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Published: Monday, 11/6/2000

Marriage of insulation, framing helps business

BY MARY-BETH McLAUGHLIN
BLADE BUSINESS WRITER
Travis Binion drills pin holes in a piece of timber at Riverbend Timber Framing and Insulspan. The companies craft timber frames and insulated panels. Travis Binion drills pin holes in a piece of timber at Riverbend Timber Framing and Insulspan. The companies craft timber frames and insulated panels.
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BLISSFIELD - There was a time in the late 1980's when Frank Baker was selling windows, doors, fireplaces, and furnace heat exchangers for homes.

That was in addition to framing sold under the name of Riverbend Timber Framing and to insulated panels for homes sold under the name of Insulspan, Inc.

“It all seemed synergistic, but it's like creating another business when you take on another product line,” said the president of what is now known as Riverbend Insulspan and is based in Blissfield.

Weathering the recession of the early 1990's convinced Mr. Baker to pare back to focus on his core businesses.

“The recession set us back pretty hard, because we were in an expansion mode,” he said. “But we learned how to be pretty resourceful, and we learned that if you focus on your core, you can contract much more rapidly if you need to.”

The two companies are doing anything but contracting these days. Riverbend and Insulspan, which employ about 80, are expected to continue their yearly growth of 30 per cent and finish this year with $13 million and $14 million in revenues.

Mr. Baker was a mechanical engineer working for General Motors Corp. when the Arab oil embargo hit in 1973, awakening an interest in energy-related issues for home construction. He designed a timber-frame home for his family on the River Raisin outside Blissfield that was inspired by a similar home his grandfather had built in the late 1940's on the banks of the Maumee River.

To make it more efficient for heating and cooling, insulated panels were needed, he said.

The panels are a continuous core of rigid foam insulation that is laminated between two layers of structural board. The panels can be precut and custom fabricated and are quickly assembled on-site to fit virtually any wall or roof configuration.

Mr. Baker originally contracted with St. Louis-based Insulspan to make the panels, but through the years, he became a licensee of the company and then bought it with partners. Today, Insulspan has manufacturing plants in St. Louis, Idaho, and Minnesota and a network of licensees throughout the country.

Bill Wachtler, the executive director of the Structural Insulated Panel Association near Seattle, said there were 10,000 homes nationwide built last year using the panels. The number is expected to grow about 30 per cent this year.

Insulspan is one of the best manufacturers and marketers in the country, he said. “I say that because they have state-of-the-art manufacturing equipment, a commitment to quality, and the capability of meeting customers' needs.”

Still, the company has had its share of setbacks. Perhaps the biggest blow in recent years came when a long-planned deal with Owens Corning was killed a couple of years ago. It was to market the panels under the Toledo building product company's name. OC spokesman Bill Hamilton said the Fortune 500 firm decided to pursue alternatives that better fit with its products.

The small local company has had successes, though. Insulspan's panels have been featured on popular television shows on home building and remodeling - This Old House and Bob Vila's Home Again - and the timber-framing designs have won a number of awards.

Joel McCarty, the New Hampshire-based executive director of the Timber Framer Guild, said Frank Baker and his wife, Brenda, are well-known and liked in the industry.

The timber-framing business continues to grow, Mr. Baker said, especially among people who had originally thought of building a log cabin but are drawn to the architectural flexibility of timber framing. But the insulated-panel business is expanding more rapidly, he said.

“There's a market for panels anywhere you build with stick building,” he said. The panels are gaining greater acceptance among home builders and are appealing to customers because of their energy-saving characteristics, he added.

“I want to continue that compound growth of 30 per cent per year, and I'd like to attract capital or strategic mergers like with OC to enable product to find its way to this marketplace,” he said.

Small Business Profile is a weekly feature on local companies. To be considered, send information about your company to Small Business Profiles, Business News, The Blade, 541 North Superior St., Toledo, Ohio 43660.



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