Marking 50 Years of Innovation

Fiberglass is only part of the story at Therma-Tru
July 17, 2012
FEATURE ARTICLE | Close-Ups

Celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, Therma-Tru Corp. is probably known first and foremost for pioneering the fiberglass door. Fiberglass is only part of the story, however, according to Dave Randich.

“Right from the start, Therma-Tru was blessed with creative thinkers who were not afraid to develop and invest in new products,” says the current president of the Maumee, Ohio-based door manufacturer. “Of course we’re known for introducing the fiberglass door to the marketplace, but over the years it’s grown into so much more.”

 
 A Therma-Tru plant worker demonstrating how excess material is removed from around the edges of a door skin after it comes out of the press.

Steel Door Pioneer
The company traces its history back to 1962, when David Welles, a retired Owens Corning executive, bought a company named Voglesang Lumber out of bankruptcy, says Dave Haddix, senior VP and CFO and a 30 year veteran with Therma-Tru. The company became Lake Shore Industries, and sold building materials to local builders. One of its biggest products was paneling that would go in dens or basements in homes that were built back in the ’60s.

“One of our biggest customers, Scholz Designs, saw steel doors come out in the late ’60s,” says Haddix. “Scholz asked Lake Shore if we could supply them with steel doors. Lake Shore looked at the product and decided it made sense. So, we got into the steel door business in 1966 as a result of that.”

It was a big decision, he continues. “We had to decide whether to stick with what we know or take a big chance. Dave Welles recognized the opportunity to do something different and said we’re going to do this. That way of thinking–trying to anticipate the market need–remains a critical part of Therma-Tru today.”

Lake Shore became the second company to get into steel doors, following Pease Industries, which was the first, Haddix says. Still a relatively small operation, it soon decided to exit the paneling business and other categories and become a door company.

At the time, the exterior door industry was virtually all wood, but in the early-to-mid ‘70s, steel doors started to make some progress. People start to see that it has some favorable characteristics that are still talked about today– it won’t split or crack, Haddix notes. Then the energy crisis came along and the market began to realize that steel doors had some advantages there, as well.

 
  A door slab being assembled at Therma-Tru's plant.

“So, the door industry goes through this fairly rapid transformation, going from no steel at all to say in a five to seven year period, steel is well over half the market,” Haddix states. “We were at the forefront of that, along with Pease and some others who had gotten into the steel door business early.”

Developing a Fiberglass Product
The company was enjoying success with steel, but Dave Welles, with his background at Owens Corning, was also familiar with fiberglass. Thinking what people like about steel doors are the performance and insulation, and what people like about wood doors is the look and feel, the people at Therma-Tru began asking, “is fiberglass a way to get wood appearance and steel performance?” Haddix states.

That led to the development of the Fiber-Classic door in 1975–said to be the first fiberglass door in the industry–but it wasn’t until the early '80s that it was really introduced commercially. “We spent a lot of time and money on trying to get the product structure right, and the fit. The Fiber-Classic door as we know it today was introduced to the market in 1983,” Haddix states. “Our biggest taglines were things like, ‘No, this isn’t wood.’ And, literally, people almost did not believe it.”

It took some time, but the door eventually began to build momentum in the new construction market. Builders liked the appearance and performance, but another important piece of feedback the company heard was “I don’t have callbacks,” he notes. Steel doors were prone to dents and dings on the jobsite, which the builder would have to go back and fix. They didn’t have that problem with fiberglass. “A lot of our demos were of something swinging and hitting the door, and it kind of bouncing off,” he recalls.

It was this aspect of performance—and its importance to builders—that eventually led to the discussion of smooth-surfaced fiberglass doors, which Therma-Tru launched in 2000 under the SmoothStar name. “We were seeing grained fiberglass doors, and often builders would paint them,” Haddix notes. “And, we asked why? It was all about the fact that its low maintenance and they don’t have callbacks. For the builder, that’s an expensive call to go back to repair the dent in the door.”

 
 Sidelite production at the Indiana facility.

The introduction of fiberglass had some challenges. When we started out in the early '80s, the housing market really tanked for a couple years. “There were tough periods, but we said we have to keep investing in R&D and bring this product forward,” Haddix recalls.

“From a product standpoint, it took a tremendous effort in terms of marketing, sales training, a lot of builder calls, a lot of just getting in front of the industry,” he continues. There was also the competitive response. They would ask, ’Do you really want a plastic door on your front entryway?’ “Our response was, ‘Hey, this is about good insulation, good strength and good appearance.’”

Therma-Tru was pleased enough with progress of fiberglass early on that it decided to invest in the moulding plant in Butler, Ind. Opened in 1985, it is still the company’s main production facility.

Systems Approach
With its steel door, then fiberglass door product line, Therma-Tru took a different path than most door manufacturers. It also took a different approach in how it went to market. Rather than supplying just the door slabs, the manufacturer decided it would supply the glass doorlites, frame components—“the full system”—in 1974. “I think it came back to anticipating market needs,” Haddix states.

“We had good fabrication partners and we wanted to be good partners to them, with reliable quality, reliable service, on-time delivery,” he explains. “So, it wasn’t just about the market facing side of things, it was also about an efficient supply chain supplying our partners. That was a big part of the systems approach.”

