A History of Success for Steves & Sons

With new manufacturing plant in Tennessee, 140-year-old door maker continues family tradition of continued, steady growth
John G. Swanson
April 1, 2007
FEATURE ARTICLE | Close-Ups

The landscape of the interior door business has changed dramatically over the last 20 years or so. With its 140-year history, Steves & Sons has clearly learned to adapt and thrive with change.

Dating back to the pioneer days of Texas, the San Antonio-based company has evolved from a frontier lumberyard to one of the largest interior door manufacturers in the United States. And while consolidation has meant fewer independent door makers, Steves & Sons is growing, recently opening a new factory in Lebanon, TN, to nearly double capacity at that location.
Steves & Sons can trace its history to the pioneer days of Texas, when the company was founded as a lumberyard in San Antonio in 1866.
“The Steves family has a high level of dedication that it has received from its forebears,” says Patsy Steves, chairman of the board and wife of the late Marshal Steves Sr., who previously served as chairman. “Consistent dedication to company values and principles” has allowed the company to avoid turmoil and change with the times.

“The family is highly motivated to continue the previous generations’ accomplishments and successes,” she continues. “With generations of success behind them, each generation must have high goals and motivation to continue the high standards previously set.”
The current generation of leadership at Steves & Sons are Edward G. Steves, left, and Sam Bell Steves II.

Looking back at its entire history, the company “has chosen stability and security over acquisition and risk,” says Sam Bell Steves II, president, describing some of the key reason for Steves & Sons’ longevity and continued growth. “Much of our growth has come from internal expansions.”

“ROLLING OUT DOORS THROUGH IT ALL”
That approach is somewhat different from other leading door makers. During the ‘90s, both Jeld-Wen and what was then Premdor each acquired numerous interior door manufacturing operations. Then in 2000, Premdor bought the Masonite molded door facing business from International Paper, and re-named itself Masonite International. That deal meant there were two vertically integrated manufacturers that made not only hollow core doors, but also the molded panels that went on them.

The Masonite deal also created Craftmaster Manufactur-ing Inc., a spin-off from the original International Paper operations that would continue manufacturing door facings and supplying independent door manufacturers. In 2005, however, CMI also took the step to vertically integrate, acquiring C&S Door in Virginia. It now operates two interior door manufacturing plants and has plans to open a third.

These changes put Steves & Sons in a fairly unique position from a competitive standpoint, as three of its major suppliers now represent three of its major competitors as well, says Doug Gartner, general manager of the Tennessee plant. “We kept rolling out doors through it all,” he adds, giving some of the credit to the strong housing market of recent years.

“We’re comfortable with our position with them,” he continues. “They’re all good suppliers. This is basically a commodity business. There’s not too much difference in the products we all supply. What’s important to our customers is our service.”

That service is delivering truckloads of door slabs to distributors throughout the country east of the Rockies and meeting a variety of unique needs. “We have about 300,000 possible combinations of what we do,” Gartner explains. “One door may not look all that different to the homeowner, but each customer has different preferences on internal construction, beveled versus non-beveled edges, sizing and assorted other factors.”

Then, he adds, there are the times when a customer needs that “special,” he adds. “It may be only one door in an order, but if the customer needs that door to finish a job and close a sale, it’s critical.”
With automated machinery throughout much of the new Tennessee plant, door components are still glued and assembled by teams of people because all the variations in doors make it a difficult process to automate.Steves & Sons’ flexibility is key, Gartner suggests, pointing out that good service doesn’t mean the same thing to all customers. “This is still an entrepreneurial business,” he says. “There are no hard and fast rules to what they all want.” One advantage the door manufacturer has, compared to its larger competitors, is the fact that it’s been able to keep its people “empowered in the field.” The sales team is usually able to respond quickly to its distributor customers needs. “Here in Lebanon, we don’t have to wait to get an answer from San Antonio.”

