With the highest Energy Star ratings in Atlantic Canada and as the 2010 Crystal Achievement Award winner, Atlantic Windows in Port Elgin, New Brunswick has emerged from its humble beginnings to become an industry leader, keeping residential customers comfortable year-round, while adding beauty to their homes.
It seemed the glory days of Port Elgin, New Brunswick, a village of four hundred people on the Northumberland Strait, had ended when the last clipper sailed away. For over a century, it was nothing more than a place to bypass en route to Prince Edward Island.
Had it not been for the vision of Alain Anctil in 1984, it would have stayed that way, as Atlantic Windows president Greg Dickie recounts. “Anctil was an industrial plumber who got tired of crawling up walls dealing with asbestos, when he looked to Europe and had a vision that PVC (polyvinyl chloride) windows were the future for construction in Atlantic Canada. At the time, wood windows were the dominant product, but the construction industry was using PVC for siding, and he thought, why not windows?” he shares.
“So, he purchased the old community centre on Port Elgin’s Main Street which, to this day, is still the heart of our plant and started to manufacture PVC windows. Sales continued to grow and grow, while the largest wood window company, Lockwood, the dominant player for decades, unfortunately no longer exists.”
Today, Atlantic Windows employs over two hundred people at the Port Elgin facility where PVC windows and both sliding and swing doors are manufactured. There are another fifty employees at its facility just thirty minutes away in Amherst, Nova Scotia, which produces steel and fibreglass entry systems. “Tim Lucci, the first person ever hired at Atlantic Windows, still works for us today, lending his experience to quality and research and development.”
All products are designed to increase energy efficiency for homeowners and reduce condensation and mould that result from excessive moisture, making a healthier environment for people with asthma or allergies.
Since being purchased in 1997 by Steve Smith, the company has quadrupled its sales numbers and added over 200 jobs, supplying state-of-the-art products to customers throughout Atlantic Canada, Bermuda and now Ontario. “We’re hungry for growth,” says Dickie, “and we have a very engaged owner who continues to invest in our facilities, which makes our job easy. Two years ago, we added 21,000 square feet in Port Elgin, and we’re in the process of putting on another 22,500 square feet in Amherst as we prepare for more growth.”
It is about more than sales numbers and square footage though; the innovation, quality craftsmanship and associates also come together to make it happen. “We have a great team here with people who are passionate about what they do, and we have a lot of fun,” he says.
Dickie was born in Bathurst, New Brunswick and studied engineering at Dalhousie University. Like so many Atlantic Canadians, he headed to central Canada where he worked as an engineer at Celestica in Toronto, ON. However, the draw of the East Coast was too strong. He recalls how fifteen years ago, he was “looking for a small company that was on an upward curve, where I could get my hands into everything, instead of just specializing. My interview with Rob Miller, president of Atlantic Windows for 19 years, was more of a chat then an interrogation. He had me explain what I could bring to the table, and we talked about their challenges and how I could help, and I was fortunate enough that he gave me an opportunity.”
In turn, Dickie liked Miller’s ‘open-door’ policy and the culture he had established where every worker had a voice. This is a philosophy he has maintained since taking over as president two years ago.
“Rob was a great driver,” he continues. “He had his finger on the pulse of what was going on in the market, and now we have more engineers working here who work well with our strong technical people in-house who got their education here at Atlantic Windows and grew up in the industry. It’s this strong dynamic team that allows us to continue to push forward,” he says.
“When I first started, I thought windows were simple, just plastic and glass, how hard could it be, but I soon learned there’s a lot of science that goes into these products and rightfully so because the consumer needs to be protected. It’s important they’re able to trust the products they’re buying, that it will perform in our environment, which can be harsh,” he says. “In Atlantic Canada, with the right wind, it can rain horizontally, so our product has to perform to a very high standard, and we have to stand by our lifetime warranty.”
He is especially proud of being ahead of the curve when it comes to energy and technology efficiencies. In 2010, the company received the Crystal Achievement Award for the Most Innovative Factory in North America. Atlantic Windows was the second company in North America to adopt an automated glass line, imported from Austria and powered by two ultramodern robots to produce insulated glass units. While Dickie is pleased with the increased efficiency, he is quick to point out that no one lost a job because of automation. “Instead we place anyone dispersed by automation into other areas of the plant to increase capacity further.”
