Chris Rogers and Mark Cole
Photo: Chris Hamilton Chris Rogers and Mark Cole

Robert Bowden Inc. used to be great. Now it's even better.

The Marietta, Ga., company was ProSales Dealer of the Year for 1992, so it has a long history of excellence. And given how hot the Atlanta market was through last December, the 375 employees of Robert Bowden Inc. (RBI) certainly had enough business in 2005 and 2006 to keep them busy. Still, in the midst of the market's frenzy, RBI decided to expand and redesign its entire window, door, and millwork manufacturing operation.

A sign posted several places in the complex explains why: "Custom is hot. Commodity is not." RBI has committed itself to adding value to its products every chance it gets, from order to manufacture to delivery. Its facility design achieves that goal so well that RBI runs as many as 70 tours a year on the expectation that, once people see for themselves what RBI is doing, they'll give it their business.

On every production line, "we try to have two or three different things that nobody else has," says Nick Massengill, RBI's vice president of sales.

Manufacturing is a $62 million business at RBI's Marietta facility, and it takes up five buildings on the campus. Each has a particular purpose: fenestration products, interior trim packages, raw materials storage, stairs, and exterior packages and decking. Each was reorganized to maximize the flow of goods and eliminate congestion points. Inside each area, section leaders divide each part of the manufacturing process into individual "cells." For instance, in the door manufacturing unit, one person may do nothing but take care of a particular component, such as routing jambs, putting hinges on jambs, or putting dividers on lites. Each door's components then are put into carts and sent to the door builder, eliminating the need to search for parts or screw together components.

In some cases, consolidation didn't make sense. Before the revamp, all manufactured products were loaded and distributed from a single warehouse. This may have limited the number of staging and loading areas, but it also caused congestion when RBI's 39 delivery vehicles jostled each other at the docks.

"Drivers, loaders, and manufacturing personnel were stumbling over one another to get their jobs done," says Chris Rogers, RBI's vice president of manufacturing and a leader of the redesign. "The addition of two new buildings enabled us to segregate loading packages from different warehouses. This allowed us to load trucks much more quickly. ? You want to be both safe and fast."

The manufacturing operations span nearly 275,000 square feet, so big that it could inhibit efficient operations. RBI fights back through 125 custom-developed software applications that let shop supervisors monitor and manage all operations at all times.

Having one person assigned to each component helps doors, windows, and other products come together well and fast at Robert Bowden Inc.'s manufacturing facility in Marietta, Ga.
Having one person assigned to each component helps doors, windows, and other products come together well and fast at Robert Bowden Inc.'s manufacturing facility in Marietta, Ga.

RBI chiefs can determine electronically the capacity of each shop, transfer items between facilities, and issue notifications when an item is completed.

Here's another notable feature: built-in barriers that prohibit salespeople from placing delivery orders that cannot be filled within a certain amount of time. Significantly, it also features a way for managers to override that barrier if they think they can stretch to meet an unusually speedy goal.

Not all the improvements are high tech. RBI borrowed a trick from Japan's Just in Time manufacturing philosophy by using kanban cards–brightly colored, laminated pieces of cardboard that are placed between sticks in the inventory racks. When someone filling an order takes away enough pieces to expose a card, he drops it into a box at the end of the rack. Later, another employee picks up all the kanban cards and, in effect, compiles a list of racks that need replenishment.

But for all it has done in design, technology, and practical improvements, RBI executives will tell you the most important factor in the facility's success is the attitude toward customers and RBI's workers.

"Can you imagine? We did all this during our busiest time in history," Marietta office manager Mark Cole notes. "But we could not let our service drop."

Vital Statistics

  • Company: Robert Bowden Inc.
  • Year Founded: 1983
  • Headquarters: Marietta, Ga.
  • Number of Locations: 3
  • Number of Employees: 377
  • 2006 Gross Sales: $148 million
  • Percentage of Sales to Pros: 100%