Sunday, October 07, 2001

Champion keeps seeing windows of opportunity

Growth includes patio rooms, furnishings

By James McNair
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Some companies capitalize on people updating their wardrobes, others on people updating their computer systems. Champion Window Manufacturing & Supply Co. banks on people updating their windows.

        It's not exactly an impulse buy, trading in your old wood-frame, single-pane windows for the airtight vinyl-construction, double-pane versions made by Champion. But more people are doing it, and Champion's massive production plant in Sharonville serves up the proof.

[photo] Edward Levine (left) CEO, and Bernard Barbash, president of Champion Windows.
(Glenn Hartong photo)
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        The snowballing sale of replacement windows and doors has propelled Champion to the 29th spot on the Greater Cincinnati 100 list of private companies, up from No. 34 last year. Its $166.1 million in revenue in 2000 represented a 29 percent year-to-year increase. Two years ago, the company had about $90 million in sales and was ranked 46th.

        Champion's growth has been all the more pronounced since 1988, when Edward Levine and Bernard Barbash bought the half of the company owned by co-founder Arthur Stevens, who had died. Back then, Champion was a $2 million-a-year company operating out of a single location — a headquarters, factory and showroom in Woodlawn.

        Mr. Levine and Mr. Barbash later bought the remaining half of the company from Mr. Levine's father, co-founder Alvin Levine. Under their leadership, Champion went full throttle into growth mode.

        In 1989, Champion branched into patio rooms and porch enclosures. It opened its first out-of-town showroom, in Lexington, in 1992. It moved into larger offices and a new fabricating plant in 1995. A year later, it built a second factory, in Denver.

        Today, Champion has 50 showrooms in 25 states from Massachusetts to Washington. It does business in six markets in Ohio, four in Indiana and three in Kentucky. And the $14 million, two-building facility occupied in Sharonville last year gives Champion more room for headquarters functions, a larger showroom and a heavily automated production area.

        Windows constitute about 70 percent of Champion's business, Mr. Barbash said, and the company makes about 800 windows a day. Champion farms out very little work to third-party contractors.

        “It's a vertically integrated operation,” said Mr. Barbash, a Cleveland native who joined Champion as a salesman in 1975 and is now its president. “We control every aspect of it, from point of sale to installation and warranty work. We built a name, and we want to control our quality.”

        Replacing windows on a home costs thousands of dollars, but many home buyers consider it an important upgrade.

        Champion's vinyl encased, argon-filled, double-pane windows are now certified under the government's Energy Star program. The white or light tan frames never need painting. Both sides of the glass can be cleaned from inside because the windows tilt inward.

        “People know today that they have to button up their houses,” Mr. Barbash said. “Builders cut corners on windows. If people buy homes and they have low-quality windows, they replace those.”

        It takes an average of six weeks from the time old windows are measured until new ones are installed, Mr. Barbash said. Once the windows are delivered, they can be installed in a day. The glass is covered by a lifetime warranty.

        Kit Gallagher of Burlington said Champion replaced the nine living-area windows of her three-bedroom, 2 1/2-bath house recently. She said the house is 20 years old and had aluminum-frame windows. She can already tell that the Champions are cutting her energy bills.

        “They're really airtight, and even when it's cold in the morning, the house stays nice and warm,” Ms. Gallagher said. “The old ones, you could feel a draft.”

        Champion fends off propositions to align itself with home builders, Mr. Barbash said. Word of mouth, referrals, repeat customers and local advertising generate all the business Champion can handle, he said. When Champion opened its Dallas-Fort Worth showroom in 1999, Champion's reputation had preceded it.

        “We had people banging on our door in Texas — and we weren't even open,” Mr. Barbash recalled.

        Last year, the company added showrooms in Wichita, Kan.; Oklahoma City; and Boise, Idaho. This year, there are none planned.

        But the company has other ways to grow. Lately, Champion has taken advantage of Americans' love affair with patio culture.

        “We saw a need,” Mr. Barbash said. “It was a mutual extension of our business, and we moved steadily toward developing it. The market is strong and steady. People look at it as an additional room in their house. Some put weights out there or hot tubs or use it as a TV room.”

        Because Champion was involved in all aspects of patio construction, from the concrete slab to the roof, it entered the furnishings end of the trade in August. Its catalog now includes patio furniture and spas, both made by vendors.

        Champion has 200 employees in Cincinnati and about 1,500 nationwide.


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