Joe Peilert's analytical skills were sharpened early on his career path to becoming CEO of Veka Inc., which is the Fombell, Penn.-based U.S. operation for Germany's Veka AG — the world's largest vinyl window profile designer and extruder.
Hired in 1997 to bring the principles of lean manufacturing to an office environment at Freudenberg-NOK in Plymouth, Mich., the 30-year-old Peilert found himself optimizing the duties of people working at desks and going to meetings as opposed to machine cycle times and product inventory.
At his next job, Peilert met a mentor with an innate business savvy who taught him about going with gut instincts. The back-to-back positions were important stepping stones that helped Peilert to advance to the C-suite in pretty quick order.
Peilert was 42 when he took the helm of Veka Inc. in 2010. Just prior to that, a drop in sales had led to the first layoffs since the business opened in 1983. Housing starts had declined and recession hardships persisted. Customers were going out of business and others were consolidating. But there were opportunities to be found.
“It's very important not to walk in with a play book in your mind,” Peilert said. “You start by listening to customers and employees very closely. Only second, start looking at the numbers. Then, pull the team together and jointly set the right direction.”
Today, with 631 employees, Veka has exceeded its pre-recession workforce, adding more than 200 people from the recession low point. The company has seen three years of “strong” double-digit growth. Estimated sales are $145 million and the company ranks No. 31 among pipe, profile and tubing extruders in North America, according to Plastics News' 2015 ranking.
At Freudenberg-NOK, Peilert said he studied everything from “in” baskets to department interactions, planning functions and approval processes at the German auto supplier known for its “outstanding partition of the shop floor.” The business was going through a rapid growth period and he was there to deploy the Toyota Production System to administration.
Peilert mapped business processes on a wall with lots of sticky notes.
“You look at the timeline and who touches it,” he said. “You basically turn yourself mentally into a piece of paper that goes through the organization for processing to uncover the areas you waste time and resources. While processes are a lot more electronic today, the basic principle and need for waste reduction has not changed.”
Peilert, now 47, said his three years with the maker of automotive seals was a really interesting job for someone who likes the challenge of pulling different functions together. And, it was his first position in the plastics industry.
After that, Peilert was off to his first job in the building products industry for Ardex Americas, which specializes in cements and flooring adhesives. There, he met a key mentor, the late President and CEO Herbert Goller, who was the founder of the U.S. business of German-based Ardex GmbH.
Goller's energy and intuition for market opportunities seemed to know no bounds, said Peilert, who was the executive vice president and general manager for the specialty cements division. During his seven years at Ardex, he verbal sparred with his boss over business opportunities.
“We clicked,” Peilert said. “He had complementary strengths. I always had a fairly analytical approach and he was somebody with great intuition — healthy business gut instinct. When you throw those things together, good things happen. He taught me to take on more of his approach. To work with someone like him at that point in my career was a great gift.”
One of Peilert's take-aways from Goller: It's better to be the head of a mouse than the tail of a lion
Heading up Veka
Peilert was named CEO of Veka Inc. in March 2010 when his predecessor, Walter Stucky, retired after nine years. It was a bleak time for builders and their suppliers. New construction of single-family homes had nearly come to a halt. The replacement and renovation market “wasn't great but it was fairly solid,” Peilert said. Veka decided to pursue residential and commercial window opportunities dominated by aluminum.
“We developed a program relevant for property owners and architects that demonstrates the advantages of vinyl as the window of choice for commercial buildings,” Peilert said. “We found we had products that already met those codes and we had to market them respectively. We developed others that fit into that segment. These product lines also positioned us well for one of today's biggest trends: multi-family homes.”
Veka offers this segment impact-resistant windows for hurricane zones, sound insulation for housing complexes near airports, and thermal efficiency for projects going after green building certification.
“Those are all features vinyl can deliver on,” Peilert said.
Also, during the difficult times, Veka never cut back on engineering or technical field support services and it continued to help customers with marketing, such as building websites for them.
“That's especially important for small- and medium-sized window fabricators that might have a hard time competing in the market with some of the big boys,” Peilert said. “Offering this type of service platform — we call it Veka Essentials — is particularly important when our customers were forced to make cuts in these areas.”