Specialty Market 'Opens the Door' to Success

High-end custom garage doors are a successful niche for Minneapolis-area Designer Doors Inc.

By Helen Kuhl

As part owner of a typical steel garage door company, Kent Forsland discovered that he had more interest in the old-fashioned wooden garage doors he sometimes was replacing than in the modern assembly-line doors he was producing. Impressed by the quality and beauty of doors in yesteryear's homes, Forsland really enjoyed the occasional order for a custom-built wooden door, either reproducing the original in a home being renovated or matching the style in an expensive new home.

Pursuing his interests and taking the chance that there would be enough customers who would appreciate a high-end wood garage door, Forsland started Designer Doors Inc. in Minneapolis in 1992. He began building doors in his backyard with the help of a couple of employees. Business grew steadily, and production eventually moved out of Forsland's yard and into a new 20,000-square-foot facility in River Falls, WI, just across the river from Minneapolis. Today, with 20 employees, close to $2 million in annual sales and an expansion into a nationwide market, the company appears to be fulfilling Forsland's dreams.

"It's very much a small niche, but it's a fun niche to work in because our customers are wealthy and we can talk about things other than just the price of the doors," Forsland said. "We can discuss with them what matches their home, and they appreciate our product."

Wood garage doors have had a negative image among many homeowners, because of the poor-quality doors that were typical in the 1970s and 1980s, said Stacy Nichols, administrative manager. "They used cheap wood or clad wood and the wood rotted through. Or they would glue or staple an overlay onto an 1Ú8-inch substrate and after a few years the staples would start to pull out or the glue would not hold as well," she said.

Designer Doors offers customers the convenience of having modern overhead doors that can be raised using automatic openers while it emulates the quality of wooden doors built in the early 20th century, which were made of high-quality wood and well-constructed, Nichols said.

"The old doors were made of great quality wood, which really has an important effect on how long the door is going to last. And they had a beautiful grain," Nichols said. "They also had all the little touches, like true divided lites and 'weep' holes. We do all that in our doors, too."

Weep holes are small holes drilled at an angle into the backs of the doors to allow water a place to leave the center. That way, condensation can escape so the door does not rot from the inside out, she said. "We offer a limited lifetime warranty that the wood is not going to rot through on our doors," she added. "And it's things like weep holes that help our doors last as long as good doors used to."

Designer Doors uses Douglas fir for the framework and cedar for panels and overlay materials. "Cedar weathers nicely, it is a beautifully grained wood and it really can stand up to wear. That is what our warranty is based on. And the Douglas fir gives the door its strength and stability, so we are not going to have sagging or warping," Nichols said.

Forsland has developed several methods for garage door construction that are patented, Nichols added. One of his patents involves using an internal framework for the doors. The framework, which is about 11Ú2 inches thick, is on the inside. There is a plywood back panel ("to give the door a little more of a finished look"), plus insulation, and then another cedar layer is put on top.

A typical double-wide Designer Doors door is about 31Ú2 inches thick and weighs about 750 pounds. "This internal framework allows us creativity in styling, because we can have various decorative elements on the surface. The internal framework style door is called our Vintage Door, and we use it to create a lot of different looks," Nichols said.

"What you see on typical wood garage doors is every panel contained in kind of a picture frame, because the framework of the door is at the surface," she added. "We do panel doors, too, but we use only top-quality wood and they are hand-crafted. We still build them one at a time."

Nichols said that each door is custom-built to the exact opening. Forsland also holds patents for some of his unique door styles, such as a double-wide door that looks like two single-wide doors, and doors with three-dimensional details, such as false posts.

"We are particularly proud of some of the things we have done that are innovative," Forsland said. "It's fun, in an old industry like garage doors, to actually have patents on new ideas."

Having the framework on the inside also gives Designer Doors a lot of flexibility in adding lites (individual window panes) anywhere on the door. The company can custom shape the lites, often matching the curves of the garage door opening or the style and placement of windows in the home.

The company also strives to obtain the highest quality hardware it can find, which is especially important given the weight of its doors. It also adds as many safety devices as it can find, such as automatic backup systems, to avoid any possibility of malfunction, Nichols said. "We tell our customers that their doors are going to last for 50 years," she said. "So we really think long-term. We want to be stable and be around."

