December 16th, 2014
2014 Was a Fun Ride – What Did We Learn?
It seems like just yesterday it was January, and the continental U.S. was being treated by Mother Nature to some of the coldest temperatures we have seen in a long time.
On January 7, more than 50 primary weather observation stations in major cities across the country saw record lows for the date. For a good part of the first quarter, window fabricators were stockpiling windows. New orders were coming in, but installation crews were unable to install windows. Some installation crews refused to go out in the cold. Many decided on alternate professions. Windows were piling up, and fabricators were running out of space.
Salespeople had phones ringing, but not for orders. Many were receiving complaints about drafts and condensation forming on the inside pane of glass. The cold outside temperatures, coupled with moist air trapped indoors for the winter, created a recipe for condensation, and in many instances the use of fourth-surface low-e coatings made the issue worse. I was handing out humidity meters to window salespeople so they could preach humidity control as part of the solution.
Well, the deep freeze eventually abated, and window companies eventually installed their backlog of windows. The pipeline of window distribution finally became unclogged and started flowing again.
Before we knew it April was here, and window companies were spiffing up their showrooms and beefing up their advertising budgets. Many salespeople were running behind their sales goals for the year due to the cold weather. However, most were still optimistic, and the general feeling among window fabricators was that sales should spring back because there had to be pent-up demand out there due to the weather-installation issues. Many used the downtime as an opportunity to conduct sales training to “sharpen the saws,” so to speak.
Well, they were right about the pent-up demand. Investments in showrooms, advertising and sales training paid off. Not only was there a pent-up demand, but window companies also seemed to be trying harder than normal to sell all of the other advantages of windows. Advertisements focused not only on the fact that windows keep you warmer in the winter, but also on how they can keep you cooler in the summer. Many window companies also started touting the benefits of sound control during the summer months when lawnmowers are roaring, dogs are barking and kids are playing in the yard.
Before we knew it, fabricators were cranking out windows again, often in record numbers. Now the challenge was one of manufacturing efficiency. Because of the pent-up demand and increased selling efforts, the summer and fall months found fabricators challenged by staffing, maintenance and equipment-efficiency issues. In many cases fabricators were having to train many new employees in a hurry, which led to quality issues. There was also a high degree of turnover in the workforce due to long hours and restrictions on vacations. This led to more employee shortages and created somewhat of a vicious cycle. Sound familiar?
Well, somehow fabricators got through this chaos. Sales figures definitely rebounded and for most window companies, 2014 has been a year of growth—for many in the double digits.
So what are the lessons learned from this unusual and challenging year? Well, for many the lesson was to expect and prepare for the unexpected. Many learned that when challenged, they could sharpen their sales staff, get creative with their showrooms and come up with new angles to sell the benefits of windows. They also learned the value of cross-training employees so that if there are shortages or challenges in one area of production, they can shift talent from one area of the plant to where it is most needed. The importance of not putting off equipment upgrades and maintenance was also a lesson learned this year. Indeed, many fabricators are now starting to ponder the potential benefits of automation given the production challenges that 2014 dealt.
In a few weeks we will find ourselves turning over the last page of the calendar to a new year that will surely be filled with its own unique business challenges. With new Energy Star requirements looming in 2016, the coming year will surely be a year of transition. Stay tuned!
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