Meeting the Needs of the Most High-end Customers
When money is no object, product demands can be unusual, sometimes extreme. Forget price and energy efficiency; builders and homeowners in the luxury market are more interested in differentiating their multimillion-dollar homes with unusual window shapes, one-of-a-kind hardware and “bigger and better” doors and windows. For those in the high-end custom window and door business, these demanding customers present a unique set of challenges that require companies find creative ways to meet customer needs. Window & Door recently visited two such companies in Southern California, where the luxury market is especially strong, to get some insight into this special segment of the business.
Both Weiland Sliding Doors & Windows and Southland Windows report there’s no shortage of customers willing to pay top-dollar for products offering the best features available. The rule of thumb in Southern California, they add, is the bigger the windows and doors, the better.
“There are spectacular views along the ocean and beautiful weather,” says Bob Hutchings, sales manager for Oceanside, CA-based Weiland. “Even if a homeowner is just looking at a golf course, he wants to see it.”
Traditional homeowner demands regarding price and energy efficiency barely register with high-end California buyers, points out Richard Wines, president of Garden Grove, CA-based Southland. “In Southern California, people are not as interested in energy savings. They want unusual shapes and sizes for windows and unique hardware. Their attitude is, ‘I’m willing to pay for what I want.’”
Still, the market is not without its challenges. “Service to the stars” is a delicate business. Many times, these manufacturers aren’t privy to the customer’s name in order to protect his or her privacy; the account is referred to by the job site address only. Should a popular star turn out to be the homeowner, the dealers must protect the customer’s privacy—a rule that is often included as a contract provision.
Further, flexibility is key, high-end manufacturers say. The successful player in this market must be creative in meeting customers’ demands.
Nothing but the best
Southland Windows is a custom wood window manufacturer that has grown from $2.4 million in sales in 1995 to more than $10 million in annual sales. Wines says the company offers true wood windows—nothing is fingerjointed, veneered or edge-glued. “If you want real lumber, that’s what we sell.”
Right now, multimillion-dollar homes are sporting the looks of clear and knotty alder and Spanish cedar, Wines notes. Just a few years ago, mahogany and fir were all the rage. “These trends change very quickly.”
Although Southland specializes in its own custom windows, it also distributes Hurd products, as well as a high-end tilt-turn window by a French company called Bieber Windows. “In the very top end of the market, we’re seeing some requests for that,” he reports.
The bottom line when it comes to product offerings, according to Wines, is that whatever high-end customers are demanding—whether it be a new, exotic wood species or a European window design—Southland will be their source for it. “Whatever is needed in the marketplace, I will eventually find a way to get it there.”
Likewise, when Weiland Sliding Doors and Windows’ customers say, “make a door,” Hutchings says, “how high?” The 25-year-old company makes some custom windows but specializes in oversized doors based on the European lift slide and bi-fold hardware systems. “On a typical project, we’re doing two or three big doors. Then the rest of the windows are from another company. We match their wood.”
Among the company’s specialties are curved door units, some of which are 12- and 14-feet tall. One such unit consisted of a single-panel 14- by 10-foot door and weighed more than 1,000 pounds thanks to the glass. “We’ve done a number of pretty nice jobs we’re really proud of,” Hutchings says.
In addition to super-sized doors, the company’s products feature tracks that are only 3⁄16 inch above the floor, rather than traditional sliding door “railroad tracks,” and have a 1⁄2 inch of wood cladded to an aluminum core for strength.
Weiland doors generally cost $1,000 to $1,400 per lineal foot. “We’ve got a certain niche we’re filling, and I think we’re doing a good job. We’ve got a lot of copycats who fail, quite honestly, when trying to do what we do. And yet, we have a lot of good, healthy competition, too.”
So, who did your windows?
Unlike traditional window and door dealers who market their wares with everything from Sunday paper ads to telemarketing phone calls, Weiland and Southland do very little advertising.
Weiland does a few trade shows each year and supports its network of dealers with display programs and brochures, Hutchings says. “We don’t have a huge marketing budget. It’s reached the word-of-mouth stage where peoples’ friends have used us and now they want us.”
