WindowPro Reinvents Itself for Future Growth

After 80 years in business, specialty dealer transitions to a new supplier
Christina Lewellen
October 1, 2009
SPECIAL FEATURES | Operations, Sales & Marketing, Close-Ups

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WindowPro

Cleveland, Ohio

WindowPro
The fifth generation of family leadership, Jake Zahnow, president of WindowPro, recently guided the company through a transition to a new window supplier.

When you run an 80-year-old company, you think in terms of decades rather than years, says Jake Zahnow, president of WindowPro. That long-term perspective recently led the fifth generation head of the Cleveland-based dealership to make a significant change. After distributing one manufacturer’s window and door products for more than 35 years, WindowPro switched product lines and forged a relationship with a different manufacturer.

“If you’re making money and you’re worried about keeping your margins where they are for years and years, chances are you’re missing some opportunities,” Zahnow says. “For us, this change put us in a position to grow very wisely, but reasonably fast as well.”

While the change at WindowPro was big, it was not the first time the company had set about to reinvent itself.  The move represents the latest example of innovative thinking that has led the company over its long history to redefine its business to position itself for bigger opportunities.

HISTORY OF CHANGE
Zahnow’s great- and great-great grandfathers, originally from Saginaw, Mich., were loggers at the turn of the century. His grandfather migrated to Cleveland to sell building products, and what started primarily as a roofing company eventually grew into a retail lumberyard. In the 1960s, Jake’s grandfather fell ill and his father, then in his early 20s, was handed the keys to the business.

“He had worked there summers, but didn’t really know anything about running a business,” Zahnow says. “Still, he saw an opportunity to become an Andersen dealer around 1971. For the next 20 years, my father ended up selling off the retail lumber business. After that, the company focused exclusively on wholesale distribution, and almost exclusively for Andersen.”

While professional customers knew the company as WindowPro, most homeowners knew the company as Renewal by Andersen. The dealer embarked on a significant re-branding campaign as it headed into 2009.

Jake, too, spent summers at the company, unloading box cars and talking about windows and doors at the dinner table. He recalls when, at a distributor meeting in the late 1990s, Andersen unveiled the Renewal by Andersen concept. He was graduating from college at the time, and wrote the business plan to bring the one-step model to the Cleveland area. “I knew early on that we didn’t want to be in wholesale distribution,” he says. “I just understood that the value-add as a two-stepper had a very defined lifespan to it. I saw that lifespan decreasing every year.”

After helping his father bring the Renewal by Andersen line to WindowPro, he pursued other business interests for about six years before considering returning to the family business. “The home improvement business was always very compelling to me and I understood it,” he explains. “I knew there was a big opportunity to grow the business from a $5 million mom-and-pop shop. I really wanted to create something meaningful and lasting.”

So he returned to his family’s business that had already gone through several iterations—first a lumberyard, then a wholesaler, and eventually a specialty window and door dealer serving the greater Columbus, Cleveland, Toledo and Dayton areas in Ohio. “We had tripled our business in five years and added branch locations,” Zahnow recalls. In 2007, WindowPro was among Andersen’s largest dealers in the region.

But, he continues, “we found our future growth opportunities limited."  The company started looking around to see what other options might be out there.  “Andersen was such a great partner for many years,” Zahnow adds. “We just started seeing a bright future in a different direction.”

The search led the WindowPro team to Marvin Windows & Doors. Zahnow says he had known of the Marvin product line for a long time and even had a casual relationship with the family through industry events. “When you look at our family business, and the Marvin family business, the operative word is ‘family,’” he notes. “That doesn’t mean we don’t have professionals with us or that we have rampant nepotism, but the family part means there’s a really long-term proposition.”

Not only did the manufacturer’s business principles line up with WindowPro’s as a multi-generational family business, but Zahnow was also interested in the differentiated product line Marvin was promoting. “We saw a product in fiberglass that is as close to flawless as it can be," he says. "It’s just a wonderful product, very stable.”

