Embracing New Ideas for 50 Years

Started as an innovator, Thermal Industries' looks to stay ahead of the market
September 1, 2010
FEATURE ARTICLE | Close-Ups

Celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, Thermal Industries owes its success to "embracing new ideas, even if sometimes considered counter-culture," says David Rascoe, president.  The Pittsburgh-based manufacturer, he states, has consistently launched products before the market even realized there was a need for them and, through its own intuition, became “green before green."

Thermal Industries’ history of new products and innovation goes back to before the company even started in 1957, when founder, David H. Weis, a salesman for an aluminum extrusion company, walked into a remodeling contractor’s office and saw a small vinyl extrusion for a storm door frame. From that sample extrusion, Weis envisioned the development of a new kind of window.


Thermal Industries has long been committed to high-performance products, and was an
early adopter of triple-glazing and gas-filling in its IG operations.

Three years later, in 1960, Weis opened the Modern White Manufacturing Co. to fabricate vinyl storm windows. His ultimate goal, however, was to create a completely new product to help homeowners deal with the problems of energy loss and exterior maintenance. This dream became a reality in 1964, when the company introduced America’s first custom vinyl replacement window, as recognized by the American Architectural Manufacturers Association Vinyl Materials Council.

In 1968, after an initial public offering to fuel expansion of branch networks, the company was renamed Thermal Industries. It continued to lead the industry, Rascoe notes, with innovations such as the first vinyl dual-pane insulating glass replacement window with tilt-in sash in 1968, among others. "Thermal Industries’ focus has always been to develop products that improve the energy efficiency of American homes and reduce home maintenance, thereby improving their customers’ comfort and lifestyles," he states.

'Green before green'
The company's innovations were not limited to product development, however.  As early as the 1970s, it began looking at what to do with its scrap vinyl.  The best known use of excess plastic at the time was to sell it as scrap for tubing manufacturers, but for that, a recovery of a dime per pound of scrap PVC was considered lucky. "Without buyers, waste was trucked off to a local landfill," Rascoe notes. "Thermal Industries recognized this as a significant waste of material."

In the late 1980s, Thomas Andres, then the company’s vice president of manufacturing, took initiative, holding onto all the leftover plastic until he could think of something else to do with it. Soon the company’s storerooms piled up with three-quarters of a million pounds of the material. Vinyl decking produced in large part with recycled vinyl at Thermal Industries was a result of Andres’ brainstorm on this waste problem. "Instead of using wood, prone to splinter and warp, why not use sturdy, easy-to-clean and weather resistant PVC 'planks' as flooring boards for exterior decks?," Rascoe reports. 

thermal recycling
The manufacturer has long gathered vinyl for recycling, using the material to produce its decking product.

The product Andres pioneered is actually 85 percent recycled plastic. In a process worked out by Thermal Industries, the 6-inch wide planks are formed, or extruded, from molten recycled material. Then a layer of “virgin vinyl” is added to the recycled material to give the planks a consistent white or beige color and shiny finish. Finally, a flexible blend of PVC is applied to the bottoms of the planks to keep them from squeaking against deck framework when people walk on them.

"Smart innovation resulting in green products added to the bottom line and created a new market," Rascoe states. "Combining that with strong employee loyalty and going the extra mile to achieve innovation has been a key element contributing to Thermal Industries’ success in the last 50 years and ongoing."

Rascoe points to another early effort at recycling. In 1994, Thermal Industries launched a high-performance triple pane-insulating glass package enhanced with krypton gas. It was one of the early pioneers to add krypton to windows, he notes.  

The company determined early on, however, that since approximately 40 percent of any gas is returned to the atmosphere during the window filling process, it would be economically logical for a krypton recovery system to be deployed. Gas recovery was not a new concept at the time. It was being achieved for other gases for decades in the lighting and other industries. No one was doing it in the window manufacturing industry, however, until Thermal Industries put in the first prototype system in 2003, according to Rascoe.

Thermal Industries worked with its gas supply partner, Linde (Spectra Gases) to engineer an economically workable system to save the excess gas. Kent Davis, engineering manager and Bill Van Kirk, professional engineer, at Thermal Industries were the main experts responsible for window manufacturing, Rascoe notes.  The two helped Linde understand all of the difficulties that were needed to overcome the challenge of the collection of krypton gas in a window manufacturing setting.

Working together through numerous redesigns, the current recovery system was successfully achieved. "Linde is extremely appreciative of Thermal Industries showing them the value to pursue and succeed in this endeavor and this relationship continues strongly to this day," Rascoe states.

Maintaining customer relationships
The strength of such relationships is key to Thermal Industries' success, Rascoe notes, but specifically he points to efforts to maintain strong relationships with its customers. "There’s a difference between paying lip service to quality and actually giving customers what they want, when they want it," he states. Factory-trained service technicians located in the 20 Thermal branch offices throughout the US speak daily with remodeling contractors and homeowners, then provide direct consumer feedback to the corporate service, engineering and marketing departments. The company seeks to provide full-circle customer support for the dealers from sales training to marketing support ( i.e. lead generation and procurement, in-home presentations, literature design services). It recently launched on-site installation training called the Guardian Angel Program for dealers that are new to a product or in need of an update.

"Company leaders are exceptionally active, regularly visiting with key customers and spending time and effort communicating the customer-based focus to employees," Rascoe states. "Beyond that, senior management is also monitoring customer satisfaction performance." Company sales representatives also work to gather market feedback, funneling information back for possible product modifications and new product development.

These efforts, Rascoe states, helped the company determine there was demand in the market for a product offering the look of a wood window and the durability of a vinyl window, Thermal came out with a hybrid true wood inside/vinyl outside window, as a result.

Continuity
Rascoe's father, Eric, joined Thermal Industries in 1967 to take the company public when it needed investment to expand branch offices. Previously, he had been an accountant and provided his services to founder David Weis.  The two had met in second grade, and lifelong friends eventually became business partners.  Although a public company for 30 years, Eric Rascoe and Weis always held the voting majority. Thermal Industries eventually became part of the Atrium Cos. in 20xx, but David Weis and Eric Rascoe still act as advisors to Thermal Industries management providing a historical perspective.

rascoe
David Rascoe, right, helped mark Thermal Industries' 50th anniversary by announcing a company donation of 50 windows to Rebuildomg Pittsburgh, an organization that helps rehabilitate homes.

"Continuity among generations has kept the company strong, and long standing customer and employee relationships are the strength that has kept the company going through good times and bad," says David Rascoe, current Thermal president. "And intuition, cost-consciousness and good luck made us green before there was green."

Looking ahead, the company will strive to develop high-energy-efficiency products, he notes. Rascoe expresses confidence that the company will continue to meet and exceed increasingly stringent energy performance demands such as the next set of Energy Star qualification criteria.  The company is already participating in the Department of Energy's R-5 Volume Purchase Program, he notes.  "The energy efficient windows and doors we’ve manufactured for the last 50 years continue to be a positive contributing factor in delivering the dream of comfort, low maintenance and energy savings for millions of Americans," Rascoe concludes. "And here's to another 50 years of innovation and trust for our customers and employees."