AN INSTITUTION
Now headed by the fifth generation of the Steves family, with the sixth waiting in the wings, Steves & Sons is considered an institution in San Antonio—and within the door business. “Although we may not be the largest, our name is universally recognized as a leader in our industry,” says Patsy Steves. “Many of our customers have long company bloodlines and their knowledge of our long history allows them to feel comfortable with the relationship they have with their supplier.” 

The company got its start in the lumber business in 1866, still a time for pioneers in Texas. Business grew as more and more people came in to settle on the new frontier. In 1904, Steves & Sons opened a millwork manufacturing facility, and based on that success, Steves Sash & Door was established as a separate entity in 1912.
Doug Gartner, left, with Jesse Garcia, production manager for the Lebanon door plant, who is Steves & Sons’ longest tenured employee, with more than 47 years employed at the company.
It eventually moved into stile-and-rail doors and then entered the flush and molded skin door business in the ‘50s. It now produces interior doors in San Antonio, at the new Tennessee plant and in Richmond, VA. Steves & Sons also started Crest Doors more than 20 years ago to produce insulated steel doors. Also based in San Antonio, that operation now offers both steel and fiberglass products in a range of styles.

DOOR DIVERSIFICATION
Back in Tennessee, the new Steves & Sons plant is one of the most automated door facilities in North America, Gartner states. Given the number of variations available, doors are made to order through a computer-controlled production process. The company’s computerized system has become increasingly important as interior door styles have diversified. “Six-panel’s still the majority, but people want a lot more choices,” Gartner states. “Doors are a lot more upscale.”

While flush and six-panel doors once dominated production, Steves & Sons now offers two-, three-, four- and five-panel designs, as well as arch top and plank models. Also adding to the complexity of product offerings, the average ceiling height in the American homes has increased, creating much more demand for 7- and 8-foot doors.

Door components are still glued and assembled by teams of people, because the numerous panel styles, internal construction options and sizes make it a difficult process to automate, Gartner explains. Once the doors are built, however, they are moved onto presses where the glue dries, and then travel to brand new automated door sizing machinery from Mereen Johnson. The plant features automated machinery from Thermwood to route the core material used in its solid core doors to accommodate different panel designs. In addition, the company has long-term relationships with several other key equipment suppliers, Gartner points out. These include Norfield Industries for various door machining equipment, Kval Inc. for door machining and bi-fold equipment, and Black Brothers for glue and laminating equipment.

The willingness to invest in automation is important for efficient production, but also for quality, another important element in Steves & Sons’ success over the years, Gartner notes. “Our customers won’t accept anything less than high quality on a consistent basis. The new door sizer really helps on the consistency front.” 
Steves & Son moved its Tennessee operations into what is one of the largest, most automated door manufacturing plants in North America, according to Doug Gartner, general manager.
Looking to the future, he sees diversification of interior doors continuing. “As buyers become more and more educated about choices, those choices continue to expand,” says Gartner. “I fully expect that our offering of products will continue to expand and our lead times and service will also continue to improve.”

“Decorating with doors has been a theme in the interior door market for years and the homeowner has definitely bought into this idea,” says Sam Steves. “Our customer is ultimately the homeowner. As they demand more and more options, our ability to serve that need will grow to service those needs.” Inventory management and information tracking in the plant will be crucial with the increasing variety of products, he adds. “Information systems will be critical to the management of these items.”

While computer systems and automated equipment are important, Patsy Steves notes some characteristics from the company’s past continue to serve it well today. “Integrity and responsibility are keys. Being proud of past accomplishments and a knowledge of continued operations makes for real long-term decision making,” she states. “What looks like a good short-term decision may not be the right decision for the company to continue long term.”

Looking long term, Patsy Steves suggests, “the future is simply the present magnified,” as she foresees continued, steady growth for the door maker. “An initial motto of the company was ‘quality and service.’ That has really not changed over 140 years. There are a lot more bells and whistles now, but without either of these initial two foundations for the company, we would no longer exist. The relationships we have built over the past years will carry us long into the future,” she concludes. “We look forward to passing an even better company off to future generations of the Steves family.”