Great Lakes Ready to Reinvigorate the Brand

Vinyl window manufacturer’s new owners plan to “take it to the next level”
September 1, 2004
FEATURE ARTICLE | Close-Ups

Back when the vinyl window industry consisted largely of replacement window manufacturers and their dealers, one of the biggest names in the business was Great Lakes Window. Under new ownership since earlier this year, the Walbridge, OH, based manufacturer is looking to grab the spotlight once again.

 

In the ’80s, Great Lakes was thought by many to be the largest vinyl window manufacturer in the industry. It may never have been the largest, but Hans Vetter, now vice president of sales and marketing for the company, says it is clearly an industry leader, particularly in the realm of innovation, added value and marketing. “Great Lakes has the reputation for always being one of the first to introduce and promote new technologies and product features,” he states.

 

Despite numerous changes in leadership in recent years, “that emphasis never changed,” Vetter continues. He disputes any suggestion that the Great Lakes brand has lost any prominence. Yet now that it’s under new ownership, he adds, “We want to take it to the next level.”

 

The new owner of Great Lakes is Ply Gem Industries, which represents the former window, door and siding business of Nortek Inc. Ply Gem was acquired by a management group and Caxton Iseman Capital, a New York-based investment firm. The transaction marked Nortek’s exit from the window and door business. At one time, Nortek owned Peachtree Doors & Windows and SNE Enterprises. Additionally, it owned Great Lakes, Napco and CWD Windows & Doors in Canada, which together with Variform and Kroy Building Products, were sold to become part of the new Ply Gem.

 

The new ownership is committed to the building products industry and the window and door business specifically, as is reflected in its more recent purchase of MW Windows (see news item on page 12), Vetter states. With regards to Great Lakes in particular, that commitment means “reinvigorating the brand.”

 

Heading up marketing efforts at Great Lakes, Ralph Pfieffer, left, and Hans Vetter are looking to "reinvigorate the brand."

Accelerating Innovation

The process has already started, he continues, pointing to the introduction of several new lines, including the Safe Haven impact window and the Premier luxury sliding door.

 

“We’re committed to at least one major innovation a year,” Vetter states, and he foresees the vinyl window maker delivering more than just that.

 

Ralph Pfeiffer, who recently joined Great Lakes to head up its marketing—and who, like Vetter, worked at SNE Enterprises—shares that confidence. Even in recent years, the company has continued to develop new value-added products while maintaining its reputation for high quality, he states. Touring the factory floor, Pfeiffer points to beefy extrusions and unusual features like foam inserts and fiberglass reinforcements, as well as high-performance glass packages, as factors that differentiate the company’s products from those of other vinyl window manufacturers.

 

The consistent drive to produce higher quality windows with unique features has enabled Great Lakes to maintain and grow its dealer base in recent years, according to Vetter. Its current dealer base is national, although there are regions and local markets where it isn’t represented. Its line includes products at different price points, and in many markets it has several dealers handling its various lines. “There are still many opportunities out there,” Vetter adds.

 

Promoting the Great Lakes name more will be one part of the effort to capitalize on those opportunities, he and Pfeiffer agree. “Many recognize us as a leader in marketing,” Vetter states, particularly in the realm of dealer programs. He points to such areas as tools for in-home presentations and lead generation as some of the company’s strong suits. Still, he adds, “You’re going to see and hear a lot more from us.”

 

Selling Lifestyle

In the company’s targeted high-end replacement segment, the message delivered is key, Vetter notes. “You’re not just selling a window. You’re selling a lifestyle. That really opens up a lot of opportunities when you talk about innovative features.”

 

Baby Boomers and even the Gen-Xers who are now buying homes are much more demanding when it comes to products and much more receptive to “lifestyle” features, Vetter explains. “They want products that enhance their life. They want products they can show off to their friends. That’s where we can really differentiate ourselves.”

 

The Euroglide hardware on the new Great Lakes Premier patio door is an example of a “lifestyle” feature that Vetter expects will enable the manufacturer to capture the attention of many customers. When the handle is turned, the panel raises up and glides open and close with very little force. Not only can the homeowner get a multipanel door that can be enhanced with numerous decorative enhancements; he or she can see and feel a clear difference in how the door operates every time they open it.

 

Vetter sees many other lifestyle issues, such as enhanced security, that Great Lakes can address in the future. In its efforts to introduce new innovations each year, it’s not just about improving performance numbers or adding a new option. Developing products that are perceived as lifestyle enhancements is a major goal going forward, he explains.

 

Strength in Manufacturing

The infrastructure for developing and producing the enhanced product lines is certainly there, according to Vetter. Great Lakes, he states, has stayed at the forefront of manufacturing technology. In its 230,000-square-foot production facility, which employs as many as 1,000 people during peak season, Great Lakes is “a big believer in demand flow technology,” reports Dave Klotzbuecher, the company’s director of manufacturing.

 

This operational strategy, which is related to lean manufacturing, emphasizes the concept of pulling raw materials and components through the process according to customer demand. In the Great Lakes plant, it means that window and door production is based on when the customer needs a product shipped. Its system is designed to not only deliver each order to the loading dock complete and on time, but to deliver each component to the next stage of production when it is needed, Klotzbuecher points out.

 

The company also places a great deal of emphasis on quality control, evidenced by the fact that Great Lakes has more than a separate quality control department, he continues. Every production worker is instructed to do systematic quality checks on components and assemblies as they receive and pass them on to the next station. “We believe in it,” Klotzbuecher says of this system. “We’ve had employees that come in and don’t take the checks seriously. Those employees quickly find they’re no longer welcome.”

 

Looking to the Future

Vetter admits that changes in ownership have created some challenges for Great Lakes in recent years, but he prefers to focus on the future. The recent addition of MW Windows to the Ply Gem family offers the possibility for “tremendous synergies,” according to Vetter. The two window operations have strong management, loyal customer bases and very complementary businesses, with about 95 percent of Great Lakes in replacement and about 95 percent of MW’s business in new construction. Together, he adds, they represent a dominant force on the Eastern seaboard of the United States.

 

And Ply Gem and its financial backers may not end there. “We’re looking for growth in our core businesses and through acquisition,” Vetter points out. Although it’s not specifically in the market for additional window manufacturing operations, he says there’s certainly an interest in “any and all opportunities.”

 

Focusing on Great Lakes, specifically, “the company is still recognized as an industry leader,” Vetter concludes. “And I think you can comfortably say you’ll see more and more from us.”