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Fall 2018 - Profitable Sustainability
Profitable Sustainability
Industrial Louvers plots to double its size through products that maintain an ecological balance
October 2018

Jo Reinhardt, CEO of Delano-based Industrial Louvers, has guided her company to head-turning sales, a plant expansion, and nation-leading innovation with a company-wide emphasis on environmental sustainability. But due to a striking instance of anti-nepotism from her father, the company founder, Reinhardt almost never got the chance to prove herself. Reinhardt’s father initially cast doubt that his daughter had the background or temperament to take the reins of the company.

James Sterriker and a group of investors founded Industrial Louvers in 1971 when they purchased the industrial division of Louvers Manufacturing, which was in the process of relocating from Eden Prairie to Little Rock, Arkansas. Sterriker relocated his new company to a plant in Delano, which he bought from ACP, a soon-to-be-bankrupt manufacturer of industrial dampers.

Industrial Louvers would eventually manufacture architectural louvers, equipment screens, decorative grilles, sunshades, column covers and other products. Its customers would include designers, contractors and subcontractors across all segments of the construction industry throughout the United States.

Reinhardt joined the company as a 28-year-old part-time drafter in 1982 while her father was in the process of acquiring Precision Air Products Company, a Chicago-based manufacturer of air diffusers from cleanroom applications. 

Over the next seven years, her in-house portfolio eventually encompassed estimating, project management and marketing. Enough breadth, she thought, that on her father’s retirement in 1988, she announced her ambition to eventually take over Industrial Louvers and run it. 

“I didn’t expect to do it immediately,” she recalls, knowing her father’s frequently-stated concerns about the negative perceptions of nepotism. “It was made very clear that there would be no favoritism and that I would have to wait for any position to open before I moved anywhere in the company.”

That said, she was surprised and disappointed when he told her that she lacked the skills and temperament to handle the emotional stress of the job. “I don’t think my dad ever had the vision of me taking the company over. He didn’t feel I had the education, the experience, or the emotional fortitude to run the company.” 

Sterriker arranged some career counseling and professional assessments for his daughter, some that confirmed his instincts, she now admits. But there were also surprises, such as her strong analytical skills.

Undaunted, she moved ahead. She enrolled at the University of St. Thomas, where in four years she received a degree in operations management, all while maintaining a 30-hour workweek at the company.

In 1999, when Sterriker’s successor-CEO announced his retirement, Reinhardt got the job.

Jo Reinhardt, CEO, Industrial Louvers
Jo Reinhardt, CEO, Industrial Louvers

“I did win him over,” Reinhardt says, “but it still took a few years for him to fully accept that I could be successful.” His acknowledgment became complete in the early 2000s, she says, when the Air Movement and Control Association (AMCA International) named Reinhardt to its board of directors, and in 2006 to a term as president of the prestigious industry association. 

“That’s when it finally really sunk in to him that I had arrived,” she says.

Reinhardt’s reign took a significant step in 2014 when Industrial Louvers produced a 10-year strategic plan that envisioned the company to double in size. To accommodate growth, the company recently completed a $7.5 million, 40,000-square-foot addition to its facility, and is finishing a $2 million, 3,700-square-foot build-out of its office space. The manufacturing space significantly reduces energy consumption and creates a better working environment for employees by incorporating natural daylight. The company’s new paint line will eliminate chemicals and integrate energy saving technology through infrared ovens and LED lighting. The office space will enable the company to add a planned 11 employees to its team. 

A key component of Reinhardt’s strategic plan was to expand Industrial Louvers’ “sustainability.” She knew instinctively that sustainability would play a significant role in the sunshades line that Industrial Louvers established in the late 1990s, but “I didn’t know how to capitalize on that.” Her challenge was to persuade builders and owners of the cost-saving opportunities without yet having documentation.

Enter Lisa Britton, a Minneapolis-based entrepreneur and acknowledged sustainability zealot. Britton reached out to Reinhardt on LinkedIn in 2014, after a mutual friend alerted her that Industrial Louvers was looking for someone to lead sales and marketing. 

“The building product specialty world is very small,” Britton says. She was impressed by Reinhardt’s commitment to becoming a market leader in the sustainability movement. And she also admired Reinhardt’s entrepreneurial approach to the company. “She is not somebody who was handed a company. She created a new vision to kind of go to the next level.”

Britton was immediately impressed by the attitude of the entire company. “One of the things that helps predict success in environmental initiatives is if the employees of the company have connections with the outdoors. And I found that immediately when I started working at Industrial Louvers, like everybody hunts or fishes or camps, or does outdoorsy type things and is connected with nature.”

Britton also had entrepreneurial bona fides. In February 2009, she launched Alpar Architectural Products in Minneapolis, a company that helped develop the first fire-rated bio-based polymer for interior finish use, of particular value in healthcare environments. “A lot more hospitals are now looking at trying to create spaces that don’t actually cause disease,” she says. “The logic being that it doesn’t make sense to try and cure cancer in buildings that cause cancer.” She eventually sold her company to a larger one, staying on as president, but left when the new owners put the brakes on her sustainable plans. 

Since the early 2000s, Britton has devoted her career to improving the environmental and human health effects of manufacturing. “I started to realize that the only way to really drive change in the industry was to be part of creating that demand by bringing awareness to things like chemical transparency, which is a big part of what Industrial Louvers is doing now.”

Britton thinks manufacturers are uniquely positioned as sustainability change agents. “I am very much a believer in market-driven solutions for some of these complex problems,” she says. “The chemical makeup of things isn’t an area where the government has ever been a real driver. Without manufacturers as part of that solution, there won’t ever be any progress made. You can talk about wanting products all you want, but somebody’s got to make them.” 