For the first three years or so, the company built its success in its local Minneapolis market, working with homeowners, architects and designers on high-end homes in the $1-million-and-up range. It opened a small showroom in the city's International Market Square and did little additional marketing besides exhibiting at the annual meeting of the American Institute of Architects' Minnesota chapter.

It was when a national architect's show was held in Minneapolis in 1996, and Forsland decided to exhibit there instead of at the local event, that the company began to expand beyond its regional area.

"We had heard that about 50 percent of the attendance at the national show would be Minneapolis architects, and the national show offered three days of exhibit time instead of the five hours allotted at the local chapter's event," Nichols said. "So it seemed like we could reach our Minnesota architects for a longer period of time by going to the national show. We did that, and the 50 percent of attendees from outside Minnesota were excited about our doors, too. They liked being able to offer customers a little more variety. Architects who do a lot of remodeling especially liked being able to offer something similar in style to what was already on the home."

As leads started to come in from across the country, Forsland decided to expand to a national level. While he kept the Minneapolis showroom, he relocated to the River Falls facility, which also has a showroom. And he did some advertising in Old House Journal and Fine Homebuilding, both national publications.

Moving to a national market brought some growing pains, however. The company tried instituting a dealer program, but ran into communication problems so that it pretty much has abandoned the idea now, Forsland said.

"I didn't realize just how critical communication is," he said. "When we started, I talked to the customer and I talked to the guys who built the door, and communication was simple and it flowed through. I kind of knew the customer's mind and I could make little decisions that had to be made on the shop floor. When we had salespeople taking an order, which would then go through an expediter and then onto the shop floor and out into the field, the communication fell apart. Little things that the customer would say, the dealer didn't pick up on. So they didn't get put on paper and that little detail didn't get built."

The company now works with its own sales force, having added a showroom and sales person in Chicago, who comes to the plant for frequent training. While there are still communication "bugs" to be worked out, Forsland said that he still is intent on expanding. "We feel that there is a sufficient market nationwide," he said. "The challenge is figuring out how to communicate with a national customer and meet his expectations and still make money at it."

Expanding to a national market is important to the company's growth because the doors are expensive and require a wealthier clientele. "A lot of people who are interested in our doors see the price tag and throw their hands up in horror," Nichols said. "But our doors are very labor-intensive; they are built one at a time and take anywhere from 25 to 125 hours or more to produce. So they are expensive.

"Panel doors can range anywhere from $1,200 for a single-wide, for a start," she added. "I think the most expensive double-wide door that I've ever priced out was over $6,000. Of course, our pricing does include the hardware and installation. We try to be as full-service as possible."

Designer Doors uses tongue-and-groove V-grooved cedar for its panels to give the wood room to expand and reduce stress, Nichols said. Doors are built from start to finish by a team, which can be two to five woodworkers, depending on the complexity of the design. All doors are put onto a rack and inspected carefully before they are delivered.

Shop equipment is basic, including a table saw, radial arm saw and shapers from Delta and a Timesavers widebelt sander. The company has a finishing room, but little finishing is done beyond priming, and it is all done by hand. The company does some of its own finishing in the Minneapolis area. But it prefers for the on-site contractor to handle it when the door is being shipped out of the area, because it is so hard to keep the finish from being damaged during shipment, Nichols said.

However, the company makes very specific recommendations about which finishes should be used and tries to be involved in the customer's decisions to ensure that the door is well protected against the elements. It recommends using either a three-step stain-and-finish process from Sikkens or a Natural Seal product. It advises against using polyurethane or marine varnish, because they don't allow moisture inside the wood to escape and a door will rot from the inside, Nichols said.

"We want customers to be happy with their door for a really long time. And putting a wrong finish on it can kind of ruin the experience for them," she said. "We rely a lot on word-of-mouth. So it's really important to us that everybody walks away happy."

Despite the finish limitations, Designer Doors strives to build anything a customer wants in a garage door and enjoys the challenge of pushing its technical limits and coming up with something that works.

"We have a very good understanding of what's do-able and what's not. I guess that comes from having done a lot of garage doors," Forsland said. "We have seen the outside limits of what works. So when we start getting close to those limits, all these antennae start going up and we find a better way to do things."

Although Forsland faces engineering challenges and expansion headaches, he is excited about his company's prospects. "On the days where you get 'beat up' by things that didn't go right, I think about talking to a customer who just loves his doors, and it allows me to go on and figure out how to get around the other stuff," he said. "Our customers are a good bunch of people to work with, and it really is fun."

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