Weiland’s customers’ homes are the company’s best form of advertising, he says. “There are a lot of people who show off their homes with parties or whatever, and then we get calls from their guests asking, ‘did you do so-and-so’s home?’”
Likewise, if you don’t hear about Southland from a customer or find them on the Internet, you may have a difficult time locating the company, Wines says. “You won’t see Southland in any phone book other than Garden Grove.”
Southland serves customers from Santa Barbara down to the Mexican border. It has some customers in Arizona and expects to move into the Northern California market next year. The company uses a direct sales force, Wines explains, and does not use any traditional dealers to sell its custom products. He says having a direct sales force allows the company to control the wholesale function as well as the cash flow. It ensures the company representatives are knowledgeable about the products and can identify limitations with design. “It’s paramount to keeping out of lawsuits.”
Wines says having salespeople selling directly to builders and architects also allows the company to provide an additional level of customer service. “Our salesman, the service they provide and our after-sale service is why we’re successful. It’s not a price point.”
Weiland, on the other hand, does use a distribution network—mostly independent sales agents who are working for dealers, Hutchings says. “With a product like ours, we like to have a qualified sales agent involved. They’re usually also selling other windows so they can include our doors in their bids.”
The company arms its sales agents and dealers with a custom CD-ROM that includes information on the company’s products, drawings for architects and pictures for consumers, Hutchings points out. “Our CD is very important to us because then the architects can easily work us into their plans.”
Worth the wait
Hutchings says Weiland’s customers know its unique products take time to design and manufacture. “Our dealers know they need to get us in early, when the foundation is being poured.”
When a dealer asks for a quote on a project, the company can usually turn around that information in a matter of days, Hutchings explains. From there, however, it can take two or more weeks for the shop drawings to be completed and about 12 weeks for production. In all, it could take up to four months for a Weiland door system to be delivered, he notes. Still, customers think the product is worth the wait, he says. “There are an awful lot of expensive homes here. People are looking for 10-foot, 12-foot doors, and they’re willing to wait for them.”
Wines says the ordering and production process must be very efficient in order to keep lead times to a minimum. “The coordination and execution is not like a catalog order. This is all custom stuff. The execution is critical. It has to be a coordinated effort between all the parties to make this happen.”
Part of what Southland relies on to make sure orders are processed smoothly is computer software called Window Builder, which was developed by Wines’ son specifically to serve the company’s needs. The program allows salespeople to configure orders on-site and eliminates the time and human errors associated with handwritten paperwork, he notes. “That software has been paramount to our success.”
Southland’s lead time for its custom windows is about six to 12 weeks, depending on the scope of the order, Wines says.
Not so fast
Just because these two companies are serving Southern California’s big name movers and shakers, doesn’t mean they are rushing to become big name companies themselves. Custom shops require extra time and attention, they point out, and growth must be deliberate and controlled.
“It can only grow so fast,” Hutchings says of Weiland. “We’re doing what we should be doing to get a little bit bigger.”
He says the company primarily serves customers in California and Hawaii with other notable projects around the country, including New York, Florida, Texas, South Carolina and the Washington, D.C. area. The goal, however, is to expand its territory on a permanent basis to Texas and some East Coast locations.
As the company expands to new locations, Hutchings expects to develop good working relationships with additional window manufacturers in order to match product lines for projects as it currently does with West Coast window manufacturers such as Loewen and Sierra Pacific. “We complement them very well. We’ve done business with just about every single one of the manufacturers out here.”
Hutchings says the company is threatening to outgrow its Oceanside facility and has been considering an expansion. The family-owned company, founded by Bill Weiland, has about 40 to 50 employees, depending on production needs.
Southland and its 53 employees were in the process of moving to a new facility in April—though its only six miles down the road from its previous facility. Although the approximately 25 employees in production will stay the same in number because of increased efficiencies in the production process, the company expects to double its sales force with the move.
Wines says the 13-year-old company limits its growth to a maximum of 20 to 25 percent per year. “There’s a lot of business we never took because we wanted to keep that service focus. Growth will come as a natural product of excellence. We’re very understanding of what makes us successful,” he adds. “That’s not changing.”