New ideas and programs aimed at helping the U.S. economy recover from recession more quickly are emerging now, following last week’s “jobs summit” at the White House. In attendance at the event, representing the building products industry, was Jeld-Wen executive vice president Ron Saxton. In an interview with Remodeling and Replacement Contractor, Saxton shared details of his experience at the event and how he hopes to see residential construction contribute to the nation’s economic recovery.
Editor's Note: The embedded video, courtesy www.whitehouse.gov, features the breakout session in which Mr. Saxton participated. The video includes comments from Energy Secretary Steven Chu, Assistant to the President Carol Browner, Home Depot CEO Frank Blake, and other individuals with insights into energy efficiency. Mr. Saxton addresses the group 58 minutes into the video, and speaks to President Obama at 66 minutes into the video.
REMODELING: Only a few people around the country were invited to attend the jobs summit. Were you surprised by the invitation?
SAXTON: I’ve spent a lot of time on public policy issues in my career, and I’ve spent a lot of time in Washington. The idea of attending the summit came from several places, so when asked if I was interested in attending, I said yes. Ultimately, it was Congressman Zack Space of Ohio who pushed the hardest to have me selected to attend. We have a window plant in his district.
REMODELING: What was the format of the summit, and what ideas did you want to bring to the conversation?
SAXTON: We started as a group of about 100 with almost all of the domestic cabinet. The President addressed the group, and his theme wasn’t specific jobs but urgency -- let’s focus on what we can be doing to create jobs quickly.
Then we broke into groups, and part of my push was to pick up the president’s message of urgency and [that] we can create jobs quicker than others. That was really a large part of his interest. What can we do to get that moving quickly.
After that, we were broken into small groups, not by industry sector, but based on trade issues, such as infrastructure, highway projects –- those kinds of groups. The group I was in was focused on energy efficiency, technologies, and innovation. Together we had a broader discussion of where the energy policy leads to job opportunities. Some of the alternative energy generation technologies that were being discussed, such as ethanol, are interesting energy policies and ultimately create jobs, but our industry can create jobs right now. It doesn’t take long to ramp up window manufacturing, for instance, and I explained that to the president directly.
REMODELING: Many window companies did ramp up their manufacturing in response to new orders coming in after the Stimulus Package passed in early 2009. Some were able to hire back many of the employees that they had laid off. Did Jeld-Wen see the same benefits this spring?
SAXTON: We did see some increase in sales from the stimulus, and did some hiring back to deal with that. However, we’re not aware of any companies that have seen the replacement market surge so much that they were able to recover all that they lost with the housing market –- housing is still a lagging part of the economy.
SAXTON: I didn’t focus so much on Jeld-Wen specifically, but on the industry in general. One useful focus was to explain that there are over a billion single-pane windows out there, which are very energy inefficient. If there was a government policy to replace a significant portion of those –- say 20% of single pane-windows –- that would create significant American manufacturing jobs, significant construction installation jobs, and save a significant amount of energy. It combines a jobs-creation plan with an energy agenda, and it can happen quickly. Window and door operations can manufacture and install rapidly.
REMODELING: Why hasn’t that type of plan taken hold yet?
SAXTON: The reason why it isn’t happening on its own is that the up-front cost is an obstacle to most homeowners. Even if energy savings will pay for the product cost, it happens over time, so homeowners still have to deal with the out-of-pocket cost.
There are opportunities here to help homeowners finance that. For instance, private businesses want to do that financing, in which they’d come in, they’ll pay to put the windows in the house, and you as the homeowner will pay them back from your savings each month. Some utility companies are looking to do the same through your utility bill, and some local governments are willing to let you finance the installation and pay it back through your property bill. The opportunity for the government isn’t to be the payer but to educate other agencies as to why it makes sense.
REMODELING: If local-level programs like that were to take hold, are you hearing that contractors are ready for the work that would come their way?
SAXTON: The contractors are ready at the drop of a hat. They’re ready to go.
What’s more, one of the advantages that we talked about with focus on construction is that it happens everywhere. You’re not just creating jobs in a few towns or in one state. If we can produce efficient windows and doors, that affects every community in America. It creates jobs upstream and downstream. There are manufacturers that product the components, make the glass, there are trucking companies that move the materials around and delivery it to the installers. The ripple effect is pretty significant.