Dealer Trains Installers for the Greater Good

Industry reputation and quality installs priority for Oregon retailer
Christina Lewellen
June 1, 2008
FEATURE ARTICLE | Close-Ups

Keith Strand is working to hand over qualified installers to his competition. This is not exactly typical behavior for a replacement window dealer, but he figures that helping his competitors means helping the window and door industry. "We should all be talking to each other," says the owner of Strand's Window & Door based in the Portland, Ore. area. "We don't have to give away any advantage. But c'mon, we are all on the same playing field and we know what's going on."

What's going on, he says, is that the industry is desperate for well-trained installers. "I'm constantly fielding blows from homeowners about botched jobs," he says. "There's all these horrible stories and I'm having to back up everything I do and how I do it to overcome objections."

Dealer Keith Strand decided to take matters into his own hands when he couldn't find qualified installers to hire for his Portland, Ore., replacement business. With the support of a regional coalition of manufacturers and dealers, he developed a 120-hour training program for installers.

So rather than struggling to hire good help and train workers once he does fill the roster, Strand decided to lead an initiative to establish a 120-hour training program in an attempt to raise the bar on the quality of window installations in the Portland area. Manufacturers, suppliers and other dealers have thrown their collective weight behind his effort, forming the Window & Door Coalition of Oregon to work with state employment and training programs and local community colleges to offer the program. "If we're going to change this industry and not keep doing the status quo, we have to think outside the box," he says. "It's got to be a grassroots change. For too long we've just been ignoring the issues."

LEARNING FROM OTHERS' MISTAKES
Strand is somewhat obsessed with documenting sub-par installation jobs. Armed with a camera and an eye for shortcuts that contribute to leaking windows in an area plagued with about 80 inches of rain per year, he has built a database of about 300 window installations gone awry.

He worked for window and door manufacturers and retailers in the 1990s and decided to open his own business in 2001. In the early years, his business offerings encompassed "anything and everything," including glass replacement and doing post-installation service work for another company. "I did full replacements for them when they had water leads and whatnot," he explains. "It really gave me a lot of insight. I'd average 30 leaking windows every winter so I would tear the whole thing out and see where the leak came from. That gave me a lot of insight when I did installs myself."

Having learned first-hand how not to install a window in the region, Strand decided the point of differentiation for his dealership would be high-quality installation practices. This approach works as long as he can keep up with the sales volume himself; the problem is when he has had to hire extra hands to help complete the orders coming into the company. "In 2006, I did bring in subcontractors but then what happens with that is bad installs," he says. "I had to go back and fix them, and I'm still fixing them."

He's tried in-house help too. "A year ago, I realized I just could not find good installers," he says. "I've probably had 30 different people help me through the years. They either didn't work out or didn't understand the industry."

Frustrated, Strand went out looking for training programs in the area that might help with his challenge. The AAMA-developed and Architectural Testing Inc.-administered InstallationMasters was a good start, but Strand was really looking for something more comprehensive and hands-on. He turned to the local community colleges. "There's a college in this region that has a construction training program," he explains. "It trains everything from construction to framing to finish work. The only class they didn't offer was windows and doors. Why is that? Why is our industry being neglected in this training?"

Figuring he couldn't be the only dealer in the area struggling with quality-of-installation issues, Strand decided he would try to do something about it.

BACK TO SCHOOL
In early 2007, Strand formed a separate company, SWD Training Institute, and took the lead on developing a 120-hour curriculum to train window and door installers, sales personnel and service representatives. With the support of the Window & Door Coalition of Oregon-its member companies include regional players such as Milgard Windows & Doors, Weathervane Windows, Loewen, Henkel Sealants, Parr Co., Everclear Windows, LbL Windows, Empire Pacific Windows, DSC Window Fashions, Suburban Doors, Glass Doctor, Portland Sash & Door, Joe's Glass and others-SWD offered the first round of the program through Mt. Hood Community College.

SWD Training Institute focuses on hands-on experience, giving students insight to the types of conditions they might find i the field.

The students attended class two nights per week for eight weeks, completing 60 hours of in-class work and 60 additional hours of out-of-class preparation. The first graduates finished up March 31.

The training includes 26 chapters of information focusing on three key areas-sales, service and installation. Students experience hands-on installation instructions on new construction, wood sash and retrofit openings. "We're not able to go in-depth in every area but we give a good taste of what they're going to encounter in the field."

The student response was positive, Strand says. "The students loved it," he says. "They just wanted more and more. We have a 5-inch thick training manual and I had an 85 percent attendance rate throughout the weeks."

SWD's focus is on regional considerations and how to deal with mold and mildew issues that come from leaky windows in the Northwest's rainy region, but Strand could see how the program could be expanded to deal with weather conditions and installation issues in other regions of the country as well. "I can honestly see this as being a national training course at some point," he says. "We're only a year and a half into it and only had one training class come out, but these [training] issues are universal."

RAISING THE BAR
Strand reports that 14 students completed the training program in March and, despite the challenging market, three already had job offers by April. He knows that many of his students will work for his competitors, but he's content in his belief that this will help rather than harm his own dealership. "I look at the greater good that comes out of it," he says. "This is the way I look at it-if I go out there and the homeowners know that they're going to have trained individuals putting their windows in, I don't have to hard sell as much. As the quality gets better, you don't have to convince homeowners that they are going to get quality."

SWD Training Institute focuses on hands-on experience, giving students insight to the types of conditions they might find i the field.

Like many others, Strand's Windows & Doors is having a down year for the first time since its inception. Still, even with his business wobbling a bit, Strand remains focused on dedicating a good portion of his time to training program. Some people may think his divided efforts are crazy-that he should focus on surviving the dip in the business cycle-but Strand is confident that investing in the training efforts now will ensure a quality candidate pool when the market turns. "The impact of training on the industry is going to be nothing but positive from this point forward," he says. "You can't get too much training. The Training Institute has so much more room to grow and enhance the industry as a whole. That's what I'm going to put my energy behind."

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