BY ANNA THIBODEAUX | Greater Baton Rouge Business Report
At the warehouse loading dock of Window World of Baton Rouge, Rick and Pauline Hiller picked up a big order to install in a house in New Orleans.
It’s one of many jobs the couple picks up six days a week as independent contractors. Although it sounds like hard work, the Hillers are grateful for the opportunity.
Two years ago, they answered Window World’s “Help Wanted” ad for installers. The move represented a huge gamble at the time, but there seemed little choice as the Hillers had lost nearly everything to a failing economy in Cleveland. They cashed in what lit- tle they had left and raised $700 for gasoline and food to get themselves, some clothes and their two “babies”—Siberian Huskies named Sierra and Jasmine—on an all-or-nothing trip to Baton Rouge.
Little did they know the key role they would play at Window World, which had been deluged with orders after Hurricane Katrina’s destruction in 2005 flipped Louisiana into reconstruction. Nearly overnight, businesses were struggling with an unprecedented labor shortage that continues today. “Labor disappeared and everyone in the world was competing for what was still available, and this was probably the toughest single labor market in U.S. history,” says Jim Roland, company CEO and president. “You had an entire city of homeowners trying to re- model and nowhere near enough qualified craftspeople to handle it.”
Solving what he calls the “labor puzzle” became one of several key strategies that catapulted the company into booming growth. When the orders started pouring in, Roland says he set his sights on the Midwest and Rust Belt for help.
Newspaper ads were placed in Cincinnati, Detroit, Minneapolis and St. Louis—mature markets that had long ago recognized the benefits of energy-efficient windows. Roland figured he would attract experienced window installers, and he did.
“We were able to find a lot more craftspeople in those areas than we would have ever been able to recruit here,” he says. “It was heaven for them and heaven for us.”
But it took a lot of work to make it happen. Roland made long-distance recruiting calls every evening for six months and then arranged living accommodations for installation crews in the tight housing market.
The Hillers were among many who responded to the ads, but Rick’s 20-plus years of experience “landed them a stack of job orders from Window World.” He trained his wife, and she stepped in as his partner.
“We’re just so happy to be here and grateful to be working and getting back on our feet,” Pauline says. “Don’t take anything for granted because you never know when it can be gone tomorrow. The people of New Orleans know that better than anyone and we certainly relate to how they feel.”
Window World certainly shared in the success, too. Today, it employs 30 full-time employees and uses nearly 40 independent subcontractors. Those figures grew from eight full-time employees and five installation crews.
“It’s a very enviable position considering the labor shortage the rest of the industry is suffering through,” Roland says. It’s an even greater compliment, he says, that he now sustains that workforce through referrals. After Katrina, sales soared from a projected $6 million in 2005 to $26.2 million, marking a 300% increase that has been holding firm. The Baton Rouge store also became the top dealer from among Window World’s 195 in the U.S.
Roland especially attributes the company’s success to offering customers dependability amid Katrina’s chaos. While many rebuilding were swindled out of thousands of dollars by sham contractors and others who never fulfilled their contracts, he says his company did jobs as promised and remained available to solve any problems.
Many others raised prices for work and materials, while Window World prices remained the same before and after the storm, which was significant since 85% of the company’s business comes from New Orleans. He maintains no other contractor of any size can make that claim in post-Katrina New Orleans.
“We’ve certainly been real blessed,” Roland says. “We are very proud of how our company and all our people have re- sponded to this unique challenge.”