Back-to-Basics Marketing

Universal Windows Direct connects with people "face-to-face"
Christina Lewellen
October 1, 2012
SPECIAL FEATURES | Strategies & Practices, Operations, Channels, Close-Ups


Getting the Word Out



Universal Windows Direct

Oakwood Village, Ohio

Get the Universal Windows Direct team in front of some people and they will sell some windows and doors. A simple concept, perhaps, but one that has served founders William Barr and Mike Strmac for more than 10 years as they’ve grown their company year-over-year at a rate that exceeds 20 percent. Friends since childhood, Barr and Strmac went into business together to prove that they could do it better than the company for which they formerly worked, and today the Ohio-based company is pushing its Midwest boundaries to cover more of the country with both franchises and company-operated locations.

 Universal Windows Direct's founders William Barr and Mike Strmac believe in keeping things simple and doing right by the customer, creating a business model worth repeating.

The company is built on a foundation of efficient operating procedures, a solid product line and what might be considered “roll up your sleeves” marketing. The formula is one that the founders found they could replicate, and a mere four years after starting the company, Universal Windows Direct began branching out into the franchise world. What makes the expansion possible, Barr says, is a culture that celebrates face-to-face marketing. “We’re at more shows and events than anyone,” he says. “Even farmers markets. It’s a cost effective approach and it works because we’re personable people.”

Universal foregoes pricey advertising campaigns and impersonal telemarketing campaigns in favor of marketing approaches that encourage conversations between the company and its customers. This means that the business model focuses on home shows, community events and even social media platforms. “Our goal is always to educate the consumers,” Barr notes. “One thing we understand at our core is that we love sitting down with the consumers.”

The Universal Windows Direct marketing approach was one that was born of necessity. When Barr and Strmac decided to go into business for themselves, they approached a lender for a small business loan. They were turned down, Barr recalls, and the two grade-school friends sat in the parking lot of the bank with a business plan in their hands and had to decide how to proceed.

The humble beginnings forced Universal Windows Direct to embrace back-to-basics marketing. Barr drew on the canvassing experiences that he gained in replacement window sales—skills he developed as a college student. “I started off in Ohio State knocking on doors, starting as a canvasser while I was still in school,” Barr says.

Barr stayed in the industry when he returned to his hometown of Cleveland, Ohio, and worked for a start-up replacement window company. When the promised ownership in that company never came, Barr turned to his childhood friend and discussed the opportunities that might be available to them. “We knew how to canvass, how to work the home shows, the importance of having an exclusive window line and a quality install,” he recalls.

In the fall of 2001, after the bank had turned them down for a loan, the friends decided to execute their business plan anyway, investing a few thousand dollars of their own money to get the ball rolling. “We came to the decision that we were going to do it anyway,” Barr recalls. “One of the reasons we left the old company—the ‘why’ behind Universal—is that they didn’t treat their customers well. Three or four years after we left, they closed their doors. It was always more of a people thing than an initial driving desire to own our own business.”

With a tight budget but a willingness to work hard to earn business, the men began Universal Windows Direct in a 300-square-foot office and by canvassing door-to-door for leads. “With our business, you’ve got two friends from Fairview Park (in Cleveland),” Barr says. “We both come from humble means and everyone loves a good old fashioned, roll-up-your-sleeves story. People can connect with that.”

The Universal approach is one that attempts to preserve as much margin as possible in an increasingly-competitive market. The company has a long-standing partnership with Polaris, which manufactures Universal’s UniShield line of energy-efficient products. Doing business with just one primary manufacturer not only offers an advantageous pricing scenario, but also encourages the type of relationship that Barr and Strmac value. “We’ve been with Polaris since our inception,” Barr explains. “They’re good people. One of the things we like about them is that I could pick up the phone right now, being that they’re family owned, and say, ‘Hey Kevin, this is what I need.’”

A consistent approach across the company allows Universal to repeat its successful approach to selling windows time and time again.

The dealer also undertook a significant project nearly a decade ago to develop a back-end software platform that is customized to the Universal model. “For what we do, we have to have our own,” Barr says. “We’ve gone to software providers, but our model is so different. We’re not off-the-shelf guys. We never have been.”