Industrial Louvers emphasizes that its commitment to sustainable operations reduces the company’s environmental impact, according to Britton. Sun control products help achieve the goals of Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED), Green Globes, the Living Building Challenge and other rating systems, or simply fulfill the spirit of these systems by reducing energy consumption and increasing occupant comfort. Exterior sunshades have a critical impact on cooling and lighting systems and, when used properly, significantly reduce buildings’ energy loads.

Britton says Industrial Louvers’ sunshade products actually save more energy and water throughout their lifecycles, as well as reduce the effects of climate change. “They’re actually net positive,” she says. They also reflect sunlight from buildings to reduce heat island effect and diminish glare, minimizing energy consumption and fostering a more pleasant occupant experience. Interior light shelves maximize daylight and reduce glare without affecting views to the outdoors.

“Every sunshade you buy actually makes the world a better place. That’s something that people can really get behind, and something our employees are really enthusiastic about.” 

Britton says the company strives for continuous improvement throughout its operations. Its internal green team sets goals and priorities, educates staff, and implements sustainability strategies throughout the organization. Industrial Louvers is among the first manufacturers pursuing the International Living Future Institute’s (ILFI) Living Product Challenge and is the first manufacturer in the United States to earn the JUST label. The JUST label is ILFI’s social justice “nutrition label,” a means of assessing Industrial Louvers’ impact on and contributions to employees’ well-being, environmental sustainability, the local community, and society as a whole.

“The Living Product Challenge analyzes all of our operations, how we treat our people, where it sources products, as well as its internal policies for community involvement. Sourcing products has environmental impacts, and it also has impacts on our community,” Britton says.

Lisa Britton, director of sales and marketing, Industrial Louvers
Lisa Britton, director of sales and marketing, Industrial Louvers

Industrial Louvers sources all materials from within a 500-kilometer radius of its facility, according to Britton, which reduces its carbon footprint. “That was step one in the process,” she says. Further, the company discloses all materials in its products and pushes suppliers to do likewise.

“Some of the more forward-thinking architectural firms are asking for some of this information. We’re not only providing it to them, but we’re kind of educating the market on it, as well. From that aspect, we reported all the chemical information in our products. That helps us select our suppliers.”

Suppliers unwilling to comply don’t make it on Industrial Louvers’ list of preferred vendors, Britton says. 

Industrial Louvers teamed with Valspar to start working with a new paint formulation that eliminates heavy metals from its finishes. With significantly reduced hazardous materials, these coatings are formulated with material transparency and environmental impacts in mind. Fluropon Pure coatings offer opportunities to comply with material disclosure and optimization credits in LEED® V4 and comply with Red List Free requirements for Living Product Challenge projects.

“We’re actually the first chrome free finisher in the country,” Britton says. “That is a really big deal.”

Britton acknowledges that some of these pretreat chemicals are slightly more expensive, but that has not changed the prices for the customer. “We’re a custom manufacturer. Our base pricing to our customers has remained the same,” she says.

Industrial Louvers’ commitment goes beyond its own operations and providing products for green building projects. The company actively supports organizations that promote sustainability and environmental awareness industry-wide, such as the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) and the Health Product Declaration Collaborative (HPDC). Its LEED-accredited professionals provide training for staff and sales representatives throughout the industry on a variety of topics related to green building.

Industrial Louvers’ hometown of Delano is a city of about 5,500 people situated 45 minutes west of Minneapolis. The company employs around 70 people, with roughly half of those employees working in the factory and the other half working in the office.
Industrial Louvers’ commitment to sustainability has earned it a “cool factor” among certain prospective employees, as it fights the same skills gap challenges that plague all manufacturers, especially those that are far away from regional population centers.

“We have a lot of people that are coming here who simply don’t have the skills that we need to perform our work. It affects our ability to grow,” Britton says.

On the other hand, she says, “employees are really excited.” The company recently lured an engineer from Los Angeles who Britton says was attracted to the company’s commitment to sustainability. It’s also had a positive impact on recruiting the sometimes difficult to recruit/retrain millennials because, Britton says, “The millennial generation is looking for companies that don’t just look at making money but look at making the world a better place. The whole purpose of a living product is not only to be at a net zero in terms of our damage but actually create regenerative products.”

The company’s commitment to sustainability is less of an attraction on the factory side than it is on the drafters, estimators, and project management staff, according to Britton. “But certainly, we have some folks in the shop that have absolutely embraced it and are working on continuously improving in terms of the actual daily operations of the shop.”

Industrial Louvers also works hard to be fully transparent with employees. “Any employee can know how much we’ve sold and booked and everything every day,” Britton says. 

CEO Reinhardt agrees, saying that certain core values are a company priority. “The wellbeing of our employees is one of my top values. We want to make sure that we have good connections with families and the community.”

“It’s been slowly building, but we’re starting to see some traction. More and more architects are starting to demand that suppliers include sustainability in how they do business. With our whole Living Product Challenge, we’re starting to see more and more demand from the architectural side of things, and owners want it. Because we went through and did a lifecycle analysis on our sunshades, we now know that there is a definite payback on the end. We’re able to bring that to owners and say, ‘This works.’” 

“We haven’t probably fully realized the entire (cost) benefit on that, but we do feel that number one, it’s the right thing to do. I think that long-term it will payoff to being a leader in that industry. I think we’re going to be able to see the benefit of it.” 

Ultimately, Reinhardt says, her company’s secret sauce is its people. “You have to surround yourself with people who know and understand your own weaknesses, and make sure you have other people that complement where there are weaknesses and strengths. Having that good workforce, great communication, transparency with everything that we do, why we do it and how we do it, just having a common vision, it is all so  important.”  

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