Two Years Later: Take Two Windows and Call Me in the Morning

Post-Katrina, window dealership takes on doctor’s office feel to serve those in need
Christina Lewellen
August 1, 2007
FEATURE ARTICLE | Close-Ups

Walking into Interstate Windows & Doors is a lot like walking into the waiting room at a doctor’s office. A vanilla reception area has one window, behind which an obviously organized receptionist is stationed, a play table for children is tucked into one corner and a couple of chairs book-end a small table. Rather than health and parenting magazines, the table displays a few window brochures, which is really the only way visitors to the Slidell, La., specialty window and door dealer know they’re in the right place.

Located on the northeast side of Lake Pontchartrain, about 30 miles or so from New Orleans, Interstate functions a lot like a doctor’s office too. In the two years since Hurricane Katrina ripped through the area, the dealer has had to control the flow of customers the way a specialty physician would control the flow of patients, says Charlie Cusimano, vice president. “We have appointments, just like a doctor’s office, and some are four to six weeks out,” he explains. “And people are still willing to wait.”

Just like nurses who log patients’ vital signs and record their initial complaints, Interstate trained its receptionists to prepare people for their appointments, priming them to think about whether they want mullions, decorative glass, specific performance features or a particular color for their fenestration products. Once customers reach their allotted appointment time, they are ushered through the waiting room door to what once was 5,000 square feet of dedicated showroom space but, post-storm, is a combination of product displays, sales offices and warehouse-like shelving for stock. In fact, the waiting room at Interstate didn’t exist before the storm—the staff had to cordon off the showroom after the storm to make sure they were serving customers in the right order and not get “off track” from scheduled business with people wandering in looking for help. “People coming in here were down right begging to be waited on,” Cusimano recalls.

Once five or six weeks long, lead times for products have pretty much returned to pre-Katrina levels of three or four weeks, and customers no longer line up before business hours just to make an appointment, Cusimano says. But the warehouse space is overflowing with products the installation crews may not have the opportunity to touch for months, the regular box delivery trucks have been benched for open-air trailers that can haul away awkward job-site debris, and everyone at the company is well-versed in Interstate’s emergency management plan. The company has definitely changed, he says.

To a seasoned visitor of window and door dealerships, perhaps the most bizarre sight is not stock sitting in the carpeted, finished space of a showroom or the fact that sales people are filling out paperwork at banquet tables sandwiched between window displays—it’s the price stickers and product descriptions taped right on the showroom displays, an unusual practice in the industry. The price tags are a bit strange, Cusimano admits, but it’s all part of the effort to get people the products that they need quickly and efficiently.

“I don’t want it to seem like we’re shoving them through an assembly line, but people here are so desperate for help that we’re just trying to be as efficient as possible,” he says.

This getting-down-to-the-business-of-the-business approach impressed customers and suppliers alike, including one of Interstate’s primary manufacturers, General Aluminum. “The current ownership, Charlie and Reed [Ingram, president], care about their people,” says Freddie Davis Cole, national sales manager. “Reed was back the day after the storm and went to work immediately. Most of their employees simply followed their lead and got to work instead of dwelling on the ‘Why me? Why did this happen?’ side of the story.”

A NEW WAY OF LIFE
Before Hurricane Katrina, 20-year-old Interstate was primarily a supplier to the new construction segment of the industry. The storm up-ended the way the veteran company did business, not only in the immediate aftermath but also in the years that followed. “Everything after the storm shifted from new construction to remodel and replacement,” Cusimano says. “With the codes and permits, it took new construction a couple or three months [after the storm] to get started. But the replacement window business was immediate. As soon as the phones were back on, people wanted replacement products immediately.”

The fact that the owners were so quick to turn to a foreign way of doing business amidst the chaos of an emergency is what makes Interstate such a solid company, Cole says. The owners felt responsible to keep its employees fed by keeping the doors open, he says. “They entered the replacement market immediately, something they had never even thought much about before the storm,” Cole recalls. “They realized they still had bills to pay and mouths to feed and had to generate cash flow. It was unknown right after the storm if they were going to be able to collect any of their accounts receivable.”

