How taking a major risk catapulted a $1 million mom-and-pop window manufacturer to a $57 million regional powerhouse
By Mike Unger
Photography by Rachel Smith
Rick Wuest sat alone in the cold, dark office. Overnight about two feet of snow had fallen in Annapolis, and it had taken him quite a while to walk the 1.5 miles from his house to his family’s window factory on West Street. He planned to change the answering machine message, maybe do a little paperwork, then head back home.
The Neighborhood Team
With stellar reviews of both before and after sale, Thompson Creek has grown a reputation for great value throughout the Virginia, Washington, DC, and Baltimore markets.
David Capets and his wife, MaryAnne, live in a large home in Reston, VA. When they decided to replace 35 to 40 windows, they did extensive price shopping and company comparisons before deciding on Thompson Creek.
“They came out with a crew that was knowledgeable, and they did everything they said they were going to do,” David says. “The quality of work was excellent, in my opinion. The little things that were done were done properly. Things were clean. When they put scaffolding up they didn’t disturb the bushes. All the little things people don’t think about that really become things that will cost the homeowner money after the fact.”
The couple was so pleased that they hired Thompson Creek to clean their gutters and replace their front door, two of the ancillary businesses the company has gotten into.
With no cars on the road, it was eerily quiet when he lit a kerosene heater. Then the phone rang.
“Who’d be calling us on a day like this?” he remembers thinking on that fateful morning in 1996. “It was a sweet woman that was having problems with her window. She was trying to find her contractor. He had run off or something, but she knew he had gotten the windows from us. She was pleading with me to provide some kind of solution for her. There was snow coming through because he hadn’t finished caulking them. I said I’ll try to help find him — I hadn’t heard from him in a while, either … I think he owed us some money — and I’m just thinking, there’s got to be a better way.”
In the middle of the conversation, he looked out the window.
“I see a sleigh with a team of huskies pulling a guy, literally mushing down West Street,” he recalls. “I just thought, ‘My life is too surreal right now. This has got to be the universe talking to me.’ I got off the phone with the lady, and I thought, ‘You know what? I’ve got to make a change.’”
Making a move
Nearly two decades later, Wuest, 46, is telling the story in a training classroom above Thompson Creek Window Company’s 80,000-square-foot factory in Landover, MD. Three years after his snowy epiphany, he bought the company from his parents and has transformed it from a marginal local player into a regional power.
Through reimagining the way the replacement window business could work, relentless marketing, a commitment to local, quality manufacturing and a steadfast belief in customer service, Rick Wuest has proven that there is, indeed, a better way.
If something as — let’s just say it — mundane as windows can be in someone’s blood, then it’s in Rick Wuest’s. His father, Fred, was in the window component sales business, an industry that took the family from Long Island, NY, to New Jersey to upstate New York. In 1980, Fred and Rick’s mother, Claire, opened Mid-Lantic Corp. in an old building they rented in Annapolis.
“We were always people that enjoyed the water,” says Wuest, who spends much of his leisure time aboard his 44-foot Hinckley motorboat. “[My father] said ‘If I’m going to start a business somewhere and spend the rest of my life [there], this is the area I want to do it in.’”
“I think that bit of naiveté, my inherent confidence and the way I was brought up, expecting success and having confidence that I’ll figure it out, allowed me to take that leap.”
Rick Wuest, president, Thompson Creek Window Company
Energy-efficient replacement windows were an emerging market in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Vinyl overtook aluminum as the main building material, increasing windows’ ability to save on energy costs.
Mid-Lantic’s business model was selling replacement windows to home improvement contractors, a notoriously unpredictable bunch.
“We’re dealing with all these contractors that buy our product, they sell it to somebody else, they handle the installations,” Wuest says. “Often, if they’re not in business anymore, we’re getting the phone call if something goes wrong down the road for the homeowner.”
For years the business operated at a few hundred thousand dollars of revenue annually. It brought in around $1 million during its best years, Wuest says, but never more than that. Still, he remembers those early days fondly. For their first six months in Maryland, the family lived in a tiny apartment above the factory. They’d invested everything (including money borrowed from relatives) in the company.
“My brother and I shared a little 12-foot-wide room,” Wuest recalls. “I’d sweep the floors after school. I celebrated my 13th birthday at the window factory. As I got a little bit older, I would work summers in the factory building windows. I did assembly, fabrication, making screens, cutting glass. I got to build the window then I got to go fix the window if we didn’t do it right. I moved into installation, I would do deliveries.”
