Meeting High End Needs with Craftmanship and Technology

Kolbe & Kolbe keeps focus on continuous improvement and product development
July 11, 2011

Producing high quality windows with employees dedicated to excellence. That was the vision of Herb Kolbe, one of the founding brothers of Kolbe & Kolbe Millwork Co. Inc., and it enabled the company to establish itself as one of the leaders in the high-end window and door market.

 Kolbe sees its employees as craftspeople building one window or door at a time.

“Our employees are truly craftspeople,” states Mike Salsieder, Kolbe’s president. “The manufacturing facility and employees work on one window at a time.” The company knows that in today’s demanding market, it takes more than craftsmanship to survive and grow, however. As a result, it continues to evolve through extensive product development efforts, the implementation of continuous improvement efforts, and most recently through the acquisition of another window and door company.

The manufacturer is celebrating its 65th anniversary this year, with brothers Herb and Ervin Kolbe starting the business in 1946. Working on the family farm in Marathon, Wis., the two initially repaired window frames and built sash. Moving to Wausau, Wis., Kolbe & Kolbe evolved to distribute and manufacture a variety of millwork product products, serving customers in Wisconsin and Upper Michigan.

Big changes started occurring in the late ’60s, as the company expanded into the pre-hung door market. It then acquired a cabinet shop, adding several talented craftspeople to its work force. It was about this time that the company recognized that there was an opportunity to grow the business by manufacturing its own windows. “Kolbe was looking to offer quality products and options that others did not,” states Jeff De Lonay, Kolbe’s executive vice president. “One of the major options that Kolbe added was true divided lite. Customers were looking for a company that could produce a traditional window with insulated glass. This was a product that set Kolbe apart.”

Growth Years
It was 1975 when Kolbe & Kolbe actually introduced its own double hung and slider windows. It slowly added to its line establishing a full line of roll form clad wood windows by 1981. “It was also recognized that there was potential for our products in areas outside of the Midwest,” De Lonay continues. It was during this time, Kolbe also began to add sales staff to target new markets.

Prior to 1975 Kolbe was selling mid-range products, but as it developed its own line with many specialty options that other manufacturers did not offer, it turned its focus to more upper end jobs. “True divided light windows, custom sizes and radius window are examples of the higher end features that others were not able to supply,” De Lonay states. “Being able to offer a complete window line, Kolbe was able to establish distributors that were committed to high quality products and were able to sell options that Kolbe was able to offer. “

It was from the late ’70s into the early ’80s that the company—and its Wausau manufacturing facility—grew significantly as it broadened its sales activity from the Midwest to nationwide. In the 1980s and 1990s, Kolbe continued to develop more products and options. As demand for vinyl windows increased, the manufacturer saw an opportunity with its high-quality brand image to offer a vinyl window that looked like a wood window. “It rounded out the product offering from Kolbe that customers needed.”

Also right around this time, Kolbe added its Ultra series of product. Featuring an extruded aluminum exterior, the product was an upgrade to the roll-form clad products. This product line was designed not only to deliver an extruded exterior, but also replicate the trims and performance divided lite options that Kolbe was known for, he notes.

The company's main facilities in Wausau, Wis., now incorporate more than 1 million square feet of manufactuing space. 

“By the early 2000s, the company clearly defined its target market as the upper mid and upper end market,” states Cindy Bremer, Kolbe vice president of marketing. “Rebranding and well defined product options with targeted marketing efforts all supported the positioning of Kolbe.”
To accommodate the product line expansions, the company added a vinyl window plant in Manawa, Wis., in 1997 and its main manufacturing plant had grown to over 1 million square feet by 2003.

A New Generation
Herb Kolbe, the surviving brother of the two founders, not only led the company through this substantial growth period, he also began to plan for his company’s future. “He worked with many of the executives to make sure that the values that he developed and instilled in the organization would continue after he was gone,” De Lonay reports. De Lonay, who had worked closely with Kolbe learn the company philosophy, was promoted to vice president of manufacturing. Also during that time Mike Salsieder was brought on board.