Other suppliers had the same impression. “Charlie and his employees at Interstate truly have a ‘can-do’ attitude and are very dedicated to their customer base and their community,” says LJ Meynard, southern regional sales manager for Weather Shield Windows & Doors. “When everyone else stopped taking on any more business after the storm because they where so busy, Interstate added staff, made service a priority and really stepped up to take care of folks. They even serviced Weather Shield jobs that they did not sell in the past.
They staffed up to take on new customers when other places would not take on any new business.”

Sitting in his office in late May, surrounded by open orders and manufacturers’ price books, Cusimano recalls like it was yesterday the company’s experiences in the days and weeks that followed Katrina in the summer of 2005. Despite being located about five miles from Lake Pontchartrain, extensive flooding and wind damage from the storm left the company without electricity for at least two weeks and without phone service for more than a week, he recalls. The phones might have been out for longer, he says, smiling, except for the fact that one of Interstate’s employees discovered a phone service crew working around the corner from the building and convinced them to visit the dealership out of rotation.

Even with the phones turned back on, Cusimano and his team had the seemingly impossible task of tracking down all of Interstate’s employees who fled during the storm. The dealership wasn’t really open for business for about a month after the storm, but Interstate still paid its employees—which meant tracking them down to deliver paychecks.

Life slowed down considerably following the storm, Cusimano explains. It would take hours to get gas or make it through a drive-thru fast food restaurant (and once to the window, customers would have a choice of only two menu items). “Compared to even a year ago, we’re doing much better. The Wal-Mart is open 24 hours again. Have you ever tried to go into a Wal-Mart that’s only open 8 hours? It’s brutal. You can stand in line for hours.”

But for the folks like Cusimano who are natives to the area, leaving during the lengthy rebuilding was not an option, despite the inconveniences. “When you look back, you wonder how you ever lived that way. But it’s your home. It’s your life.”

Once the company did open for business after the storm, customers would line up for hours just to get in the door. Before the storm, Interstate did very little business with entry doors. Almost immediately after, it was the type of product in highest demand. “At first, people just needed a front door on their house so they were buying them right off the floor,” Cusimano explains.

The dealer stuck with all of its pre-Katrina suppliers, including General Aluminum and Weather Shield, its primary window suppliers, but added additional suppliers such as Therma-Tru, MAI, Barnett Millwork and others, just to keep up with demand. Cusimano says the company ran several replacement crews from sun-up to sundown to install its products, but even that part of the business barely resembled its pre-storm approach. Several of the company’s laborers didn’t return after they fled the storm, and it was nearly impossible to fast track the hiring process for such a skilled position. “My labor rate for just changing glass went from $35 an hour to $95 an hour,” he says. “I had to pay to get people in here, but that meant our prices had to go up.”

What was 5,000 square feet of dedicated showroom space “pre-K” is now an area cordoned off to the public that houses warehouse overflow, sales personnel with office space and product displays.
Cusimano says the reports and rumors flying around the media and Internet about drastic spikes in land prices, labor costs, building material prices and the insurance nightmare companies and individuals are facing in the areas hit by Katrina are in fact a part of the daily reality for those who are rebuilding, even years later. So many people needed estimates to even get the ball rolling with their insurance carriers that Interstate was being flooded with requests for quotes. The company created a do-it-yourself quote sheet so homeowners could indicate how many openings they needed to fix, on what story the openings were located, what color they wanted, what options they would add on. Those worksheets would go to a couple of Interstate employees who would do nothing but fill out those sheets, Cusimano says. “We would work up the quotes with set prices and calculate the add-ons,” he explains. “If a customer wanted a quote on site, we had to charge a $125 deposit which would eventually go toward the cost of the job. We had to do it this way just so we could get to everybody.”

