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Weil-McLain at 135: Proud history, future vision

July 14, 2016
Five company values are:   Integrity (do what we were going to do). Excellence (understanding what “good” looks like, in the context of what the market demands and what customers need). Being results-driven (again, always, with a focus on the customer). Accountability (each employee stands behind their work 100 percent, and is empowered within the business to solve problems). And teamwork.
CHICAGO — In 1881 Isadore and Benjamin Weil opened their plumbing business on Randolph Street in Chicago. To give some perspective, that’s the same year Clara Barton founded the Red Cross; the same year Thomas Edison and Alexander Bell founded the Oriental Telephone Company.

The company acquired the J.H. McLain Co., a major supplier, in 1918 and was officially renamed Weil-McLain. Over the years they became a leader in the design and manufacture of hydronic comfort heating systems for residential, commercial and institutional use.

Today Weil-McLain has its administrative offices in Burr Ridge, Illinois, manufacturing and assembly facilities in Michigan City, Indiana, and Eden, North Carolina, with regional sales offices throughout the U.S. The company employs more than 600 people.

A vintage Weil-McLain ad.

“It’s very humbling and impressive when you think what it means to be in business for 135 years,” John Swann, president of Weil-McLain, said. “All of the effort, the blood, sweat and tears over the decades as we’ve adapted to our changing environment.”

Values make the difference

So how does a company maintain its success from the tail end of the 19th century all the way to the 21st?

There are five company values that ground all employees: Integrity (do the right thing), Excellence (understanding what “good” looks like, in the context of what the market demands and what customers need), Being results-driven (again, always, with a focus on the customer), Accountability (each employee stands behind their work 100 percent, and is empowered within the business to solve problems), and finally Teamwork.

“We know nothing gets done on an individual basis,” John Swann said, “it takes a group of people all pulling in the same direction to do anything meaningful.”

The common thread running through all those values is that they are outward-facing; all of them are about understanding and serving the needs of the people specifying, installing, using and maintaining Weil-McLain’s products.

Swann notes the importance of an “outside-in” approach to innovation and investment. “In many manufacturing businesses where you’re selling through two- or three-step distribution, it’s very easy to become disconnected from the actual use and application of your products and service offerings.

“If you were to walk our halls the one thing you would hear is our unbending focus on understanding the end-user customer needs, understanding the evolving roles of all stakeholders involved — whether it be our contractor-partners or our distributor channel partners — and tailoring our offering to meet the needs of those constituents.”

Facing the future

So how does a company with so many past decades of success face the future? Their strategy has three main prongs:

First is continuing to improve the basic cost/quality delivery equation for their customers. That ranges from the product itself and the value it provides to end users and channel partners as well as the broader customer experience.

Second is a focused effort around evolving channel relationships to provide direct, positive results with contractors and end users. That includes utilizing the company’s marketing analytics capabilities, technical expertise and application knowledge in ways that directly benefit homeowners, building/facility managers and, of course, contractors.

“We know the contractor has a tremendous influence over the sale and support of these products,” Swann said. Through the company’s School of Better Heating Program, through partnership with NATE, Weil-McLain is committed to build on its position as a knowledge leader within the industry.

And the company is well aware that being a knowledge leader means more than having the answers, it means delivering information to the right person at the right time in just the way they need it.

“For example,” Swann said, “a lot of our contracting partners are small, family-owned, multi-generational businesses. The successor generation, in a lot of cases, communicates in different ways than, maybe, the predecessor generation.” So if that partner wants a voice on the phone, a text on their smartphone, or to download a pdf, Weil-McLain makes it easy for that to happen.

And the third area is on the product level, and built around technology and innovation.

135 years of innovation

The history of Weil-McLain could be written as a series of “firsts” for the applied science of hydronic heating. Among their many innovations, Weil-McLain developed the first “wet base” boiler that eliminated the need for separate base and combustion chamber. They introduced the first commercial boiler with factory-assembled sections. They pioneered the first ultraviolet control system for an atmospheric gas commercial boiler.

Just this past year the company introduced its high-efficiency Evergreen boiler with 95 percent AFUE and flexible functionality for multiple applications. The company has also launched an enhanced line of its popular SlimFit high-efficiency condensing gas boilers with improved controls and communication.

The big buzzword among original equipment manufacturers these days is the Internet of Things. “We clearly see the future in terms of what type of an enabler the controls package and the connectivity capability within these products can offer,” Swann said. But he notes at the same time that manufacturers have to be very well grounded in understanding where the value proposition is in the technology – otherwise the Internet of Things is just a buzzword.

So Weil-McLain is determined to keep their eyes on the prize: What problems are they solving? “How are we making the lives of our end-users or the installers better with our embedded technology?” Swann asked. “Otherwise it’s just a novelty.”

But then, keeping the focus on how their products work for the people who use them has always been the challenge — and also what makes the work worthwhile.

“It’s such an exciting time!” Swann said. “I’m extremely proud of this team and this business, and extremely excited about the future… We’re very proud of the last 135 years, and we couldn’t be more excited about the next 135.”

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