Since Herb Kolbe’s passing, the company, through his daughter Judy Gorski, CEO; Salseider; and an executive staff that Kolbe worked with, has worked to maintain his vision of producing high quality products with employees that are devoted to excellence, Bremer states. The company has also expanded on that vision with progressive steps to continue to advance its products and processes.

 Mike Salsieder, above, and De Lonay, below, are part of the team that has led the company since the passing of the two founding Kolbe brothers. 

Continuous Improvement
Early in 2005, the company initiated the implementation of a corporate strategy substantially built on continuous improvement. “While being a successful company at the time, the company understood that in order to evolve the organization into a more efficient enterprise, additional changes where needed,” Salsieder states. “The strategy of the Kolbe continuous improvement effort was designed around employee empowerment which would lead to items such as improvement in production capacity, lowered cost of materials and increased employee satisfaction.”

With its own internal full-time continuous improvement team in place, Kolbe trains, instructs and develops its own personnel and processes for the advance of the products and processes inside its manufacturing facility. Over the past six years, it has organized events that typically gather a group of four to five individuals to address a specific area that might be either manufacturing or administrative in nature. “Our continuous improvement philosophy has given each of our employees a say in the processes involved in making our product and the quality that exists in each of our windows and doors,” says Salsieder. “We are extremely impressed with the pride that our employees take in the quality product that Kolbe produces.”

Continuous improvement has not only delivered improvements to the bottom line, it positioned Kolbe to continue to meet the anticipated the need for high tech windows with traditional and architecturally accurate appearances, Bremer states.

Continued Product Development
Beyond its initial roll-form and then extruded aluminum clad product lines, Kolbe has continued to develop and introduce many new products and options. In the late ’90s, the manufacturer added multipoint locking systems on its casement windows and exterior door units. In 2004, it introduced the Sterling double hung, one of only a few double hung windows with a complete wood appearance on the interior, also able to stand up to a Florida hurricane, Bremer notes. As time and the market has progressed, other products to be launched include push-out casements, roll down screens, new exterior trims, multiple sizes of performance divided lite bars, and tilt/turn and inswing casements.

To extend its capabilities further, Kolbe purchased Point Five Windows, based in Fort Collins, Colo., in 2008. Kolbe viewed Point Five as a manufacturer able to provide customized solutions for the luxury market, states De Lonay. “The addition of this organization to the available product offerings has given both organizations the flexibility to offer customers whatever might be needed,” he continues. “This solution based approach has proven to be an invaluable asset to Point Five and Kolbe as well as their customers.”

“We were determined to specifically target the higher end of the window and door market, working closely with our strong distribution base and the architectural community to provide them with products that offer the many features and options that they are requesting for their complex residential and light commercial projects,” Salseider states.

With that focus on the higher end, some of the most recent product introductions “have been born out of the requests of our customers to really capture the beautiful views that their properties are located in and around,” notes De Lonay. These include the TerraSpan lift/slide door and folding door systems which create walls of glass, but can also be opened to allow the beauty of the outdoors into the home.

“While these products can capture the spectacular views, we have not forgotten about their energy performance characteristics,” De Lonay points out. “We have found that in many instances the energy performance of a product is as important as the operation or function.” Underscoring its emphasis on energy efficient technologies, the company introduced a casement that can meet the R5 energy performance requirements, he notes. “We continue to watch the market and anticipate code requirements to give our customers NFRC rated products to meet the ever changing requirements.”

As it celebrates the 65-year milestone, the Wisconsin-based manufacturer still values its “millwork heritage,” De Lonay concludes. “Understanding what millwork means verse just producing a window or door has driven the organization.”

Despite the weak construction environment, Salsieder is optimistic about Kolbe's future. "The downturn has not changed Kolbe, or our approach as to how we conduct our business," he states. He points to its continuous improvement efforts that have contributed to increased productivity, better quality and shorter lead times, as well as the fact that new product development did not slow in the downturn. "We will continue to implement the fundamental strategies that drove our success over the last years, which included some very challenging times in our industry," he notes. "Further, as we see consumers move to wanting more quality in their fenestration products, and greater energy efficiency, we see this as playing to Kolbe’s strength."