Wuest attended Penn State University, where he majored in general arts and sciences. But he always knew his future lay in the family business.
“It seemed like this would be a pretty good launching pad to do my own thing,” he says. “I thought there was always going to be an opportunity to bring the business somewhere. I just didn’t quite understand what that opportunity looked like.”
After college he worked in sales, and throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, business was solid. The replacement window segment was relatively new, and profit margins were high. But as the industry continued to expand, well-capitalized competitors began entering the market, and the product price began to fall.
“We hadn’t invested back into the business very much,” Wuest says. “Our business was relatively flat, and because of the competition, margins were shrinking. It wasn’t looking like a real opportunity to create a lifestyle that I was envisioning. I started waking up going, ‘I’m not sure this is exactly how I want to spend my life.’ So I started considering my options.”
The one he settled on was, if not a gamble, at least a significant risk. The replacement window business was about to change.
A game of risk
Mid-Lantic moved from Annapolis to Thompson Creek Road on Kent Island in 1997 and was renamed Thompson Creek Window Company in 1999. In July of 2000, each of Thompson Creek’s contractor clients received a letter from the company informing them that they had 90 days to continue purchasing products from Thompson Creek before the relationship would be terminated.
Thompson Creek was going to sell directly to homeowners.
“It was a risky move at the time, because if it didn’t work, we wouldn’t work,” says Brian Wuest, Rick’s younger brother, vice president and minority owner of the company. “We’re telling all the existing business we had in the pipeline that we’re not concerned with them anymore; we’re taking a different direction.”
Among the obstacles was getting the company’s message directly to consumers, many of whom knew little or nothing about replacement windows. Most windows should be replaced after about 20 years, and doing so can save a customer in the Washington area up to 10 percent on their utility bill, Thompson Creek says. (The company is quick to add that savings estimates are based upon a typical home and are not a guarantee of savings for a specific home, and points consumers to its website for more information.)
“It took a long time to build the brand … I knew inherently the value proposition of working directly with the customers. I didn’t quite know how to articulate it to them; I just trusted that most people would make that connection.”
Rick Wuest, president, Thompson Creek Window Company
“I was tenacious about learning the sales and marketing,” Rick says. “I underestimated it at first. I didn’t realize how much I had to learn. I thought, ‘Hey, we make windows, we install windows, people want windows, how hard could this be?’ I think that bit of naiveté, my inherent confidence and the way I was brought up, expecting success and having confidence that I’ll figure it out, allowed me to take that leap.”
With a meager advertising budget and no roadmap by which to navigate, the company focused its early marketing efforts on trade shows and even the phone book.
Tried and true
At Thompson Creek, you get the same company across the board — from manufacturing to installation, customer support and service — and Thompson Creek stands heartily behind not only its warranty and guarantees but also its reputation.
“If you were just going to compare windows by themselves, and line up the 10 best replacement windows, and just were looking at the performance, you’re not going to find tremendous differences in one product to the next,” concedes Rick Wuest, president of Thompson Creek.
“Maybe one has a different mechanism, maybe one looks a little better to you aesthetically, but at the end of the day, any one of those windows is probably going to perform pretty well for you. I’m not going to sit here and say I make the absolute best window that’s ever been built. We make a really good window that’s designed specifically for our particular region. But we don’t just sell a window, because a window doesn’t do a customer any good. The window has to go in the wall and become part of their house. We’re not just a window company like some of the national brands that you know. If a customer has an issue, they pick up the phone, they make one call to us, and we own the problem. We’ve got a lifetime warranty that we stand behind.”
“It took a long time to build the brand,” Rick says. “Heck, the phone book is probably the worst type of leads you can generate. I knew inherently the value proposition of working directly with the customers. I didn’t quite know how to articulate it to them; I just trusted that most people would make that connection.”
One of Wuest’s first key hires after buying the company from his parents and becoming president in 2001 was George Schaub, a fellow Penn State alumnus.
“Changing from selling to contractors to selling to the homeowners changed the strategy of the company completely; I thought it was a brilliant move,” says Schaub, Thompson Creek’s director of marketing. “If we were to put more money into the raw materials, build a better product, and oversee the entire installation and warranty the product, it’s a better solution for the customer. But part of our challenge is there’s only a small segment of the population that’s looking to replace their windows. We’re trying to get more involved with the community. At the end of the day, we’re people’s neighbors.”