He is also proud of the high Energy Star ratings that Atlantic Windows products have achieved on its designs. “We all know Energy Star ratings from appliances and electronics; then NRCan established Energy Star standards for windows and doors. Atlantic Windows was the first company to adopt Energy Star qualified products in Atlantic Canada. With Canada being a part of the Paris Accord, energy ratings will be a driving factor in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and it’s our intention to be an industry leader.”
Ninety-five percent of the windows on the market are dual glazed, he explains, meaning they have two panes of glass, with the insulating gap filled with argon, the most abundant inert gas in the atmosphere. “We introduced a triple glaze with two pockets for insulating with argon gas, which gets us to an ER39 with certain windows. But we wanted to push the limits even more; we realized we needed a different gas to provide a better insulation factor, and the one that worked best was krypton, which is more expensive compared to argon, but it gets our aptly named Summit window to ER40!”
But the designers did not stop there. The triple-paned Elite Summit has an ER of 43 while the Designer series has achieved an ER of 45, with products meeting requirements for Energy Star Zones 1, 2 and 3.
Zone 1 is lower mainland British Columbia and a common zone in the US; most of Canada is in Zone 2 with the northern regions in Zone 3. Each zone requires a minimum energy rating based on the insulation factor of the glass and how well it handles the sun’s energy. In Zone 1 the concern is about maintaining coolness in the home, as opposed to Zone 3 where people want the heat to come in and remain.
In addition to the technology, there are aesthetics to consider. “We found that contours were popular, so we were the first in Atlantic Canada to add curves to our windows, making them more sexy,” he says. “Customers are looking through their windows all the time, so it’s important they like what they see.”
Colour is another change. In the beginning, to paraphrase Henry Ford’s comment about the colour choice in the Model T, Dickie says “customers could have a window in any colour they like, as long as it’s white.” The first colour to emerge in the nineties was Sandalwood, a variant of beige, “but then we began exploring with paint, and today we offer forty-one standard colours with black being the most popular. We want to inspire the customer to look at design differently, and now we offer paint on the inside of some of our products.”
Atlantic Windows products are used in manufactured homes designed and built by Kent Homes and Prestige Homes and are distributed in Atlantic Canada through Kent Building Supplies and other independent dealers. BITCo sells Atlantic Windows in Bermuda, and the company recently landed a contract with Mattamy Homes in Ontario, North America’s largest privately-owned home builder. It has also done a few international projects, including in the Caribbean, Japan, Iceland and Ireland.
“We’re finally starting to see growth in new construction in Atlantic Canada this past year,” he says. “Year after year, we were seeing a reduction since the 2008 crisis, but at the same time, we were seeing a spike in renovations. Customers weren’t building new homes, but they were renovating. Operating in Atlantic Canada, we need to be all things to all people, so it is important that our products can adapt to new construction as well as the renovation market. About ninety percent of the products we manufacture are customized.”
A recurring theme in Dickie’s conversation is community. He champions working together and remaining open to ideas within the company as well as concern for the surrounding community. “PEDVAC Foundation was founded in 1988 as a registered charity to provide services to the Port Elgin, New Brunswick district and offers programs such as a lunch program at school, Christmas boxes, Youth-at-Risk, a food bank and clothing program, so we support them as they’re near and dear to our heart. As well, the village had lost their rink because they needed to build a new fire department, so we were approached for help. I asked our owner, and he said, ‘Absolutely! We’d be happy to provide a substantial donation.’ So, with local business support and keen community leaders like Christoph Becker, the kids of our community have a place to skate again,” he says. “It’s amazing what can happen when we all work together!
“Our charity of choice is the IWK (Isaac Walton Killam) Hospital for Children in Halifax, NS. If this facility was not available in our region, families would have to travel far distances to get the vital treatment their children need. Two of our associates, Anne Dixon and Darlene Lane, felt so passionate about the IWK that they took it upon themselves to start raffles and bake sales, and the momentum grew,” he explains.
“Now we have payroll deductions, bake and lunch sales that are bigger than ever, raffles and last year, we dedicated space to a community garden – a garden club where associates learn from each other, grow the vegetables to sell to their fellow associates and donate the money to the hospital. We’ve taken that a step further with a corporate golf tournament with our suppliers and partners. That’s a big fundraiser, so we take a lot of pride in the contributions, and the neat thing is that it all started with our associates wanting to make a difference. To date, we’ve donated over $300,000 to the IWK, and it was all through the hard work and dedication of our team.”
Port Elgin is a shining example of what can happen in a community when ideas and inspiration are combined with superior craftsmanship, innovative design and a workplace culture of respect. A lost village? Not anymore! Today Port Elgin, in rural New Brunswick, is an economic leader.