Up Close with Jim
Discover What Drives Milgardís CEO to be the Best
Manufacturer in the Business
by Tara Taffera
Jim Sweeney, who became president and chief executive officer (CEO) of Milgard Windows in September 2003, is a succinct spokesperson for the West Coast window manufacturer (which really isnít West Coast anymoreómore information on that later). When speaking of the company which he heads, Sweeney has a clear message: Milgard is a manufacturer with great products that doesnít strive to be the biggest, but the best.
While on a three-week trip in which he and director of marketing and sales Peter Placido stopped at all of his companyís plants, Sweeney made some time to speak to DWM about Milgardís philosophy and how it strives to make its goal of being the best a reality.
Q: Prior to being named president you served as southern California regional manager since 1995. How has that position prepared you for serving as CEO?
A: I learned to do business across a relatively large geographic areaóColorado, Arizona, Nevada and California. As a function of that I received exposure to many different marketplaces and met customers and the workforce in those markets.
Q: What are the major goals you hope to achieve in the next year or so?
A: At this juncture what I most want to do is keep going forward. We have a history of entrepreneurial growth in our company that was started 40 years ago with Gary and Jim Milgard. The business challenge is to continue that growth. When people ask how we are going to do it, we really see it as replicating our past. We have a tradition in our company of growing the business in markets, in products and in people. Those are the things that our senior management has identified as the most important things.
Q: Milgard currently is in the midst of a major expansion plan, expanding from a regional manufacturer to a national one. So is that expansion your major focus?
A: We have a business model that we think is very customer-focused. Thatís to say that our philosophy is to put the plants in close proximity to the markets they serve. We say our product is hoursónot daysófrom the customer. There are different ways to approach the businessóthis happens to be our business model. We have 13 facilities, 11 of which are West of Denver, so we intend to have more locations into the parts of the country we donít occupy and the first one of those is Fredericksburg, Va. (see plant tour feature article in November-December 2003 DWM, page 40).
Q: Tell me a little about Milgardís growth plan.
A: Our previous ownership was committed to building Milgard the way we have built the first 13 plants. Now our new ownership, Masco, has relationships across the whole country with customers and with trade. That gives us more access to markets than weíve had before.
For us the impediment has always been peopleógetting the right people with the right values, training them correctly and then giving them an opportunity that has been very successful for myself and a whole bunch of other people like me.
Our restriction is peopleógetting the people with the right values. We think we have a good product and we know we have a good business model. We know this works. The thing that has held us back, like most businesses, is peopleófinding them and cultivating them. There is enough raw material in the world to meet everybodyís needsóitís getting it there that makes it important and thatís our philosophy. We donít just talk about it. We put our plants in close proximity to our customers so if they need something in a day we can get it to them.
Q: As you continue to expand, is it correct to say that you would no longer be competing solely against just the West Coast manufacturers but the national ones?
A: There are some excellent national companies on the high end of the marketplace that are very good. There also have been several efforts to consolidate regional players into a national company, but thatís not how weíve grown. Thatís not our model but there have been people who have tried to do that. They say, ďOh, Iíll be a national company and Iíll be able to take care of all these people.Ē Well, itís not as simple as that, which is why no one has been able to do it. Strategically, if we had more people and they were trained in the pipeline we could open more locations, because as a large public company now we donít lack capital.
Q: So, since itís difficult to find good people, do you look for individuals who may not have experience in the industry and then train them?
A: We focus on attracting talent and then growing it as opposed to going into the marketplace and hiring. If you could do that everyone would have a job.
We think today we have quite a bit to offer. But our challenge is to attract the best people and train them in a good environment. They can work in an entrepreneurial environment and have fun.
Q: Are you looking forward to visiting the Virginia plant and charting their progress thus far?
A: Because of my experience in California, starting it when they were little like Fredericksburg, and getting to watch them grow into where they are todayóall plants with 400 people that are selling a half million windowsóI get most excited about visiting our start-ups. These are so much more of a challenge, so much more interesting and so much more of an emotional experience because you know everyone in your work area. So this is my first trip to Virginia and Iím very excited to go see the plant because I remember what it was like when I started. Theyíre a little baby living on a dream. Now they need to grow up and they will do that. Thatís what we thrive on.
Q: People arenít familiar with Milgard in the Virginia area and the plant manager there says itís been a challenge to convince dealers of the value of a Milgard window. Do you know what kind of progress they are making on that front?
A: You win customers one at a time. So while you can talk about meeting customersí exceptions and surpassing them itís something that you have to get the opportunity to do, then you have to prove it. Theyíre doing good. Iím excited to go see them. I see what reports look like but for me itís the people that matter. If we have the right leadership who are hiring the right people that get us out to compete then weíll do just fine.
We donít want to be topóthatís the tradition of the companyóthat was Jerry and Jim Milgardís commitmentónot to be the biggest but to be the best.
Q: With all the window manufacturers out there vying for dominance, what is one thing you have that the others donít?
A: We are first and foremost a service company. We are very proud of our five-time national quality vinyl window award.
Q: What do you feel are the biggest challenges facing the window and door industry?
A: On the new construction side, urban growth and the availability of land to meet housing needs are the big issues. On the retrofit side the challenge is affordability of housing. Those two things are driving the rest of building products.
Q: Many of the glass manufacturers now offer self-cleaning glass. Do you have any plans to use this in any of your window lines?
A: Self-cleaning at this juncture is a bit of a misnomer. Some people are marketing it as self-cleaning and to our knowledge there is no product that is, in fact, self-cleaning. To say that the glass will always be as clean as when it leaves our factory and leaves our insulating line is not exactly true. There have been a number of advancements signaling that clearly there is a preference for it and yes we are exploring alternatives.
Some manufacturers call it easy-clean glass. Thatís all fine within the trades but to a consumer it will be Milgard self-cleaning or Milgard easy-clean. If you say itís self-cleaning we need to be real clear on the expectations on how the product will perform. Thatís who we think of firstóthe consumer.
Q: I know Milgard manufactures vinyl, aluminum, wood-clad and pultruded fiberglass products. What do you think the future holds for aluminum since statistics show it is on the decline?
A: There will always be a place for aluminum windows because you can do some things with aluminum that you cannot do with other materials. It is very cost-effective and very durable.
Our philosophy has not been so much to define the market but to serve the market. That is why we have a window that competes in the premium marketófiberglass window with wood on the inside. Thatís the perfect window. We also make just the fiberglass window for the premium market. Vinyl windows serve the market between that; then there is the aluminum market.
We donít make the market; we serve the market. Weíre not into making the world one way we just want to take care of the world. Weíre a service company, and weíre just going to find out how to do it better for folks and we build very good products. So if you have good products and a good reputation you can take care of the customer.
Foundedó1958 as a small glass shop with five employees.
Current employees: More than 4,000.
Locations: Milgard operates 14 complete window manufacturing locations across the United States with an additional three vertically integrated facilities manufacturing additional parts.
2002 Annual sales today: Approximately $550 million.
Number of window lines: Seven.
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