Bernd Lewkowitz, of Margate, took the classic entrepreneur path of starting RSL Woodworking in a garage there.
Within a year, though, he needed more room and moved to the desolate woods of Egg Harbor Township, where RSL Inc. grew into one of the nation’s major manufacturers of door windows.
Fifty years later, the factory on Fernwood Avenue is surrounded by housing, its single-story buildings blending into the large-lot neighborhood.
RSL’s business of making framed window units that others drop into their exterior doors has far outgrown the capacity of the township plant. Ron Lewkowitz, co-owner of RSL and son of the now retired Bernd Lewkowitz, said most manufacturing takes place at the company’s 200,000-square-foot plant in Warren, Ohio.
The family-owned firm’s headquarters is nearby on English Creek Avenue, which also did some manufacturing until the downturn required consolidation.
The Fernwood Avenue plant makes a variety of wood and vinyl door windows, as well as specialty items, such as louvered windows and windows with sealed-in blinds.
Of particular interest these days are hurricane-impact windows.
Ron Lewkowitz, 55, of Linwood, said building codes along shore areas started to change after Hurricane Andrew destroyed parts of South Florida in 1992.
“In order to maintain important markets, we had to respond,” he said, so RSL went through several generations of hurricane-impact windows, balancing the need for strength with the desire for privacy, light and beauty on the door.
Perfecting the product paid off. “Our product is now the best-selling hurricane impact door glass in Florida and coastal areas,” Lewkowitz said.
At a recent visit to the plant, workers started creating the product by sandwiching a clear plastic layer between two panes of tempered glass. Once secured in a strong frame, the glass is ready to stop a 2-by-4 hurled by hurricane winds.
Lewkowitz said RSL has done well, competing against large corporations with $2 billion a year in sales, by staying focused on quality, the right niches and staffing.
“We’re one of the few companies still doing this in North America,” he said. “Many of our competitors went out of business in the last five years.”
The housing slump hurt RSL, too. “We had to close one of our facilities and lay off some of our valued employees, and that was truly regrettable,” he said.
The past year, the market has started to recover. He said overall sales have increased 28 percent.
The company’s skilled and loyal employees — which Lewkowitz credited as the primary reason for RSL’s success — took raw materials at the Fernwood plant and turned them into the centerpieces for doors by major manufacturers, such as Masonite, JELD-WEN and PlastPro.
Lumber was quickly cut into pieces a couple of inches square and about 10 feet long, then put through a molding cutter to give them the desired decorative shaping.
Steve Nixon, 59, of Egg Harbor Township and the operations manager, said the molding cutting heads would be very expensive to buy, so the company makes and maintains them in a little machine shop on the shop floor.
Power miter saws, some with two blades to cut two angles simultaneously and perfectly, prepare the wood to be joined together in a frame.
A multihead drill press, complete with robotic fingers to hold the frame steady, makes the precisely placed holes the door manufacturer will use to attach the window. Nixon said the pneumatic-controlled drill press was custom designed and built in-house.
Another custom machine holds in place and attaches the wooden frame and slats that make a louvered ventilation window.
Quality control is especially important during a downturn, Lewkowitz said.
His advice to businesses looking to weather an economic slump: “Focus on the essentials of your business, respond quickly to market conditions, and don’t cut corners.”
He said RSL, unlike most fellow manufacturers, puts its name on the door glass it makes.
“We are the only manufacturer in our industry that offers a lifetime guaranteed product,” Lewkowitz said.
He said the family also owns a sister company, Signature Door, of Altoona, Pa., which makes high-end custom wood entry doors.
“Some of the wealthier beachfront homes in the area might have our Signature Door,” he said.
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