This labor-intensive shift in the business meant Cusimano had to double his staff—from 15 to 30 people as he could find appropriate candidates—and add another day to the work week. “I constantly felt bad that we couldn’t service everybody,” he says, revealing the weight of the past two years in a single sentence.

BACK AND BETTER
Despite the scar tissue that Katrina left on Interstate—first and most apparent to visitors in the building’s signage, which has an obvious repaired look with several individual letters in the company name replaced with a close-but-not-quite font—Cusimano says some company policies, business approaches and its future outlook have changed for the better. The sales force acts more as consultants these days, and all of Interstate’s staff is cross-trained to know more about the products it sells and the customers it serves. “Every person here is now being educated on the product we sell, even down to the receptionist,” he says. “We have learned that we need to be diversified. Education is key.”

Cusimano and his team also established an outside line of communication so all of the employees know how and where to check-in if another emergency arises. “One of our suppliers has offered to be our communication hub if a storm comes in again,” he notes. “We’ll all contact the hub to share announcements.”

The company’s emergency preparedness plan now includes a financial grace period with suppliers. “After Katrina, we had no communication and no line of credit. If the banks are shut down, no checks are going out. We have established with each of our suppliers a financial understanding.”

In terms of space, Interstate’s warehouse—its actual warehouse, not the products stored on the showroom floor—is bursting at the seams. After the storm, the dealer took over the abandoned swimming pool company located next door for a place to store more transitioning products. Part of the inventory the company stores at the swimming pool building is its millwork and trim, which customers essentially pushed them into after the storm. “The demand was so high for trim that our customers sort of forced us into it.”

THE REAL IMPACT
To those who may not have fully wrapped their brains around what happened during and immediately after Katrina rolled through, Cusimano clarifies that wind-borne debris is not what left thousands of houses in ruins. The widespread destruction came at the hands of flooding, either through the storm surge along the Gulf Coast to the east of New Orleans or the crumbling levees in the greater New Orleans area. “If it wasn’t for the flood waters, there wouldn’t be much damage here, unless a house got clipped by a pine tree,” he says.

“Do we see a lot of people going with impact? No. A number of people are replacing things on their houses with very little insurance money,” Cusimano explains. “I would love to sell every window as impact but I live here too and I know people just can’t afford it.”

The energy codes in Louisiana walk people down the path to low-E glass and windows with IG units and Cusimano says homeowners, despite the urgency to rebuild, will take their time to consider performance and decorative options. “We’ve always been an aluminum market, but vinyl is starting to come on strong here,” he says. “I think people like what they perceive as a thicker frame.”

Both new construction and replacement purchasers are getting more creative with muntins, as well, as they try to maintain that New Orleans, big lite style. “In some of the older houses, the windows are so small, but people are definitely opting for bigger squares in new construction,” he notes.

Still, with only some exception of upper-end buyers, Interstate deals with customers every day who have their hands tied by the insurance crisis. People are not only trying to collect on claims stemming from Katrina, but they’re facing seemingly unreasonable increases in rates or carriers dropping their policies. It’s tough for customers to go all out on their windows and door purchases, when this year’s insurance policy is adding $200 to $300 per month to the mortgage payment, he points out. “Until this insurance problem is solved and until New Orleans shows some signs of economic rebuilding, I don’t really see a light at the end of this tunnel. It worries me every day because of the things I’m seeing.”

Rather than focus on the problems left to solve, however, Cusimano and the rest of the team at Interstate would prefer to look to the future. There’s certainly no erasing the affects of Katrina—it was, as Cusimano and many others call it, the 100-year flood—but he anticipates a time when the area is no longer in the “rebuilding stage,” but is just simply rebuilt.

“I would love to go just one day and not hear the word Katrina,” he says. “It’s been 20 months and people are still blaming everything on the storm. Get on with your life. If you want to stay in this area, you have to stop waiting for someone to do it for you.”

That’s what Interstate has done, and what it will continue to help its customers do.

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