The change also brought WindowPro together with a supplier that has a distribution strategy that closely matches what the growing dealer was seeking. As part of its partnership with Marvin, the dealer transitioned out of the Toledo market and into the Detroit, Mich., area.  “We like the fact that, like us, Marvin thinks in terms of decades,” he says. “Susan [Marvin] will tell anybody they’ve had some rough patches in history, but they didn’t lose any of their dealers. They value their dealers and consider distribution an asset to the company.”

By the middle of 2008, WindowPro had started making the change, but it was important to Zahnow to have a smooth, amicable transition with its long-time partner.  “We worked with Andersen until the end of the year and we had a nice transition,” he says. “We have no hard feelings on either side. We still service all of our old customers and we love those customers.”

REBRANDING ITSELF
WindowPro’s leadership knew the change involved more than a switch to a new product line.  The transition was tricky, particularly because homeowners in Ohio for years had known the company as Renewal by Andersen, not WindowPro. “WindowPro was always the name of our business, we just did business as Renewal by Andersen,” Zahnow explains. “WindowPro was known to a small part of our business, the trade contractors, but we had to do significant re-branding with homeowners.”

Not only did the company have to rebrand itself and its own name, but it also had to promote the Infinity fiberglass brand, which is not as well known as the Marvin name in the marketplace. “We had to set aside a significant amount of money to try to maintain our lead flow through this time,” Zahnow says. “We spent a lot of time and money in re-launching WindowPro and our affiliation with Infinity and Marvin.”

Everything from the showroom to the Web site to the company's signage and marketing materials had to be reworked to reflect the new brand.

None of this, of course, was made any easier by the economic conditions that prevailed as 2008 drew to a close. “There was never a business plan we put together that said 2009 would be as good as 2008,” he says. “We experienced a drop-off in Q1 (of 2009), but it was expected. We’re seeing things improve nicely throughout the summer.”

That improvement is coming in no small part because of the massive communications effort the company has undertaken. WindowPro has been in touch with all of its previous customers at least once per month since the transition, explaining that the company will no longer carry the other products, but will continue to service them well into the future. The dealer has communicated to its base with phone calls, direct mail and email, and is slowly starting to see some comprehension in the marketplace. “I’m sure there’s still some confusion, but we’ve spent enough money and flooded the market with mail.”

The swap also called for an overhaul of the company’s showroom locations, as well as all of its signage, vehicle graphics and employee uniforms. Zahnow invested in a new Web site, and poured money and energy into getting a new ERP/CRM system in place. “There was a lot of operational change and sales training that had to happen,” he says. “It’s been ongoing and it was very intensive at the start of the year. But this 12 or 18 months is setting us up for decades of future growth and opportunity.”

LESSONS LEARNED
While Zahnow acknowledges that forging a new vendor relationship can be, in some circumstances, an innovative way to position a business for growth, he says he did walk away with some lessons learned. “Developing your own brand and your own service is an important thing,” he says. “If WindowPro had been at the forefront for the last 10 years, our expenditure in this transition would have been less. Our business isn’t any different than it was seven years ago. Now we just have a broader product line and we need to tell the WindowPro story.”

He also notes that, while it was important to him to wrap up his former supplier relationship in a productive, positive way, it was difficult for the staff to juggle two situations during the transition period. “We had told our staff what we were doing, but we were still running appointments as usual,” he says. “It was hard to focus on two things. My only regret is I would have done even more training [during the transition].”

At the end of the day, the decision stretched WindowPro’s boundaries, for sure, but repositioned the company to walk out of this recession prepared to write the next chapter of its history. “In Cleveland alone, there are a handful of lumberyards that my father and grandfather sold to for years and they’ve never changed,” he says. “They become paralyzed by their own success. Sometimes you’ve got to burn the ships and say we’re going in a new direction, all based on the belief that what’s in the future will be better than what’s in the past.

“The fact of the matter is that we felt we needed to move in a different direction that allows us to do what we want to do with our company in the future.”

Click here to see our other 2009 Dealers of the Year.

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