Door-maker Steves & Sons Inc., one of San Antonio’s oldest businesses, began as a lumberyard near the Alamo.
Edward Steves started the enterprise in 1866 after emigrating from Germany.
He was bringing in “cypress from Louisiana and longleaf pine from Florida” by the late ’70s, and had relocated the business “near what would become the Sunset Station railroad tracks” and shipped his wares, according to San Antonio Express-News archives.
There is “not a habitation in southwest Texas or northern Mexico … that has not got one or more planks about it from the yards of Steves & Sons,” a local newspaper reported at the time.
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The company eventually branched into doors and windows.
Employees produced aircraft propellers for the Army Air Corps during World War I and worked on Liberty ships during World War II. After the war, the business gave its profits to the government as thanks for the Steves sons’ safe return from military duty.
After the war, the business went back to making products for homes and continued to expand.
Today, Steves & Sons operates plants in San Antonio; Richmond, Va.; and Lebanon, Tenn. It employs between 1,100 and 1,400 people companywide, including about 800 workers in San Antonio.
The business recently began construction on a 100,000-square-foot addition to its Humble Avenue facilities.
On ExpressNews.com: San Antonio door maker adding to manufacturing facility
The expansion and new equipment will help it ship more products and manufacture upward of 16,000 doors per day in San Antonio.
We talked to Sam Steves and Edward Steves, fifth-generation owners and brothers, about the biggest challenges facing the industry and how the coronavirus has affected the company. Sam is president and chief operating officer of the company, and Edward is CEO.
Here’s an edited transcript of the interview.
Q: You work with companies that sell materials to homebuilders, and your doors are also sold through Home Depot. What’s the breakdown?
S.S.: We’re exclusive to Home Depot, and it’s about 25 percent of our total overall dollar buy-in.
That leaves the rest of it to what we call “millwork jobbers.” They take a door from us, just a simple door, and they may prehang it in a frame. Then they sell it to homebuilders.
Every door we make is built to order, and it’s complicated. An order is typically 1,000 doors, but it’s not usually 1,000 of the same thing. It’s 30 of this, 60 of that, 120 of this, five of this. … It ends up making 1,000 doors.
We’re shipping all over. If you look at a map, we pretty much cover the country right now.
Q: What’s the biggest change you’ve seen the industry go through?
E.S.: We went from 40 competitors to a handful. It changes the landscape so much. That’s one of the reasons why we’re able to sell so much more than we did 30 or 40 years ago. If we could produce 80,000 doors a day, we could sell them. It’s a remarkable environment.
S.S.: I agree. If we had twice the capacity … we’re thinking about how to get to that. It’s a long fall from the top, and we’re pretty comfortable where we are. We’ve always been conservative. Today, Steves & Sons outperforms the billion-dollar companies with quality and service.
E.S.: With the tenets of price, quality and service, price is really the last one. If the quality isn’t there, someone is not going to buy it from you. If they can’t get it from a service standpoint, they’re not going to buy it from you.
S.S.: Another reason for our success goes back to our father. He decided he was going to retire when he was 65, and the only requirement he had of us was that we didn’t have any debt at the end of each year. That meant that if we borrowed money from the bank, we had to figure some way to pay it back.
That’s been a mainstay of giving us stability during unstable times. There were some (tough) times in the ’70s, ’80s, ’90s and even the most recent recession we just got out of. Had we not had that cash reserve — and now we have a significant cash reserve — we wouldn’t have been able to make it.
E.S.: We’ve had opportunities to buy other operations, but it would have put such a tax on us and we wouldn’t have met the requirement our father gave us. We don’t feel like we’re the owners of this company. We’re the temporary stewards that are holding it and passing it on to the next generation.
How has the coronavirus pandemic affected operations?
S.S.: We’re tracking the cost of COVID at our company monthly, and that’s a private number, but it’s significant. It’s got two commas in it already.
If there’s a suspected infection, we’re very liberal in terms of how we handle it. We contact-trace everyone who might have been around (an infected person). Everyone leaves immediately. If there’s a known infection, companies come in and sanitize anywhere from an area to the whole plant. We’ve done both.
We pay people until they can come back safely. Each plant has their own resources, and they are very different state by state. San Antonio has some pretty good testing resources for quick turns.
One of the biggest issues is fear. We’re working as hard as we can to demonstrate that we’re working in a safe environment.
Every day when an employee clocks in, a thermal imaging device can see them with their mask on, take their temperature and log it to a chart system. It’s logged again at lunchtime. We’re also asking screening questions an epidemiologist suggested.
E.S.: I think we’ve had a total of 80 COVID-19 cases companywide.
S.S.: The other byproduct of the pandemic has been a horrible employment situation.
We cannot hire people at any price, and it’s not just us. When I talk to customers from New York to Florida to the Carolinas, anywhere we do business, it’s as if I’m having the same conversation all over again. It’s a problem.
We’ve been experimenting with different pay rates. We’re so far out of the box in recruiting, which is great. We’re not just sort of hoping it will happen, we’re doing everything we can.
E.S.: We’re making a lot of improvements in our plants, to have it (be) more comfortable.
(That includes incorporating climate control systems to help with the summer humidity and heat “in areas that we can” and air conditioning systems directed at certain work stations, Sam Steves said. The company uses large industrial fans in the summer and heaters in the winter.)
S.S.: We’re modernizing it, and shame on us for waiting until 2020 to do it, but we’re doing it.
Q: There’s been a lot of talk recently about automation in manufacturing and robots replacing humans. What’s your take on that?
S.S.: Some of our competitors have tried automated lines and have not been successful in making them work. If you’re making the same Key lime pie in the same size all day long, you could. But the diversity (with different sizes and designs) causes problems.
A door sizer (which is part of the company’s local expansion) helps maintain these incredibly tight tolerances for width and length. The product comes off as a beautifully finished piece of millwork, and it’s accurate and it’s able to make changes very quickly.
Years ago, we invested in an automatic door feeder and a brand-new machine that we put into Tennessee. We thought it was the way of the future: The doors are going to come up in stacks of 60 and start feeding through the machine, and it’s going to be incredible.
But we did some time studies. We did a study of our San Antonio door sizer and the Tennessee sizer, and we were going no faster with a feeder. It actually required one more person.
We’re thinking about taking the feeder out now. We think it slows us down. So there’s automation that didn’t work. It’s powerful, but it doesn’t go faster than a human being, and it doesn’t make it any easier.
There might be some technologies related to how we prime the edges of our doors that could be robotic later on.