Windows Plus finds niche in replacements

By Thomas Heath
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 10, 2010; A13

I think I'm the laughingstock of the Case Handyman.

Every spring and autumn, I shell out a few hundred dollars to pay the Washington area Case Handyman service to take down (spring) and put up (autumn) a set of old storm windows that came with our house when we bought it in 1996.

The Case guy arrived again last week, and again we discussed how much cheaper it would be if I didn't bother with the storms, since they are about as airtight as Swiss cheese.

And again he suggested I consider replacing the windows.

I e-mailed Windows Plus of Springfield and asked them for a price, sight unseen, for 25 "average" replacement windows. Not the best; not the worst.

The reply came back: "Roughly $14,000 for the house of 25, mid-priced double hung windows. Average at $550 +- per opening."

I investigated further and found that Windows Plus co-owners Reg Wayland and Tom Camarca have a pretty cool -- and lucrative -- business. Their profit on my house alone would be in the neighborhood of $5,000.

Wayland, 48, and Camarca, 43, net about $250,000 a year each on their not-so-little niche business, which grosses about $3 million annually. The profit margin is somewhere north of 35 percent, or at least $1 million -- before they pay themselves and their staff, and cover administrative costs and office rent.

In addition to replacement windows (they install about 2,000 a year), Windows Plus installs siding, doors and specialty glass.

Wayland and Camarca knew each other growing up in Annandale, and both started in construction after high school. Wayland attended Annandale High School and Camarca went to Bishop Ireton High School. They were in the general construction business in the 1980s, earning about $10 an hour and playing in a flag football league.

"We were both construction dudes, working in Potomac, doing all the wood stuff and banging the nails," Camarca said. They both had an entrepreneurial spirit, preferring to work for themselves and seek out opportunities. Camarca would go home after work and build decks or install doors for friends and neighbors, earning $300 to $400 a week in extra cash. He was making $30,000 to $40,000 a year.

The right stuff

In 1990 they started a general-contracting company called TRS, which stood for The Right Stuff. The enterprise centered on rehabilitating kitchens and bathrooms, and building home additions.

Camarca said it was a huge change, going from being accountable to a boss to being accountable to customers. It also paid dividends: The partners' annual incomes more than doubled to about $100,000.

But the responsibilities doubled, too.

"You are on call 24/7 when you own your own company, and there is no pointing fingers. Any mistakes all come to the owners," Wayland said.

They taught themselves how to be businessmen. An instructor at a seminar they attended asked the group if anyone had more work than they could handle. When nearly every hand went up, the instructor told them they weren't charging enough.

They also learned how to be managers, mostly by trial and error. Camarca and Wayland said the real key to profitability in general contracting is making sure there are no expensive delays caused by workers who aren't prepared or don't show up on time for a job. "It's all about having subcontractors there at key times to keep the project moving," said Wayland, referring to general contracting as "a big, babysitting service."

The first "aha moment" came when a successful window installer asked TRS to put in a kitchen for one of his customers. The window installer had signed on for the job even though he knew nothing about kitchens.

TRS used the kitchen job to examine the window business. One thing in particular appealed to Wayland and Camarca: window installation was simpler (no waiting for tradesmen such as plumbers and electricians) and therefore more profitable.

TRS went into the replacement-window business, incorporating Windows Plus in May 2000. Windows Plus sent letters to TRS clients, telling them that they were expanding into windows, doors and siding replacements. Although they still remodel bathrooms and kitchens, they specialize in replacements.

The business took off.

A new market

About five years ago, an order came in for a door to a high-rise apartment building, which Windows Plus could not fill with their normal-grade household door. It led to their involvement in a specialized new market, replacing windows and doors in high-rise apartment buildings, condominiums and townhouse communities.

Windows Plus became expert at finding commercial-grade doors and windows that can withstand the winds and pressure of high-rise buildings. High-rises also allow economies of scale. Once approved by a building's management and board, Windows Plus can sell in volume, allowing greater profit margins.

"It became a home run," Camarca said.

Camarca and Wayland made mistakes along the way. One contractor offered them a 10 percent commission if he could use Windows Plus in his marketing pitches. When he left unhappy customers in his wake, Windows Plus spent thousands of dollars fixing the jobs and restoring their brand.

They learned their lesson. Windows Plus outsources its installation work to a single contractor, who works only for the company. Windows Plus pays by the installation, and has three crews of two or three workers each. Camarca and Wayland handle sales and pricing, and Wayland's wife, Kim, handles marketing.

Camarca said he pays installers per opening or per square foot of siding, and the cost for labor, material and warranty is marked up by 1.65 or 1.75. A $500 installation for a standard, double-hung window will earn Windows Plus about $200.

To keep its name out in front of people, Windows Plus advertises in community newsletters, and attends local fairs and celebrations such as Viva Vienna and Fairfax Chamber Days. The company does business throughout the Washington area.

But not at my house.

Case Handyman is coming by soon to give me a price on replacing my windows.

Follow me on Twitter at addedvalueth.

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