[Celebrating 70 Seamless Years]
Written by Tracy Nicholson
Edited by Erin Thostenson
Profile and Office Photography by Dan Francis Photography
Celebration Photography by Lori Westland
Family Photography by Seventh Street Photography
When we heard Western Products was celebrating 70 years of business, we decided to meet with the team and dig up their deep roots in our Fargo-Moorhead community and beyond. With humble beginnings as specialists in lightning rods and fire control in 1948, to branching out into siding, windows, gutters, roofing, leisure products and cabinetry, we discovered the unique attitude that drives the family-owned business of Mike and Peggy Bullinger.
From Humble Beginnings: Then and Now
To start our journey to find out what makes Western Products tick, we were taken on a quick tour of their 45th Street home base in Fargo. As we walked through their massive third-floor conference room, we saw with our own eyes how important history is to the company. The modern conference room is married with first-generation timber ceiling beams, salvaged from their old Main Avenue warehouse location, once used to hold up the siding.
Western Products’ main level features a customer showroom they've aptly named their Design and Experience Center. This is where customers can view real-life house facades along with an array of Renewal by Anderson windows and doors, Crystal cabinetry, Sundance Spas and Hunter Douglas blinds.
To learn how Western Products became the region-spanning home improvement company they are today, we sat down with Ray Blaha, General Manager, as well as Kelly McComb, Marketing Manager and daughter of Mike and Peggy Bullinger, to get the background behind the company's humble beginnings.
Western Products has come a long way since it was founded in the 1940s by Peter Schuck. Back then, the company was known as a lightning rod distributor. “At that time, it was considered a home improvement to put lightning rods on your roof," said Blaha. Even during those small early days, founder Peter Schuck showed the work ethic that can be seen in Western Products today. “He would load his truck up with lightning rods and hit the road, not coming home until they were all sold."
By the 1950s, Western Products expanded to begin working in exterior siding. Blaha described the company as one that has made many industry firsts. “In 1963, they changed the industry by introducing steel siding to the region. Western Products actually received the first load of steel siding ever produced in the United States.”
A much different company than their beginning, they have since become a home improvement icon with locations in Fargo, Bismarck, St. Cloud and Jamestown. Each branch offers exclusive lines of exterior siding, windows, roofing, gutters, soffit and fascia, patio and front doors, cabinetry, window coverings and blinds. They also offer leisure products such as spas and Homecrest outdoor furniture. Unusual to a company of this size, all of their products are installed by their award-winning teams, making certain their premium products are installed with quality care.
As a family business, some might assume that McComb and her two sisters easily fell into their roles within the company, but it couldn't be further from the truth. McComb, Nikki Nelson and Toni Sandin started early on in their teens - doing everything from mowing lawns and shredding documents to filing paperwork, answering phones and cleaning - eventually heading off to college to pursue other careers. Although they all chose different paths, marketing, accounting, real estate and law - each daughter still has a role within the company, lending their expertise whenever needed. If you've noticed the NKT on the front peak of the building, now you know what (or who) it stands for.
Growing with the Times
Up until last year, technicians would head out to the job site armed with pen and paper. This year, all of their technicians were outfitted with iPads so they can communicate more efficiently with the team, view floor plans, take before and after pictures, do electronic measurements and input orders directly to their system. They've also incorporated the ability for employees and customers to text, something that has made their communication with homeowners much easier.
Blaha explained that many of these improvements have come with the help of Western Products owner, Mike Bullinger: "It's been a very rewarding experience working with Mike and having the opportunities to expand and bring on other products that fit our customer’s needs…he is very entrepreneurial; he's very open-minded when opportunities arise and always willing to explore new products and innovative technology that will increase our customer’s experience."
Marketing Manager, Kelly McComb, elaborated on Western Products’ early growth. She explained that part of it was a result of following ethical practices that other home improvement companies didn’t back in the day. “The industry was completely different, especially in how they used sales tactics. Homeowners today are a lot more educated on pricing and products, and we think that’s a good thing. Customers trust our company with making improvements on their home—something that might cost the most money they have ever invested in anything.”
Keeping a Positive Attitude
Western Products is clearly something the McComb cares deeply about. After growing up seeing her father, Mike Bullinger, run the company, she gained her Master of Business Administration from NDSU. Now, she’s worked her way up in Western Products from assisting the marketing team to overseeing the entire department.
"One motto my dad lives by is that success or failure in life is caused more by mental attitude than by mental capability." This is a mantra that Western Products at large, and especially McComb, follows closely. “Now, I catch myself saying it to my own kids and my 11-year-old looks at me with a smirk and says, yeah I know, and the younger two look at me like they have no idea what I'm talking about," laughed McComb.
Western Products works hard to foster an environment of good attitude and teamwork. The company has a program in place where employees handwrite notes to one another to show appreciation for all the good work that gets done, and company achievements are occasionally announced through building-wide speakers. “It’s all about cheering each other on and respecting the people you work with,” said McComb. “It’s pretty fun and we get to show appreciation and respect for those who work hard for the company.”
As the years have passed, Western Products has changed and evolved with the home improvement industry, but the gung-ho attitude of their employees remains the same. McComb explained, "We value family and believe it comes first. As a company, we want a workplace where our employees can attain career and personal goals within a culture that cheers on accomplishments.” She is also a firm believer that achieving success in your work, being present in your family, and giving back to the community, are important elements that create a fulfilled and happy life.
Creating a Culture & a Career
Many Western Products employees have turned their "jobs" into careers that anyone would be proud to hold. It's even become the norm that their employees will retire there, having moved through a succession of roles and branches throughout the company. McComb attributes some of this to the positive work culture: “We have a culture committee that gets together and organizes everything from family events to employee-only, to sporting events and picnics. Even though we might not cross paths at work every day, events like this help us be a unified team."
Celebrating 70 Years
One of these such events was Western Products’ annual picnic that celebrates their long history and the people that make every year a seamless success. For this year’s 70th anniversary, we got a glimpse inside the annual picnic in June.
With Western Products’ 70th anniversary, this year’s picnic in Trollwood Park held special meaning to the company team. Over 200 employees from across four business locations gathered with their families in the sunny summer weather to celebrate the employee dedication that helped make their long-standing success possible.
What is it that makes Western Products stand out? If you ask General Manager, Ray Blaha, he'd probably tell you that focusing on customer needs over the 70 years of experience goes a long way. "We still get phone calls and repeat business from customers that we worked with 20, 30 or 40 years ago. Sometimes they’ve even worked with the same Western Products salesperson the whole time," says Blaha. "Now, we have an entire company held accountable for every home improvement we do and we're not going anywhere.”
If you ask McComb the same question, she’d probably say the same thing her father and owner of Western Products, Mike Bullinger, often tells her -"Success is just a matter of attitude, and the people who work at Western Products have the best attitudes in the business."
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