Custom Remodelers Sees Product as Key to Good Installation

Dealer sought out a plug-and-play retrofit window that would reduce installation inconsistencies
Christina Lewellen
October 20, 2010
SPECIAL FEATURES | Operations, Channels, Close-Ups


Plumb, Level & Square

Excellence in Installation 

Custom Remodelers Inc.

Lino Lakes, Minn.

Custom Remodelers saw inconsistencies with the products it was installing, and made attempts to work with manufacturers to find solutions to the problems.

Craig Carpenter, founder and president of Custom Remodelers Inc., contends that the replacement windows that make up most of the industry are setting installers up for failure.
It’s not a very popular contention, especially among the manufacturers that supplied his Lino Lakes, Minn., replacement dealership. But popular or not, Carpenter fought hard to create a plug-and-play retrofit window that would reduce installation inconsistencies in the field and leave homeowners satisfied with the outcome of their window upgrade.
The problem, Carpenter says, is that too many variables are left to be resolved in the field. From stacking up wood shims in an attempt to get the replacement product plum and square to ripping trim in homeowners’ driveways to fit around windows, every project and every opening presents a different set of challenges, he says. “You cannot get it perfect in there,” he says. “There are just too many variables. So you do the best you can and put the brickmould on the outside.”
Carpenter and his team at Custom Remodelers started conceptualizing a window that would leave less to chance when it came time for installation. The problem, they found, was convincing a manufacturer to produce the window system they envisioned. “Even when I wanted to do quality work, the products that were being furnished to me weren’t set up to be quality,” he says. “I was forced to do everything in the field. I knew it was going to fail so I had to either get out of the business or find a better way.”
Not one to be deterred, Carpenter spent several years and went through two manufacturers in his efforts to standardize a vinyl window frame. Eventually, he struck a deal with a small local manufacturer to make a vinyl replacement product that would bring consistency to the field. “There just comes a point in life when you want to do it right,” he explains. “We knew we either needed to find a supplier to make the system our way or I wasn’t going to continue in this business.”
The persistence seems to have paid off for Custom Remodelers, not only in terms of satisfied customers, but also in gaining the attention of those in the industry. “I have great respect for Mr. Craig Carpenter,” says Loren Wolfe of Allied Building Products. “He has a passion and energy for the business that is unmatched. All of the CRI staff has great attention to detail in all areas of the industry.”
THE FLAWS
Carpenter found success as a young man in the window and door industry. He was a sales manager and trainer for a national company and was making a good living for his family. Still, he struggled with his own ethical backdrop working for a company that made a habit of accepting less-than-acceptable products and service. “I was doing very well, I was very successful and at the top of my success, I quit,” he recalls. “It was a big decision. I had a wife and kids but I walked away from all that because I just couldn’t do it anymore.”
Carpenter started Custom Remodelers in 1990. The company did kitchen, bathroom and home addition projects in the early years, but it wasn’t too long before Carpenter returned to his comfort zone in exterior building products. “As we grew, it got out of hand,” he says. “You can’t do everything when you get that big. The quality of work was going down. So we came back to our roots in about 1997 and looked to go back to siding and windows.”
Drilling down to become specialists at windows and siding took Custom Remodelers to the next level. “We really started to blossom at that point because we were able to buy products at a more reasonable price,” he says. “We had buying power. We soon after built a 32,000-square-foot building in Lino Lakes and decided to warehouse all of our products—siding, windows and trim. That gave us even more buying power.”
Custom Remodelers also stayed nimble when the do-not-call list undercut its telemarketing efforts, which drove most of its lead generation. “We had to at that point decide if we were going to downsize and just stick with the telemarketing or try to change with the times, which can be tough to do,” he says. “We decided to change with the times. We took the best of what we could and made it better. We started doing some canvassing. We still do some telemarketing today, but it’s only about 20 percent of what it was at the peak.”
With the business model taking shape and having overcome some challenges in the developmental years, Carpenter turned his attention to some issues that were popping up in the replacement window segment of his business. “I knew the vinyl replacement window was founded on the 1950s rambler,” he explains. “You pop out the double-hung window, take the stops off, put the window and a little insulation in, put the stops back in and you’re done. But with newer homes you have casements, round tops, different styles—the insert didn’t make any sense.”

 

Completing more than 3,000 projects this year, Carpenter had a strong desire to make as much of the process as plug-and-play as possible.

