum accessories.

“Our success and longevity results from synergies established between the Wausau team and a loyal group of customers, both long-term and new,” says Steve Fronek, general manager. “Our growth driver has been the ability to craft win-win scenarios with glazing subcontractors, architects, general contractors, building owners and suppliers to deliver value on many unique projects.”

A Family Affair
The company attributes much of its success and longevity to the guidance and financial strength of its parent company, Apogee Enterprises Inc. In 1968, Apogee acquired the business and sent its treasurer, Lawrence J. Niederhofer, to lead its growth—in people, in sales and in facility expansion.

One of the early decisions by Niederhofer and colleagues involved the installation of aluminum finishing tanks used for applying the Anolok® finish to aluminum windows and trim. This in-house capability opened the doors to many architectural offices.
The energy crisis of the 1970s led Wausau to develop a need-driven product. The building community began to develop aluminum window product alternatives, such as a thermal cavity, that could reduce energy consumption and costs dimension in aluminum windows. With this in mind, Wausau developed its Thermo-Barrier windows, a poured-in-place polyurethane system used in commercial windows. The windows reduced heat transfer through the aluminum frame and were applauded by the U.S. government in the form of a tax credit to businesses.

The company continued to grow and by 1975 Wausau had purchased its first computer, which it used to aid in calculations and cutting lists for window parts. With the new computer, the company could enter and store weather data that was used to predict energy savings analysis. Engineers could then determine the best combination of window and materials for nearly any U.S. city.

Growth and Expansions
In 1976 Wausau acquired Milco, a Michigan window manufacturer that was consolidated under the Wausau name. All of the company’s window systems were protected with durable, architectural finishes.

To expand this finishes and coatings experience, Linetec opened in 1983 as a dedicated, independent company. Like Wausau, it is a freestanding business within the Apogee family and today remains the exclusive finisher for Wausau.

In 1999 Wausau Metals changed its name to Wausau Window and Wall Systems to better reflect its experience and performance capabilities as a supplier of window and curtainwall systems to specialty glazing and installing subcontractors. 
“We have built our reputation and longevity on dependable quality, innovative expertise and, most importantly, on our collaborative, long-term customer relationships—many of these ties go back for decades, for generations,” says Gary Houdek, vice president of sales and marketing.

 Customer Focus
For Wausau, customer service is its number-one focus and priority. 
“Competitiveness begins and ends with delivering value to our customers,” says Fronek.

For example, Wausau was among the first in the industry to go with an all-digital wireless phone network allowing for direct communication with its sales, engineering, estimating and fabricating team members. Simultaneously, a company-wide, integrated software system was implemented to streamline ordering, planning and scheduling systems. 

On the product side, in 1999 Advantage by Wausau was introduced to provide pre-engineered, cost-competitive, high-performance windows on accelerated delivery schedules. In 2005, the company’s Stratford fabrication facility was streamlined and dedicated to exclusively manufacture products in the Advantage line.
Product Development
Similar to the innovation born of the 1970s energy crisis, research and development has helped the company to develop products specific to customers’ needs. Security considerations following the attacks of September 11, 2001, and tropical storm devastation across the Southeast, for example, led to increased demands for hurricane impact-resistant and blast-mitigating products.

In addition to security, concerns for energy and environmental issues gained momentum with renewed fears of oil shortages and increased interest in renewable fuels, conservation and energy-efficiency. 
“Our people are often called upon to participate as design-build partners for fast-track, complex projects in all sectors of the markets,” says Fronek. “This close collaboration with all members of the building team has become a key success factor for us and for our customers.”

Wausau’s engineering team has also been a source of information for adapting existing designs and improving efficiency in future building projects in regards to solar and thermal control and power-generating glazing systems.

“Our biggest challenge in today’s market is keeping pace with fast-changing code requirements,” says Fronek. “In my 27 years in the industry, I have never seen this pace of change.”

Continual Improvements 
Continuing to invest in its own operational efficiency, Wausau began its largest business improvement process—five years since its introduction to Six Sigma/lean manufacturing, Wausau has been able to pass along millions of dollars in savings to its customers and shareholders.

“The ever-more stringent budgeting, technical and logistic demands of the non-residential construction markets have necessitated continuous improvement as a business model for Wausau,” says Fronek. “This means application of Six Sigma and lean tools and techniques, as well as building our bench strength in both the factory and office staff.”

Looking to the future, Fronek says Wausau has a number of goals that involve “continuing our growth through ongoing manufacturing efficiencies and staff.” He says they will also expand product lines to offer “pre-engineered windows and doors at a competitive price, on an accelerated delivery schedule.” He continues, “We will also collaborate with our manufacturers’ representatives and key customers to serve their regional needs and we will continue to invest in products of interest to the entire nation, such as high thermal-performance windows and curtainwall and blast-hazard mitigating systems.” 

This past summer Wausau hosted a party for employees, retirees and their families to celebrate the company’s 50th anniversary.

 “We are proud of what has been accomplished so far, and are committed to ongoing efforts to maintain our industry leadership in value, quality, service and innovation by intensely focusing on the needs of our customers,” says Houdek, who praises employees for “going the extra mile to achieve these company-wide goals.” 

the author 
Heather West is the owner of Heather West Public Relations, a Minneapolis-based company specializing in architectural products and services, which services a variety of clients, including Wausau. 

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