With a competitive product offering and the back-end system in place to make sure both company-owned stores and franchise locations are operating as efficiently as possible, the third leg of the Universal approach is its low-cost but high-touch approach to marketing, Barr says. From county fairs to home shows to farmers markets—just about anywhere people gather and stroll around to enjoy the environment—Universal will be present to educate consumers about window and door replacement options. “It’s a cost effective approach,” Barr says. “It’s a way to generate leads and not spend a million bucks on TV ads.”

Many companies participate in home shows, Barr admits, but the Universal approach is far more than putting up a booth and having a presence. The company considers home shows and the like a considerable business opportunity and aims to be a stand-out in the crowd when it comes to vendors. “If you came to Cleveland, for example, and saw our home show in action, you’d see that people are attracted to our booth because we’re high-fiving all over the place and contributing so much positive energy,” he says.

With the goal of setting in-home appointments, Universal knows employees must be personable and approachable in order to gain consumers’ trust. “With other business owners in the industry, we’ll get into heated debates about how to run the home shows,” Barr says. “But the bottom line is that we know the power of having a million-dollar producer talking to homeowners for a half-hour at a time, rather than staffing booths with college kids who are looking forward to getting done and moving on to happy hour.”

The Universal marketing model is so steeped in face-to-face marketing that the company even launches new locations and introduces new franchisees to a marketplace with home shows and community events, Barr says. “When we open our Charlotte location, we’re opening our office around the local home show,” he explains. “We’re going to generate 100 leads and earn $100,000 in our first weekend in business, and that’s not a bad way to open a new location.”

Most of the company’s marketing efforts are poured into door-to-door canvassing. Barr explains that the company encourages enthusiastic salespeople to be polite and personable as they approach homeowners directly with information about window, door or siding replacement. “We understand the importance of setting goals,” Barr says. “We don’t sell on price. We go in and present our high-end product and we try to answer every question so they feel comfortable giving us their business in one evening.”

 Universal enjoys home shows for the opportunity to connect with homeowners, bringing high energy to window replacement and home improvement projects.

Because the Universal team is trained to embrace in-person marketing opportunities, the company isn’t a big fan of traditional paid advertising or telemarketing. “We do not pound the phone around here,” Barr explains.

Social media, however, is an interesting opportunity in executives’ eyes because of the two-way nature of conversation. Facebook, for example, is something Universal sees gaining traction among its clientele. “We devote more and more time and effort every month toward Facebook and social media,” Barr says. “It’s not going to be a silver bullet [for increased sales], but it does have some credibility among consumers. It can be used as a tool to build trust.”

The owners see Universal's model as ideal for franchise opportunities because of the dealer’s volume purchasing power for products and the fact that profit margins are preserved with operational efficiencies and cost-effective marketing.

In the coming years, the Universal executives hope to open three to five company-owned locations and expand its franchise opportunities to more than 200 locations across the country. Barr and Strmac spend a significant amount of time on the road, visiting franchise locations and supporting them in their grassroots marketing efforts. “There isn’t a manufacturer’s rep in America who’s willing to stand at a home show for 10 hours, but that’s what we do,” Barr says. “We’ll always be around because we’re willing to do what others won’t to earn business.”

Those who work hard will always have a home at Universal, Barr notes, which is probably why the company continues to grow at a clip despite the economic pressures. “We’re seeing a huge influx of displaced window people—reps, installers—who want to own their own business,” he says. “Our ideal candidates are million dollar producers who have hit a ceiling. If their choices are going out and starting from scratch—and it’s hard—or this Universal business in a box, it’s not a really hard decision.”

Barr admits that Universal’s marketing strategy is not bright and shiny—and it’s unlikely to go down in history books as the most innovative approach in growing a business. Still, he believes that the basics often go uncelebrated in today’s marketplace—and face-to-face marketing is likely to be the approach that resonates most with potential customers. “We may not be the brightest in the industry,” he says, “but we’ll certainly work the hardest. Maybe that makes us the Forrest Gumps of the window industry.”


Contact Christina Lewellen, senior editor, at