The Right Products In the Right Places

Two California dealers talk about meeting green customer needs
Christina Lewellen
April 1, 2008
FEATURE ARTICLE

 

logoBeing green may not yet be important in every region or locale around the country. And it may not be an issue with every customer who walks through the door. But more dealers are deciding they can't ignore or take a passive approach to the green building movement. Some may embrace green, others simply see the need to serve their customers. Two California dealers that have been playing in the green arena for some time can offer this assurance to those still uncertain about what "being green" actually means-builders, contractors and homeowners can sometimes be as confused about green as you are-and they're looking for a trusted resource to guide them through the process.

"The thing that's a little different with green is that there's more education," says Judi Ettlinger, director of marketing for Truitt & White, a Berkeley, Calif.-based building products supplier. "You have to hang in there to understand what it is about your product that is green. We have information on our Web site and in our store, but it's really more about one-to-one selling. You've got to be able to talk to your customers about it."

The green building movement-and particularly how and to what degree windows and doors fit into it-is still fairly nebulous. There is one element of green most industry people agree on, however. "Energy is one of the most important pieces of green building," says Ettlinger. "In the context of climate change and global warming, energy plays a huge role. The windows are an important piece of it."

WHERE TO BEGIN?

GreenHow to "go green" probably depends on a slew of variables, the most important of which might be the dynamic and trends in the region a specialty retailer is serving. Dimensional Millwork Inc. of California, for example, does a lot of green business at its direct sales location in the Santa Barbara area but comparatively little in its two-step locations throughout Southern California, reports Sharon Brockman, DMI wholesale sales representative for the Los Angeles and Santa Barbara regions. "I can't even remember being asked by anyone in Los Angeles-any dealer-about any question having to do with green-ever," she recalls. "Whereas in Santa Barbara, it's completely focused on green."

An exclusive Kolbe dealer, DMI of California saw the direction the building market was headed in the Santa Barbara area in recent years, and joined a green sub-division of its local contractors association. Green is simply part of the culture in that region, Brockman explains, so being a green-savvy building products supplier was essential. "In the building department for Santa Barbara, in the building and planning offices, it was mandatory that the officials watch Al Gore's movie, just in terms of education," she says. "It's probably driven more by the architects lately, but there are some builders that are really, really into it."

While not all sales personnel at DMI are green experts, some employees such as Jeremy Ziegler have embraced the movement and made it a point to become an informed resource for interested customers. "A lot of places in this industry, sales people are just order takers," he says. "I pride myself on...having the education to mix green into my conversations with the customers. It's not just about the product, but about placing the right product in the right places."

Ziegler admits that it's not simple to receive an education in green fenestration or other building products-there's a lot of information floating around the Web and the media. But he believes that organizations involved with green certification and local green initiatives can be a good place to start. "We're members of the local contractors association and its subdivision, called Green Build Santa Barbara," he says. "Not every community has that resource, but that's definitely a first step. You have to surround yourself with other materials suppliers, architects and builders and get an idea of what they're doing."

If green building organizations aren't exactly a dime a dozen in your area, there are ways to push the envelope by being proactive, contends Truitt & White's Ettlinger. A San Francisco lumberyard since 1946, Truitt & White has carved out a section of its business to focus on green products and serving the green building community. The company has a green resource section on its Web site and employees like Ettlinger who are active in the green community. "I would say that in addition to being innovative and going with change, we're actually more proactive," she says. "For an older company in the construction industry, to be innovative in any way is unique, but instead of being afraid of green, we look at it as a real opportunity."

green2Ettlinger got involved with green building in 1999-long before many building products suppliers had even heard of the trend. So the lumberyard, an Integrity by Marvin dealer, has had nearly a decade to define what green means to the company and its customers. "I would say that for our company, it's products, but practices as well," she explains. "Sometimes people just think about green building as the products, but it's more than that. It's about how buildings are built and how sites are put together. It might also be how [a contractor or builder] presents itself and what their jobsite practices are like." And beyond simply supplying products for green-minded customers, Truitt & White takes seriously its role as a community supporter of environmental building approaches. "We consider our role in the green building movement first as one of being a corporate community partner," Ettlinger says. "We host meetings and conduct education sessions. We support statewide organizations and green building initiatives and interest among our community and our customers. Then, second, supplying products when it makes sense."

Ettlinger notes that Truitt & White is not exclusively a green lumberyard, but sees the trend seeping into more and more of what it supplies. "In terms of products on the ground, it doesn't even represent 50 percent of what we do," she notes. "But more and more products are marketing their green elements."

The company didn't mark a date on the calendar and declare itself a green supplier, Ettlinger says. Instead, the dealer has marked parallel development with a core group of buyers who challenged the company to meet green demands. "This has definitely evolved and continues to evolve," she says. "There was a small group of solid, important customers who said, 'This is important to us.' They wanted us to come along on the ride with them."

Those who are active in the green building products niche warn new entrants to carefully monitor their marketing messages to avoid "green washing," or making inflated claims with increasingly-educated builders and consumers. "Marketing is where things can become tricky," Ettlinger explains. "There's a hyper-awareness about green washing, so you'd better be credible. As a manufacturer or distributor, if you make the green claim, you'd be able to back it up. People are skeptical."

Ziegler says, like in any area of home improvement, consumers are educating themselves on green issues-making it even more critical to be well informed as a provider. "I try to at least bring up the issue of green in our sales pitch and talk about how Kolbe can help them achieve certain things," he says. "But typically before I can even mention it, it's brought up by the homeowner."

PARTNER POWER
Currently, most dealers rely on their manufacturers to supply them with information about how products and manufacturing processes fit green requirements. "Kolbe has done such an excellent job of providing us with information about how Kolbe is green," Brockman says. "It will absolutely be a benefit to us in terms of sales."

Based on the information coming out of this year's International Builders' Show, many manufacturers in the industry are getting on the green message bandwagon, even if the process is still evolving. "We say 'MI is going green,' not 'MI is green,'" notes Mark Feucht, product development manager for MI Windows & Doors. For MI, that means looking at a product's entire life-cycle, including durable, energy efficient performance, and eliminating waste is production, recycling materials, using fuel and power as efficiently as possible and reducing water use, he explains. "Green is not a program that can be implemented at your plants, it's a whole new way of thinking...a way of living."

Since many window and door products already available have plenty of green attributes, manufacturers are aiding dealers' efforts by being more proactive in communicating the green message-not just about the products themselves, but also how they're manufactured. "There are many considerations when evaluating if a product is environmentally-friendly," according to Christopher Burk, product manager for Simonton Windows.

Many manufacturers are trying to make the process simple for their partners by pushing information through the channels that spells out how to communicate the green message to end users. "The industry is changing dramatically, so it's not as hard to get information from the manufacturers as it was even two years ago," Ettlinger says. "I think manufacturers are seeing the wave. They're seeing people demanding this and cities and states mandating green in certain areas."

Green may take different forms and be executed to different extremes from one dealer or distributor to another, but Ettlinger sees the key as good education and a long-term commitment to serving the movement. "You're not going to get everyone in your company to buy into it," she says. "But you have to have a core group of people who really understand it and can respond to it. It's about the long haul. You can't try something 'green' for a month or two and say, 'That didn't work.' It's a really long-term commitment."

Contact Christina Lewellen, senior editor, at clewellen@glass.org.