Exercise buffs know that a key part of any workout involves strengthening the core, as a strong core helps improve performance and increase flexibility over the long term. Hart & Cooley, Grand Rapids, Mich., believes the same theory holds true for the manufacturing business, which is why the company is moving forward with a renewed emphasis on its core business.

"We want to make sure we are focused internally on the right things," said Gary Fisher, vice president of sales - wholesale. "This includes making sure that we are set up to satisfy the customer because that's the number one concern: for example, do we have the right SKUs in the distribution center, so we have good market coverage? We are focusing on our internal processes to ensure we have everything in place to service our customers effectively."

Jeff Denes (left) and Jeff VanRegenmorter check out a new Hart & Cooley product.


Hart & Cooley certainly knows something about the long term, as it has been in business since 1901, when its founders, Howard Stanley Hart and Norman P. Cooley, started manufacturing warm-air registers from stamped steel in New Britain, Conn. In the 1920s, Hart & Cooley expanded its register business, moved to Holland, Mich., and merged with Federal Mfg. Co. By 1942, the Holland plant had grown to 238,750 square feet of floor space, but register production took a backseat to national defense needs, and the company produced watertight shipboard electrical boxes and 60-millimeter mortar shells.

When forced air heating became widespread in the 1950s, the company added new products to its residential and commercial lines of registers, grilles, and diffusers, including the Metlvent gas vent for gas-fired appliances. In 2001, the company purchased American Metals Products, and in 2002, Ward Industries, a manufacturer of duct system components for commercial and industrial applications, was purchased.

In 2005, Hart & Cooley acquired Milcor Inc., a multi-brand manufacturer of building products, including Milcor, Lima Register, Leigh, Portals Plus, and RPS (Roof Products Systems). In 2008, Hart & Cooley and Selkirk joined forces, bringing the brand names MetalBest, SuperVent, SuperPro, HeatFab, and AirMate into the portfolio.

The company is now headquartered in Grand Rapids, Mich., and Fisher said that the three core businesses remain registers and grilles, venting and chimney products, and flexible duct. "We've done a lot of consolidation because we have many similar products. We also have the same management team overseeing the businesses. That continuity is important because it helps us understand our business better and also service our customers at a market level. Our customers expect a certain level of service from us, and we are making the improvements needed to ensure we're continuing to offer the level of service that our customers expect."


And just what do customers expect from Hart & Cooley? According to Fisher, they like the brand recognition, the breadth of the product line (commercial and residential), and the quality. "Contractors know us because we are one of the more recognized brands in the marketplace, and that helps distributors. Distributors also like that they can combine venting, registers, grilles, and flex duct in their product offering. That way they can offer our three main core products as a whole package to the contractor or homebuilder. They can get all three product lines in one stop."

The active sales force at Hart & Cooley supports its distributors at the local level whenever possible by helping with local promotions, open houses, or by going on joint calls to their contractor customers. They also provide product training, which can be geared toward contractors or new counter personnel, with topics ranging from an overview of the product line to how to size registers, grilles, and vents.

"Sometimes we tie our training in with other training that the distributor is offering," said Fisher. "Every distributor has a different way of approaching training, and our sales force works with them to provide solutions that fit their needs."

Sales representatives have a very good idea of what distributors are looking for because typically they have been with Hart & Cooley for a number of years. "We have a lot of long-term employees," noted Fisher. "For example, in our customer service group, the short timers have been with us five or six years, while many of our other employees have been with us for 15 to 20 years."

These long-term employees provide continuity, as well as tribal knowledge, which helps maintain customer relationships, said Fisher. "We've had some customer service representatives who have dealt with two generations of the same customer - they worked with the father, and now they're dealing with the son. That has provided great continuity in our relationships."


Besides focusing on its core business, Hart & Cooley is gearing up to transform its online presence to make it easier to do business with the company. Right now the company's website contains informational materials, such as product brochures and technical information, but Fisher noted that they would like to set up a portal through which distributors can place orders, check availability, and find out when their products have been shipped.

"We would like our website to be a place where customers can go and find out what they need right away, so they don't have to call our customer service group to ask basic questions," said Fisher. "Right now, a lot of customers - particularly on the retail side - place their orders through electronic data interchange (EDI), and we would like to do more of that in the future. We've got a waiting list of customers who want to go to electronic ordering with us, and we're working down through that list as fast as we can."

The economy is also moving in a positive direction, even though it may be improving a little slower than everyone would like, said Fisher. "The trend is positive, but it's going to be slow going for the next year or two. The new construction data still shows some softness, and we need to flush the foreclosure homes out of the market. I don't think we're going to see the big gains that some of the economists are predicting, but I think things are trending in the right direction."

With an improving economy and a renewed focus on its core businesses, Hart & Cooley is confident it is in a great position going forward. "We will continue to tout our quality, breadth of line, and terrific customer service," said Fisher. "That's what we do well, and that's what we'll continue to focus on."

Hart & Cooley is focusing on its internal processes to ensure it has everything in place to service its customers effectively, said Gary Fisher, vice president of sales - wholesale.