 
By leaving all the existing trim and extension jambs and putting in an insert, the viewing area of the glass got ridiculously small, Carpenter says. “Pretty soon, you’re 8 inches before you hit any glass and the homeowners have got a little port to look out,” he says. “Even before we saw changes to the product from manufacturers, we decided we would take windows down to the rough opening on all casements and certain sliders.”
Carpenter made it company policy to do full tear outs on its projects, but he continued to see problems in the field related to installation. Besides the variables in getting the product properly positioned in the opening, he also saw varying results in the field-installed trim packages, depending on the skill level of the craftsman on the job. “So I went to my manufacturer at the time and said here’s what I need,” he explains. “I need a brickmould that’s fusion welded to the window.”
Unfortunately, despite his best efforts to explain the installation challenges he was seeing in the field, Carpenter didn’t find success in convincing his manufacturer to partner with him on making changes to the window line. “They said, ‘Yeah, it sounds like a good idea, but we’ll have to go have meetings on it,’” he says.
Custom Remodelers switched to another manufacturer that did show interest in producing the window, but, once again, the improvements got tabled. “I was willing to pay for the window and I knew the customer would get a beautiful window every time,” he says, “but this is what our industry can be like.”
FINDING A SOLUTION
Carpenter kept at it. He knew his solution of eliminating variables of the field installation would make for happy customers, so he found a small, relatively unknown company in Minnesota that was willing to partner with him to develop the window. “I told them I’ll have you build my windows and you’ll get all my business if you will just do this,” he says. “They went and did it for us. There was a learning curve but they were so concerned about the account that they would listen to us, fix stuff, and come in here every week with changes. We were in it together.”
The company, Lindsay Windows & Doors has received quite a bit of attention for growing in a down economy and has had government officials visit its North Mankato, Minn.-plant. “They’re up 30 percent the last two years in a row,” Carpenter says. “They’re the only manufacturer in Minnesota that’s up instead of down.”
With a more consistent installation process, CRI has seen callbacks go down and customer satisfaction go up.
Custom Remodelers has an exclusive right to the product line in its service area, but Lindsay will offer the product in other areas where CRI doesn’t do business. “We all have to be fair, and we all have to make money,” Carpenter says. “They’ve given us exclusivity for that particular brickmould and certain features of the window that’s exclusively ours. But if you’re a manufacturer, you need to be able to expand.”
Developing a product that would eliminate some of the flaws with the traditional insert products has led to the type of installation Carpenter was pursuing. “We have a custom-made full replacement intended to be installed efficiently in the home with the installers,” he says. “There’s very little room for error. Every job is consistent and better quality.”
Because of the brickmould and the snap-on trim package, CRI’s installers are no longer trying to piece together an aesthetically-pleasing and high-performing replacement in the field. “More of the process is built off-site in a factory-controlled setting,” Carpenter says. “The extension jambs, the casing, the finishing—all of it’s done in a factory. The interior trim package—we just slip it in the hole and it’s done.”
As a business owner, Carpenter is most excited about offering Minnesota homeowners an installation that won’t vary depending on which crew gets assigned to their house. “With the craftsmanship, some installers were better than others in the field. Now it’s controlled.”
This is particularly important as CRI runs about 50 different crews to handle approximately 3,000 jobs per year. Carpenter admits that he gets complaints—any company his size will have some—but the issues are never with the installation or the quality of the windows. “We may screw something up in the process but we’ll always handle it,” he says. “In the end, if the homeowners have awesome windows that operate nice, that’s all I can ask for.”
“Installation is a crucial part of the overall performance of a window,” says John Jones, district general manager for Alside. “Custom Remodelers has understood that concept from day one. Their installers are thoroughly trained and understand the importance of a quality installation.”
WORTH THE FIGHT
Carpenter admits that it’s tough to push for changes when you’re in the day-to-day operations of a business. Still, he says, “I’ve decided I want to feel good about what I’m doing and be part of the solution, not the problem.”
CRI has been installing its improved product for about three years and Carpenter says customer satisfaction is up and callbacks from field inconsistencies are way down. “Our pitch hasn’t changed much,” he says. “What’s helped more than anything is that our salesmen and managers believe they’re working for a company that does good work. In their heart, they’re out there with a good pitch and they really mean it.”
Carpenter still contends that the inserts that make up most dealers’ offerings are inherently flawed, but he knows how hard it was to get a manufacturer to move on making changes. “I’m convinced that most every company out there would like to do good work but they’re overwhelmed and they don’t think anyone will listen to them,” he says. “The sad thing is they’re right. As bad as those manufacturers wanted to keep our business, they just couldn’t pull the trigger on making changes.”
By fighting to have installation become a constant in an equation full of variables, Carpenter believes his business will continue to grow and thrive—as it has this year. “This is a tough business,” he says. “You have to generate leads, sell the job, finance the job, re-measure and set up appointments, make the windows and deal with imperfect products, customers, installers and homes. There’s a lot that can go wrong. I think the business plan [for CRI] and the product can now work where it’s all sustainable.”
“CRI is one of the only customers that, regardless of the economy, industry or market conditions, they continue to grow and prosper,” notes Alside’s Jones. “Primarily due to an unwavering passion for the business and the manner in which they treat existing and previous customers.”
 

Click here to see our other 2010 Dealers of the Year.

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