PVC resin prices have been unforgiving. Overseas competition is creeping in on domestic building materials production. Vinyl siding is a mature market, complicated by consumers whose fickle tastes can make heather gray this year's most popular color but nearly obsolete next year. Of course, there's always the Mother Nature factor: This year's unusually harsh winter heavily impacted vinyl siding manufacturers.
Gary Acinapura knows he has to face these inevitable factors as a business leader.
``If you compete only on product, you're vulnerable,'' Acinapura said. ``If you compete on business solutions, that's a lot more complicated and there's a lot more ground for you to differentiate yourself. The classical business practice is: I make stuff and I sell it and that's my role. And today, that's just not good enough.''
The president and chief executive officer of Pittsburgh-based Alcoa Home Exteriors Inc. has made quite a few changes over the past few months, and the future means much of the same.
``I think the name of the game now is that it's not just about extruding,'' he said. ``That's a technical response. It's about having a customer base and having a brand and those things. You don't develop those over a short period of time.''
In five years, Alcoa will be twice its current size, he said, driven primarily by organic growth. Over the past few years, Acinapura has focused on removing itself from ``hobbies,'' such as skirting. With a newly focused and aligned technical organization, Acinapura and his staff are focused on doubling the business.
``We got out [of manufactured housing] because the challenges of making money in that business are extreme,'' Acinapura said in a recent interview. ``There is price pressure that is just unbearable, whereby the buyers almost require that you give them long-term fixed price contracts.''
But the need for change doesn't apply solely to Alcoa. The entire industry requires it, he said.
``The industry was internally focused up to very recently,'' he said. ``What we've done is we've gone through a very in-depth analysis of really what the problems are that our customers go through every day. What problems do we cause? In this business, we've taken the approach for years that we want customers to buy large quantities of stuff, shove it in their warehouse and wait for an order.''
Q: What are some of the limitations to that approach?
A: As our product line proliferated to now several thousand stock-keeping units, we're dealing with distributors who are typically entrepreneurially run. They don't have 500,000-square-foot warehouses to store all this stuff. From a distributor standpoint, they turn their inventory four times a year. That creates a cash flow problem. You've got cash sitting on the shelves, not working for you. From our perspective, we introduce new products and it takes forever to get them into the marketplace.
Q: What has Alcoa done to address that?
A: We don't want to ship bulk to our customers. We want to ship them on a basis of basically what they've sold. We put our customers on a pull system with us, which means we work with them to lower the quantity of inventory that they have of any given stock-keeping unit and we allow them to do that by shipping them more frequently in smaller quantities. We don't require them to take a full truckload. We don't necessarily want them to take a full truckload. We'd rather ship two half-loads a week than one full load per week so that we can get them more on a replenishment system. This allows them to free up space in their warehouse, it allows us to put more product in their warehouse and it allows more access to the product by the contractor and ultimately, more access by the consumer to our total product line.
Q: When did you really make that decision and begin to set that into motion throughout Alcoa?
A: 2001. It wasn't easy, either. It was a difficult thing for us to buy into internally, because it changes the cost structure. It doesn't necessarily increase it, it changes it. Your freight, as an example, becomes a larger piece of your total cost. But it's like any other improvement process. You do the right thing and then you improve. You don't design the ultimate solution and then implement it while the customers are out there suffering.
Q: How has that impacted your production plants?
A: It changes everything. Our plants have become more nimble and they have to be able to respond quickly to a customer request. We don't rely on inventory to be our only solution. We work very hard to make the order, as opposed to making the inventory. That's our philosophy. So our operations have to do things a lot differently than we used to do them. We work real hard on changeovers at plants. We really focus on our plants being organized. We want our customers to be as successful as they can be. If they're successful, then we're going to be successful. The way we can make them successful is by not forcing them to take product that they don't need. They sell something; we ship it to them. They don't sell anything; we don't ship. That forces us to be selling smaller quantities more frequently. Now, there's a risk to the customer in that. The risk is that if you run out of capacity, and you've narrowed their inventory down, then they're exposed to their customer. We accept that responsibility. So it means that we will always be out in front of our customers' needs with capacity. That's why we bought Atlanta [vinyl siding extrusion facility from Owens Corning], to make sure we have enough capacity to guarantee that we will be able to respond to our customers' needs.
Q: Do you feel that fiber cement is a viable threat to the vinyl siding industry?
A: Every time I see a fiber cement job going up, I see a vinyl replacement job five years from now. For the largest piece of the siding market to be threatened, the product has to attack the attributes that the product brings to the market that have been accepted so well. Fiber cement does not do that. It does attack the attributes of wood and stucco really well.
Q: The fence, deck and railing market is a unique opportunity for plastics. Is there anything on the horizon for Alcoa?
A: We have projected to double sales of our business. If we end up in the fence, deck and railing business, we'll more than double our business. I'm not relying on fence, deck and railing for us to grow. I like that business. I think it's a neat business. You can do a lot of neat, aesthetic things with it. So to that end, it's a logical fit. We will be in that business within a year or two, via acquisition or some form of collaboration. We will buy our way in.
Q: What are some of the other factors you see affecting the industry this year?
A: As far as new construction goes, I don't see any meaningful deterioration in new construction. I think we're going to continue to see high levels of starts and permit activity. As far as remodeling goes, I think the war was a distraction. The weather certainly was a distraction. Those are now removed. I think the biggest impediment that we'll hit is whether or not the labor is out there to install the amount of work that is in the pipeline in a short period of time.
Q: You've made the statement that the vinyl siding industry has been ``leaderless.'' Alcoa has charged itself with being a leader in the industry. What does this mean?
A: My hope is we always want to be viewed as a leader in this business. This industry needs a leader. But we don't want to be the only leaders. Every one of the companies that is involved in the siding business should take some piece of this business and say, ``I want to lead that piece of it.'' In our case, we're trying to lead customer solutions. We need to hold and grow as an industry. We need to improve the image, the skill sets and the capability of our industry.