Sales May Be Down, but Innovation Isn't

John G. Swanson
September 1, 2008
COLUMN : Opening Remarks | Markets & Trends

The past several months, I have been feeling bombarded with headlines about housing market woes, a lackluster economy and the rising costs of gas. Throw in the industry-specific reports of another window or door plant that's closed down, it can get depressing. When so many headlines are gloomy, it's a real pleasure to put the focus on new products and technologies that highlight creativity and ingenuity and the growth potential of our industry. This makes this year's Crystal Achievement Award issue a little extra special to me. 

Given the fact that many companies have pulled back the reins-some, indeed, say they're in "survival mode"-it's probably not too surprising to hear that we did see a small drop-off from last year's record number of more than 100 nominations. I was actually pleasantly surprised, however, that we didn't see a big decline. That indicates to me that despite the cutbacks and struggles that are taking place within window and door manufacturers and industry suppliers, many are continuing to push themselves and look to the future. Some are obviously looking to innovate for the here and now. New products and new features are still an excellent way to differentiate oneself, and perhaps gain share to offset the overall market declines.

What's clear to me in looking through the 2008 Crystal Achievement Award winners is that our industry continues to innovate and deliver real new options to homeowners. Marvin is making casement windows easier to clean. It even offers a design that enables homeowners to replace double hungs with a higher-performing casement, yet retain the double-hung look. Jeld-Wen has developed a technology that provides custom interior doors with a high-end look at a lower cost. Foundation Door gives homeowners the option to change their front door with the season. Veka and Wayne Dalton have collaborated on a system that gives homeowners in coastal zones an alternative to impact-resistant glass.

Our Unique Innovation winner this year gives homeowners a new option in upgrading the look of their homes. The One-Cut System from Highmark Digital makes interior door replacement an affordable, easy process. If the scanner that measures existing door openings and machine that takes those measurements and produces a slab that can fit exactly works as well as the company says it does, it not only offers homeowners a new option, I suspect it will offer many window and door companies a new option for their businesses.

This year's winners also reflect the industry's willingness-and enthusiasm-to step up to the plate to meet the demands of the green building movement. Window and door companies striving to provide more energy efficient products have a strong green story to tell, so it's shouldn't be too surprising that two of our winners in the marketing categories-Milgard and Truseal-are being recognized for telling that story so well.

This year, we also have a winner in our manufacturing categories that specializes in equipment to make glass recycling easier for window and door manufacturers-Innovative Conveyor Concepts and Endura-Veyor Inc. Many manufacturers already do a good job taking scrap and recycling it or putting it to good use. The green movement, however, is likely to increase demand for such systems in the future.

In retrospect, I guess I shouldn't be too surprised we received a healthy number of nominations for our Crystal Achievement Awards this year. During the boom, I recall asking manufacturers about new products, and more than one said to me, "We're too busy to try anything new now. We're struggling just to get product out the door."  Without that problem, perhaps more companies are now able to focus on the new. 

For those struggling now, it may be hard to look beyond the next six months or a year, but it is a great time to innovate. Demand will come back and it's likely to come back stronger for higher performing products. With fuel costs up significantly, payback times for replacement windows and doors are going to come down. Issues like energy independence and climate change are pushing regulators toward even stricter codes too, so there are going to be some real shifts in the types of windows and doors used in most homes.

And, innovation won't just be about energy efficiency. I can point to the growing color and finish palettes offered by most manufacturers and the popularity of such options as SDLs as signs that buyers are willing to spend more to get the look they want. The growth of retractable screens, internal mini blinds and wide-opening patio door systems tells me homeowners are also willing to invest in enhanced functionality.

I suspect innovation will accelerate in all these areas. In fact, I think we'll see whole new categories of innovation that most of us haven't even thought of yet. And while innovative in itself doesn't create success, I think innovators in our industry will be rewarded even more so in the future. In the meantime, I want to offer my personal congratulations to all this year's Crystal Achievement Award winners. The competition was once again strong and our 2008 honorees can be proud to have their products, equipment, plants and marketing materials recognized by our judges.