Lemme In!

By Christina Lewellen
January 1, 2007
COLUMN : Talking to Dealers

How long does it take for one to stop being an “outsider” in this industry? Three years? Five? A kindly marketing guy for an equipment supplier warned me when I started this job that if I stuck around for five years, I’d probably be a lifer. Well, the months and years are flying by and I can think of far worse places to be than the residential window and door industry. So maybe I will be a lifer. At the very least, I’ve felt less and less like an “outsider” in my almost-three years here.

I recently met a fellow outsider—albeit one with a few more industry years under his belt than I—in Chicago. His name is Doug Cook and he’s the president of Feldco Factory Direct, a booming replacement window dealership with multiple locations. He bought the company in late 2000 from Bernie Feld, the original owner who built Feldco from scratch in the 70’s. In Cook’s words: “The company was dusty, it wasn’t rusty.” So, he came in as the outsider to clean it up a bit and see what it was capable of.

Cook is a businessman, an entrepreneur, and he comes from a corporate background. He has an MBA and some strong business philosophies, and he was looking for a company to buy and run when he stumbled upon Feldco. He doesn’t install windows, he’s not a former salesman and he didn’t grow-up-and-inherit in the industry. At first, he relied on company veterans to help him understand the window part of the business. He spent the first six months or so of his ownership with his mouth shut and his eyes and ears open. “The long-term employees allowed me to come in and be mentored by them,” he recalls. “I didn’t come in here with a plan to revolutionize the business. I wanted to challenge convention and, in the process, have some fun.”

Eventually, the “outsider” started making some decisions. As the company rolled into 2001, Cook began to evaluate the company’s marketing plan, its IT infrastructure, its property and additional location possibilities. And then (gasp!)—he hired more outsiders. The company, he says, needed “additional horsepower” to grow. True to his own path, he didn’t look for window veterans to fill the slots—he looked for business people interested in helping him take the company to the next level.

The director of marketing, Patti Freko, comes from a broadcasting sales background. Director of finance and business development Brad Morehead worked with Feldco as an MBA student under Cook’s guidance—after his degree was finished, he joined the company full-time. And the director of sales, Ron Gerstung, has experience selling to national consumers, having worked for companies like Frito Lay and a marketing firm that took George Foreman cleaning products to retailers. Cook subscribes to the notion of “getting the right people on the bus.” Only then can a company decide where the bus is headed.

Through the growth of the leadership team, most of the “insiders” stayed. Cook managed the change slowly, placing a priority on employee buy-in and maintaining a healthy balance of outsiders and insiders. He knows that all the marketing in the world is worth nothing if the company doesn’t have solid employees in sales, customer service and technical support roles. To foster company-wide acceptance of new people and business plans, Cook regularly talks to his staff, keeping them posted on not only what’s happening, but also why it’s happening. Knowing the game plan helps even long-time employees keep pace with the changes.

And where does this blended family now stand? As we jump into 2007, Feldco has three locations in the greater Chicago area and another about 90 miles south serving the Rockford, IL, area. The company is a marketing machine and, consequently, looking to add to its 200-plus employees to keep up with its growth. A multi-year IT project keeps the various locations operating smoothly on the same network—making for a consistent transaction for customers regardless of where they live. With outsiders at the helm, the company is pushing its brand in various media outlets and experimenting with non-traditional (for Feldco, anyway) locations in strip malls in areas where the housing stock is reaching 15 to 20 years—ripe for replacement products. Cook and his team are moving into the future looking for more locations, more products and more customers.

More locations, more products, more customers—that sounds pretty “insider” to me. As I wrapped up my daylong visit to Feldco, I realized that Cook and his team are not a team of outsiders that decided for the heck of it to run a window company. They are professionals bringing some fresh perspectives and an aggressive approach to the business. And if my friend is correct, we may have some more “lifers.”

Contact the “outsider” by E-mail, christina@glass.org.