Larry Keener's life flashed before his eyes one February morning five years ago on a Texas interstate highway. So did the lives of two of his most trusted colleagues, Dwayne Miller and Bert Kessler. They came that close to being three I-30 statistics, as they sped westbound from company offices in Addison to their manufacturing plant in Burleson.
Keener, president of Palm Harbor Homes, was driving, holding court and using the 50-plus-mile trip to pump Miller, the company's now-retired president of manufacturing, and Kessler, Palm Harbor's vice president of engineering, for ideas.
“We were talking about ways we could take advantage of engineering and efficiencies we had implemented, but that no one really knew were there,” recalls Kessler. “We wanted to enhance our EnerGmiser program and let people know that energy-efficiency isn't all about how much R-value of insulation you install. You have to look at the house as a whole system and see how it performs.”
As fate would have it, amid their three-way brain jam, a dump truck suddenly swerved across the highway lanes, barreling right at their car. Instinct, reflexes, dumb luck, whatever, the crash they all saw coming never came. “Luckily, we were in a safe car,” Kessler recalls.
Now, as energy costs surge and consumer interest in green building and indoor air quality gain momentum, volume production builders are at a crossroads when it comes to implementing new and often cost-prohibitive technologies and innovations. Few wholly embrace the movement. Fewer still capitalize on its marketing benefits.
At the same time, fortuitously, after weathering turmoil in manufactured housing segment trends during the past few years, Palm Harbor managed to reposition itself, almost uncannily similar to the way Keener steered clear of the accident on I-30. In its new incarnation, Palm Harbor's play is as more than merely a leader in energy initiatives. Broadening its swath of appeal now could enable the company to capitalize on emerging market drivers that, once and for all, catapult a rapidly-growing business segment into the housing market's spotlight.
BACK STORY During the energy crisis of the 1980s, Palm Harbor first adopted marketing and selling energy efficiency as a strategic core to its business. Immediately, it set them apart in the factory-built housing market. With its EnerGmiser initiative, the company struck a chord with highly value-conscious manufactured home buyers. “A lot of companies did as good of a job with energy efficiency as we did at the time,” says Steve Reyenga, vice president of marketing, “but they didn't market it like Palm Harbor.”
Over the years, Palm Harbor focused on ways to exceed energy standards and code requirements within its factory-controlled building environment, and in 1996, the company built its first Energy Star compliant manufactured home. “Once you implement specific procedures, you can expect absolute consistency in your product,” says Kessler. “It's not like a job site where there are so many variables with the environment and subcontractors.” In three years, they'd built 600 more. In fact, Energy Star had no program tailored to address factory-built product, but that didn't matter to Palm Harbor. In 1998, the Environmental Protection Agency honored the effort with its Manufactured Home Builder of the year award.
As mold issues arose as a housing industry albatross during the late 1990 's, Palm Harbor set about engineering a solution. But mold wasn't the only problem creeping into the manufactured home business. Indeed, Palm Harbor's engineers implemented righ-sizing efficiencies, new requirements for duct seal testing, and the new return air exchange rates that enabled the company to successfully address mold concerns, eventually becoming the center-piece of Keener's brainchild Energy Management System Program. Nevertheless, the industry's business horizon took on an ominous pall. In fact, the very dynamics that would carry the stick-and-bricks segment to record-breaking highs would wreak havoc on the manufactured side.