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A Caring Company

by James E. Casto

Simonton Windows, one of the nation's largest manufacturers of vinyl windows, operates not one or two but three plants in Ritchie County, West Virginia. The newest of the three, located in Ellenboro, just a stone's throw from busy U.S. Route 50 (Appalachian Corridor D), shipped its first window in October 1997.

The new Ellenboro plant represents an investment by Simonton of $7.5 million. But the window company doesn't just invest its dollars in buildings and equipment, it's also a generous supporter of schools and a long list of civic efforts in the communities its employees call home.

"Their impact on our region is tremendous,'' says Mark Abbott, executive director of the Ritchie County Chamber of Commerce. "It's not just the dollars they put into our economy but also the leadership role they play as a corporate citizen. And it's not just the corporate donations they make but the many, many hours their employees put in on a long list of local projects."

Simonton was founded in 1946 by Fred and Sybil Simonton as Pen Vent Awning Company, producing aluminum awnings and storm windows in Pennsboro. Their son Sterling shifted the focus of the business to vinyl products. In 1989 the company was purchased by SBR, Inc.

Simonton now has about 1,200 employees companywide and operates plants in Paris, Illinois, and Vacaville, California, in addition to the three West Virginia sites.

Its West Virginia workers live in Ritchie County and in neighboring counties including Doddridge, Pleasants, and Tyler, and Simonton makes a point of assisting schools and aiding community activities in all of those counties. In June 1997, for example, it donated a total of $50,000 to the boards of education in the four, presenting each with a symbolic giant-sized check for $12,500.

Simonton's decision to build its new Ellenboro plant can be traced directly to the exploding demand for its windows, reports former general manager Gerald C. Madine. At one point, the company's sales had been increasing by as much as 45 percent a year. More recently, that's settled down to an annual increase of 12 to 15 percent, still a hefty growth rate that almost any manufacturer would envy.

With 179,000 square feet, the new plant is the largest of the company's three in Ritchie County. It includes 165,000 feet of manufacturing space and 14,000 square feet of office space. Sewer and water service to the site was provided with funding from the Appalachian Regional Commission, notes Jim Mylott, executive director of the Mid-Ohio Valley Regional Council. Altogether, Simonton's operations cover a total of 346,000 square feet in Ellenboro, Pennsboro, and Harrisville.

"Simonton's presence in Ritchie County is a true example of the impact Appalachian corridor highways have made on West Virginia's long-term economic growth," says West Virginia Governor Cecil H. Underwood. "Simonton's expansions in West Virginia are good indicators of the corridor system's intended result of attracting high-wage jobs and increasing commercial access into and throughout our state."

Simonton prides itself on delivering "made-to-order'' vinyl-replacement and new-construction windows in seven days or less. This is a major selling point for the company's products in today's highly competitive market, Madine says.

The company has a nationwide distribution network comprising independent dealers and wholesale distributors. Simonton employs its own drivers, although it rents the trucks and trailers for transportation.

Committed to Community

Tractor-trailer rigs emblazoned with the company's name are a familiar sight as they travel to and from Simonton's Ritchie County plants, but the company has also made its name highly visible elsewhere—on the list of those working to improve the quality of life in the region.

"We at Simonton Windows truly believe we have a responsibility to the communities where we operate,'' says John Brunett, the company's president.

Brunett (who worked for SBR for 12 years) joined Simonton in 1995 as plant manager for its Pennsboro and Harrisville, West Virginia, manufacturing facilities. In October 1996 he was promoted to vice president of manufacturing operations, responsible for the company's national manufacturing operations. This added the company's third West Virginia facility at Ellenboro and its facilities in Illinois and California to his list of responsibilities. He was named president of Simonton in May 1998.

A native of Fairmont, West Virginia, Brunett notes that Simonton's corporate donations "focus on advancing education, improving the physical environment, and assisting those who are physically or mentally disabled."

''A partial list of groups and organizations receiving funding, donated windows, or other in-kind donations from Simonton includes:

  • the North Bend Rail Trail, a project aimed at converting abandoned spurs to a trail for use by hikers and bikers;
  • "Save the Depot,'' an effort to restore Pennsboro's historic railroad depot;
  • local Habitat for Humanity efforts, in Doddridge, Pleasants, Ritchie, Tyler, and Wood Counties, as well as national efforts;
  • P.S. Project, Inc., a Wood County project that provides transitional and supportive housing for mental health clients reentering the community;
  • SW Resources, Inc., in Parkersburg, which provides vocationally oriented services and appropriate employment opportunities for adults with disabilities; and
  • volunteer fire departments, youth recreational sports programs, fairs, and festivals throughout the region.

Investing in the Future

But it's in education that Simonton has stepped forward to play an especially generous role.

"We believe that a commitment to our people, our number-one resource, will allow our company to continue to prosper,'' says Brunett. "Thus, we believe not only in investing in our employees, but also in investing in the future of our employees' children. We're especially interested in helping provide things for our employees' children that, as a result of strained school budgets, they otherwise might not have."

The company has been a "Partner in Education" with Creed Collins Elementary School in Pennsboro for ten years and with Ritchie County High School in Ellenboro for two years. Each year it awards a $1,000 scholarship to two graduating seniors at Ritchie High. And it participates in the School-to-Work programs offered by the local school systems and by Pleasants/Ritchie/Tyler Vocational Technical School in St. Marys.

Last year, when Simonton donated $50,000 to the school systems in Doddridge, Pleasants, Ritchie, and Tyler Counties, each county developed its own plan for how the money would be used.

Doddridge County used the money to fund equipment and furnishings in a new science addition at Doddridge County High School and to staff a summer reading program for at-risk high school students.

Tyler County used its Simonton donation to institute a work-based learning center at Tyler Consolidated High School to prepare students for work-based placements, internships, and job shadowing. The goal, said principal Charles Heinlein, was "to initiate a concentrated effort toward meaningful career development skills for all students.''

Simonton's gift, combined with other donations, helped fund development and implementation of a school-wide computer network for students and teachers at St. Marys High School in Pleasants County.

The Ritchie County school board also earmarked the money for technology improvements, including establishment of Internet access and training for students and teachers at the Ritchie County Middle School/High School Complex.

In accepting the Simonton donation, Ritchie County school superintendent David Meador noted that "to keep abreast of the ever-changing needs of our modern work world, both students and teachers must have access to current advances in technology. The Simonton Windows donation will help us open a window on the world around us."

James E. Casto is associate editor of the Herald-Dispatch in Huntington, West Virginia.