Exit Interview: A Parting Interview with Bob Caulk

© 2000 Door & Access Systems
Publish Date: Spring 2000
Author: Tom Wadsworth
Pages 30-32

Exit Interview
A Parting Interview with Bob Caulk

In November 1999, after four and a half years with Clopay, Bob Caulk resigned as Clopay’s president to become president and chief executive officer of Spectrum Brands, a major marketer of lawn and garden care products and household items.

When a key employee leaves a company, it is often customary to conduct an exit interview with the employee. This exchange of information is usually helpful to the company because the departing employee can often provide frank and unbiased insights into the performance of the company.

In this case, Bob Caulk is departing from our industry. This "exit interview" is an effort to gain some insight from someone who has been a knowledgeable and respected leader for our industry. Now separated from the door business, we believe he now offers a unique perspective of the state of our industry.

The following interview was conducted in February 2000, from Bob Caulk’s new offices in St. Louis.

When you first entered the garage door industry in 1995, what negative impressions did you have of the industry?

I really didn’t have many negative impressions; I wouldn’t have come to Clopay if I did. I saw mostly opportunities. For example, it struck me that the door industry was one where there was a lot of product sameness, and where the life of products was quite long. I saw some significant opportunity in the area of new product development.

At the time, the industry was actively consolidating, with the larger companies making several acquisitions, and I saw that as an opportunity as well. I had experience with several acquisitions at Johnson Worldwide and at Johnson Wax, and I thought I could help Clopay with that.

What positive impressions did you have of our industry?

My most pleasant surprise was in developing excellent relationships with dealers. As I reflect back, I think that was one of the most enjoyable parts of my job.

I came out of a corporate retail environment where you often see more hired guns who are more attached to merchandising than to the product and to the industry. Door dealers aren’t like that. They have a passion for their business, and I enjoyed being in touch with that.

How did our industry change between 1995 and 1999?

I can think of three or four ways. For one, we all saw an increasing emphasis on safety related issues. My work at DASMA helped me see that. In some cases, the CPSC (Consumer Product Safety Commission) helped to drive the safety emphasis, but we also saw manufacturers and building codes drive the issue.

Another change, not necessarily one for the better, was a competitiveness that is based on price. As we got to the end of the 1990s, there was a lot more price competitiveness out there. New construction increased, and I think builders drove some of that price aggressiveness. I think the industry suffers when it’s so hard to make a reasonable profit.

A third change in our industry was the increase in manufacturers building more distribution centers and manufacturer-owned dealerships. I don’t think that was necessarily a negative thing at all.

The last change I noticed was a greater coexistence between installing dealers and the big retailers or home centers. In 1995, I was hearing a lot of dealers express concern about this "channel rub," i.e., that the home centers were taking away their business. But as the decade closed, I think the dealer became aware that the retailers really didn’t pose a significant threat. In many cases, the dealer even benefited from the opportunity to install doors that were sold by the home centers.

That’s not to say there isn’t any ill-will (by the dealers), but there’s a lot less noise now than there was in 1995.

In what way is our industry behind the times?

I’ve been in several industries, and the door industry has been the slowest to embrace and accept new products and new developments on the technical side.

In other industries, we’re seeing an acceleration in the evolution of new products. But in the door business, I think manufacturers have been reluctant to change product lines and manufacturing processes, and I think the dealers have been slow to embrace new developments.

As I think back over all the new door products of the last four years, I can think of very few that were successful. The new ideas simply weren’t accepted.

In what way is our industry ahead of the times?

From a manufacturer’s standpoint, I’ve been impressed with the amount of high-volume custom manufacturing. The higher volume manufacturers have been working on shorter cycle times for producing and delivering mass customized product.

If you look at the number of the different doors that are manufactured, there’s a huge variety and a great deal of customization. I think it’s a significant achievement, and it gives an excellent value for the consumer.

In the last few years, every manufacturer has been forced to assess the future of the pinch-resistant door. Five years from now, do you think it will be a dominant product or a minor one?

I should first state that my personal view doesn’t necessarily represent the view of any garage door manufacturer. Personally, I don’t think the pinch-resistant door will become a dominant product. If the government gets involved and starts to demand pinch resistance, that’s a different story.

But if it doesn’t get regulated, I think there is a very limited future for this product. And the reason is simple: the door provides very little benefit to the consumer. I think that the pinch problem is neither a perceived nor a real consumer problem.

The feature brings higher cost with limited additional value. I don’t believe it’s going to be a demand-driven innovation. I admit that it could be regulation-driven, but that’s a different game.

The role of the dealer has been changing in the last several years. If you had to give some advice to a new garage door dealer just starting out in this business, how would you tell him to be prepared for the future?

I would tell him, first and foremost, to take care of his people. In this low unemployment economy, it’s very difficult to employ great people. When you find good employees, hang on to them.

I’d also tell him to be prepared for some slower growth. We’ve been waiting for a softening of the market, but it hasn’t happened yet.

Over the longer term, I’d suggest that he embrace all channels of distribution. I think a new dealer can prosper with all the segments of the market: selling and installing for builders, installing for home centers, and selling and installing for the consumer.

Home centers are not the enemy. They’re simply looking for ways to solve consumer problems. Home centers need dealers who know how to install our product.

I think that the installing dealer has a great future. Dealers can ignore the home center business, or they can participate in it. I think it’s always good to embrace change and look for ways to innovate.