Big Success in Staying Small

Regional window producer focuses on local needs, product guarantee for growth
Christina Lewellen
June 1, 2006
FEATURE ARTICLE | Close-Ups

Comfort Windows knows how to serve its upstate New York clientele. After all, its employees and salespeople are battling winter temperatures and massive snowstorms right alongside their customers. Like many small window and door manufacturers, Comfort Windows has found success by focusing on the needs of the regional market. The company will likely never sell impact products in Florida or sliding windows in California—but the family-owned operation builds an energy-efficient window for homeowners fed up with drafty houses and shocking heating bills.

“We’re a small mom-and-pop shop that still hand crafts windows,” explains Alfred “Fritz” Gentile, regional vice president. “Doing it by hand, we can ensure quality. If it’s not perfect, it doesn’t go out.”

In fact, to be able to offer homeowners a lifetime manufacturer’s warranty on its products with a 50-year labor guarantee, Comfort makes its vinyl windows, sells them, installs them and services them. The vertically integrated manufacturer will stand behind its products, regardless of whether their installation was three months ago or 15 years ago.

“Our service department goes in with a smile,” Gentile says. “If a customer calls in a few years, they can know we’ll stand behind them.”

Ninety percent of the company’s business is replacement. Serving the Rochester, Syracuse and Albany markets, Comfort prides itself on offering a high-performance product suited to the drastic temperature changes of the Upstate New York climate. Its manufacturing facilities aren’t the largest or most automated—they produce about 20,000 windows per year—but the employees are veterans, some making windows for more than 20 years now. “We have a lot of longevity here,” Gentile says. “The knowledge is valuable. We started in the beginning of vinyl windows. To have that knowledge of the past helps us make and service a quality product.”

LOCAL ROOTS
Comfort Windows has a dealer-turned-manufacturer history. Founder and president Bill Putzer started the business in 1978, purchasing windows made in Pennsylvania and selling them in Central New York. “We installed thousands of windows from another company, but after two to five years, we started seeing them fail,” Gentile explains of his company’s roots.

So Putzer, along with his parents William and Agnes Putzer, started looking into manufacturing his own products. The family, and partner Dave Edmonds, opened Galaxy Manufacturing (the production arm of Comfort Windows) in 1983. “We started with a double-hung and went from there,” Gentile explains.

The Putzers’ commitment to customer satisfaction drove them to serve the failed units from their early days in business, even though they didn’t make the windows. “We went back and replaced those windows with Comfort windows at no charge,” Gentile says. “That’s when people started talking about Comfort.”

Comfort’s promise to take care of problems should they arise promoted speedy growth for the small business. Just two years after the start of self-manufacturing, the company outgrew its plant and moved to its current Liverpool, NY, location. A year later, in 1986, the management invested in new manufacturing equipment to offer a full line of products including sliders, bays, bows, casements and garden windows.

Today, owner Bill Putzer works side-by-side with his sister, Laurie (who is married to Gentile) and son, Brandon. The original founders of the manufacturing division (Putzer’s parents and Dave Edmonds) are still involved with daily operations as well. In all, the company has more than 130 employees.

Comfort’s approach to manufacturing windows for the harsh winters of New York is to reduce the occurrence of seal failures by using the highest performing spacers and sealants available in the market. The company prides itself on its IG unit, knowing that, while looks are important, its regional buyers are looking primarily to protect their homes from the elements. The IG unit is the “heart” of the product, says sales manager Jerry More. “It’s what allows us to offer the guarantee we do,” he says. If the glass breaks or the IG seal fails, the company will replace the entire sash (the company manufactures the products and seals them in a way that does not allow for IG removal).

The Comfort manufacturing and service philosophy resonates with buyers who are not shopping on price, but on value. “The homeowners we deal with have gone through the cheap phase,” Gentile says. “They don’t want that. They want quality. We are now replacing replacement windows. They want to just do it once and do it right.”

Stretching beyond the Syracuse area, Comfort now serves Rochester and Albany with showroom and training locations, and is looking to expand to Buffalo as well. The company believes in having a physical location in the cities it serves to be a better partner with its customers. “Because of all of the options for windows, you need a showroom,” Gentile says. “A salesman cannot bring all of the choices to a home.”

AFTER-SALE SERVICE WITH A SMILE
Taking control of the quality of its products allows Comfort to offer its customers a no-questions-asked approach to warranty issues. The vertically integrated model means there is no finger pointing to suppliers or installers if problems pop up—the Comfort family makes its products, installs them and follows up with after-sale service and inspections, Gentile explains. “It starts with the sales staff,” he says. “They have the confidence to tell the homeowner how things are going to be done. Their words are matched on the back-end. Our staff makes a quality product and then stands behind it.”

Gentile says about 75 percent of the company’s business comes from referrals. Comfort also advertises through traditional means (radio, newspaper, yard signs, etc.) for mindshare, but relies on good references from the community to attract the majority of its new clients. “We’re always going to advertise to get the word out about monthly specials, but it’s a snowball effect,” he says. “If you do the job right, the word gets out.”

The fabricator has received third-party endorsements for its dedication to customer service—it proudly displays its most recent Upstate New York Better Business Bureau Torch Award for Excellence in Marketplace Ethics, for example, in each of its showrooms. “We invest in our service department,” says Gentile. “When you’re part of the community, you’re going to shine. You need to step up to that level to protect your name. By protecting your name, you protect the homeowner.”

KNOWING LOCAL NEEDS
Because it manufactures in New York and all of the employees live in New York, Comfort certainly knows the needs of the New York market. While windows and doors need to keep cold air out in the winter, customers also want to let the sunlight in. To battle long, drab winters, buyers are opting for more glass, Gentile says. “They want to create larger, more customized glass walls. They say, ‘I want to bring the outdoors in’—they want to feel the light.”

To help meet this need, Comfort trains its installation crews in “rough opening” replacement, as well as retrofit. To maximize the size of the new window, and thus the glass surface area, some jobs include new extension jambs, moulding and trim. “We don’t just shove a window into a hole and leave the old stops,” Gentile notes. “We do the whole job.”

Although its bread-and-butter is its windows and doors, the company also sells and installs sunrooms, siding and awnings offered by supplier manufacturers. “We want to provide our customers a complete suite of home improvement products specific to the Upstate New York region,” More says.

Because of its hands-on approach to making and installing products, Comfort does not aspire to become a national supplier. The company uses no subcontractors for installation and focuses on educating its staff on the product lines with in field and factory-direct training. If a manufacturing process changes, the plant manager can pass the information along to the sales force over a cup of coffee in the front office—simple information sharing that you will not often get from a manufacturer producing three or four states away. “When you deal with Comfort, you eliminate the middle man,” says More. “From A to Z, we’ve got everything we need to fix problems. With a quick phone call to the office we can get whatever parts or answers we might need.”

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