So Thompson Creek turned to sports marketing. It started its association with Comcast SportsNet. Twice a game during Washington Capitals’ telecasts, a segment called “Thompson Creek Window of Opportunity” highlights a key play in the hockey game. The company also formed partnerships with the Washington Redskins and Baltimore Ravens. The spokesmen it hired were both defensive players: Ryan Kerrigan of the ’Skins and Haloti Ngata of the Ravens.
“The play on words is ‘Thompson Creek is your best defense against high utility bills,’” Schaub says. “From a character standpoint, Ryan Kerrigan’s probably the hardest working guy on the Redskins, and people certainly respect Haloti’s work ethic in Baltimore.”
The company sells only to customers in a roughly 50-mile radius of its Landover factory, which sits, coincidentally, in the shadow of FedEx Field. The local market is its only market, so its association with local sports teams is critical.
“Our marketplace is single-family, owner-occupied homes,” says Wuest, a big Penn State football fan. “There are several million in our marketplace. Local sports have given us that hometown feel. People are very loyal to their local sports teams, and we like to think of Thompson Creek as the hometown window team. We think there are a lot of parallels in the message, and we’ve seen benefits in those affiliations.”
The change in sales and marketing philosophies took about three years to gather full steam, Wuest says. Revenues jumped from $1 million to $2.25 million to $3 million. Last year, the company took in about $57 million, according to Wuest.
“It’s made us more profitable than we’ve ever been,” he says.
The gamble paid off.
Leading the charge
Each day, a fleet of 63 trucks rolls out of Thompson Creek’s warehouse, destined for an average of 40 job sites. The windows are manufactured entirely in the Landover factory. (A 45,000-square-foot facility that houses the company’s sales, marketing and administrative support teams is located in nearby Lanham.)
Rick Wuest also owns Closet America, which builds and installs home organization systems, and St. Claire Window and Door, which manufactures and installs replacement windows to multifamily dwellings.
“I believe if you’re not moving forward, you’re going to start sliding backward,” Wuest says. “We don’t think our marketplace is near saturation yet, but it will be eventually, so in order for us to grow, we’re going to have to expand regionally and nationally.”
“Changing from selling to contractors to selling to the homeowners changed the strategy of the company completely; I thought it was a brilliant move.”
George Schaub, director of marketing, Thompson Creek Window Company
Vin Gerrior, Thompson Creek’s director of sales, thinks the replacement window market is as large as $5 billion to $8 billion nationally. His aim is to help the company grow its slice of that market to $80 million to $100 million in the next two years. He’s confident that with Wuest’s leadership, it’s an achievable goal.
“Rick is somebody who throws you into the fire,” Gerrior says. “He’s going to push you and hold you accountable. There’s no b.s. with Rick, which I love. He tells it how it is, and he pushes you. He has the unique ability to know his leaders and how to motivate them and how to push their buttons to get the most out of them.”
Even when one of those leaders is his little brother. Brian Wuest runs the operations side of the company. He’s nine years younger than Rick and thinks that gap has helped their working relationship.
“There’s no beating around the bush between us,” Brian says. “That can go one of two ways. There are times that Rick hits me up pretty hard, and I sometimes take it pretty well and sometimes don’t. The brother dynamic comes into play — there’s no sugarcoating or dancing around the issue. I answer to him, and I respect that. At the end of the day, we leave work and we have a great relationship. I think the spread in our age allowed us to do that. I think if we were closer in age, we would battle more.”
Rick Wuest would be the first to tell you that making and installing windows isn’t the most glamorous line of work. But it’s his life’s work.
“There’s nothing sexy about what we do,” he says. “But there’s something cool about being a part of a growing business.”
That’s one of the messages he told his more than 400 employees at the company’s annual holiday party at the Lowe’s Hotel on West Street in Annapolis, which stands just two blocks from where his parents started the original window company with no way of knowing the heights to which their then-12-year-old son would take it.
“It doesn’t feel [like] that long ago that I was sitting by myself in that front cold, dark office with a lady yelling at me,” he says.
Luckily, he looked out the window and saw opportunity. CEO
Mike Unger is a freelance writer based in Baltimore, MD. Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.