 
 Once slabs are assembled, they are prepped for assembly into a complete door unit.
 

 For the end customer, such as a builder, the ideal is to have the opening delivered to the job site just before he is ready to have it installed. “We were able to tell our fabricator partners, you place the order, you get the delivery on the date you’re supposed to get it, and you get everything when you need it to build the door,” Haddix explains. “And we talked a lot about 10-day delivery and offering a service advantage. Our position was, let me give you a one-stop shop, that’s engineered to work together. And we think it’s a better overall solution for you. For us that service advantage became very important.”

The concept helped lift the industry in terms of the service expectations, he asserts, and Therma-Tru still believes the system approach is a competitive advantage today.  The system approach and the unique fiberglass line meshed well together for the company. Once there was some market awareness for fiberglass, it allowed Therma-Tru to go around the country and say “not only do we have a full system and a good steel door, but we’ve got something new in the market that’s taking off,” Haddix notes. “It allowed us to really build the strong distribution network we have out there today. “

There are markets today that are moving towards testing the entire door unit or “system” rather than just the components, much like windows today, Randich points out. “Being a full system provider would give us an advantage should this come to pass, but it needs to happen as a result of industry consensus with all stakeholders at the table and part of the discussion.”

Recent Changes
Today, Therma-Tru is a different business than it was even 10 years ago—in many ways. One major change is its ownership. In 2003, Fortune Brands acquired the door manufacturing operation from the Welles family. The entry door market has changed too. Fiberglass doors are no longer a niche product, and numerous competitors have emerged. Additionally, remodeling and replacement has become a much more important business segment.

The market reached “a tipping point” a number of years ago, Randich suggests. Production builders were moving with such speed that they could not tolerate anything—such as dents, dings or anything else that went wrong with a wood entry door—that slowed down the closing of the house. They saw fiberglass as a way to avoid such problems, he explains. Additionally, new products, like the mahogany, fir and rustic grained fiberglass doors, opened up new opportunities for fiberglass that the original oak-grained models just could not access–out West in particular.

“Competition within the fiberglass segment has truly benefited the overall business by legitimizing it as a choice for builders and contractors,” Randich also notes. “Healthy competition is good for business and there have been times over the years when our competitors have caused us to raise our sights a bit higher, which I think is good.”

Therma-Tru’s decision to focus more on the replacement business came when the new construction market shrank and the replacement market basically stayed flat, making it more attractive on a relative basis, Randich explains. “There’s no question the replacement market requires some different capabilities to service and we have had to build those,” he says. “Door size is one challenge–different markets favor different opening sizes. Also, in a replacement application, the door arrives on the job-site pre-finished. Plus there are a myriad of options that are offered by the replacement contractor that are not as common on new construction. So we had to adapt as did some of our distributor/fabricators.”

Therma-Tru still sees plenty of opportunity for growth, Randich also notes “We feel very good about our achievements thus far in the replacement and remodeling markets. We showed our adaptability and have proven to the industry that our products are a good fit for these markets.”

Through all these changes, the new ownership has proved beneficial, Haddix states. The Welles family’s perspective was, this is a second-generation company, but Therma-Tru was not going to be a third-generation company. In 2003, it was acquired by Fortune Brands. “The Welles [family] cared deeply about the legacy of the company and about the opportunity for the people who worked there,” Haddix recalls. “Fortune was a great fit from the standpoint that this was a chance to still have autonomy but to be under a bigger umbrella.”

 
 Dave Randich, second from left, looking at a Smooth-Star display door featuring the manufacturer's Element glass doorlite.

Coming out of a housing market crash and still facing a lukewarm economy, Randich sees opportunities ahead for the company not only through increased replacement market penetration, but also through geographic expansion and continued innovation in the entry door space. “The residential construction industry may well start to rebound in 2012 or 2013, but we can’t wait for that,” he says. “We’ve got to work on those initiatives that will create value for our customers and our shareholders no matter what market conditions turn out to be.”

There is still room for fiberglass door growth, he says. He sees wood and steel continuing to play a role in the market, but points to opportunities for fiberglass at all openings to the house, including the front entry, rear entry, patio and even the home-to-garage and garage-to-outdoors openings.
Randich demurs in discussing potential developments in fiberglass door technology, but he sees more product line changes ahead. Home automation systems will continue to grow in complexity and they will involve the door at some point, he notes. “We and our fabricators are monitoring those developments. In addition to the growing demand for privacy options–frosted glass may not be the final answer here,” he adds. “So, yes, our product development process is in full swing.”

Innovation is a constant throughout Therma-Tru’s history, Randich states.  "We’re confident that we’ve lead the fiberglass door business from its beginning 30 years ago with ongoing innovations and dedication to quality," he concludes. “We’ve developed and enhanced the systems approach to doors, we continually introduce products and components that fine-tune our offerings and we try to stay in touch with both the needs of our customers and general consumers in order to continually innovate and introduce new products.”

"Always trying to anticipate what the market wants is a big part of our core values," adds Haddix. "And, working with our customers, trying to create a win-win with them. We want to be successful and we want our partners, the people we work with, our customers to be successful, as well."