White Plains business keeps moving its walls
Modern Door is planning expansion into light manufacturing
Bill Dotson is all about division. His White Plains business depends on it.
Modern Door and Equipment Sales has become the largest “moveable wall” company in North America, Dotson said, and the main part of that growth has been designing and installing glass dividing walls, many of which can retract into an adjacent wall, closet or up into the ceiling.
“In 2002, we started making a major move towards the office of the future, which is the divisible, commercial tenant space,” Dotson said during an interview at his White Plains business, the central hub of operations. “And that’s where the major growth in our business has come from. As buildings became green and starting moving into more flexible space, our business has just accelerated over and over again.”
Within the next three years, the business plans to expand into light manufacturing to make its own fixtures associated with glass and moveable wall installation which will increase the number of White Plains employees from 75 to 125, with another 25 working out of current offices in Virginia and Pennsylvania.
“We’re going to start light manufacturing here in Charles County,” Dotson said. “Instead of buying the material from overseas, we’ll actually start producing some of that material right here in Southern Maryland. We’re buying more buildings here in the county. We’re hiring more people to start the manufacturing.”
The company was started by his stepfather Gary Sprouse in 1984 when it operated out of Fairfield, Pa., near Gettysburg — that office is still open. The focus then was gymnasium equipment in schools, which often included dividing walls made by a company called Modern Fold, Dotson said.
“I came on January 1985, and we started selling Modern Fold and gymnasium equipment,” he said. “A lot of schools use folding walls. A lot of churches use folding walls. A lot of funeral homes that you go into use folding walls.
“In the early ‘90s we started transitioning into a lot of hospitality, that would be Marriott, Hilton and other hotels. Hotels are a huge user of traditional folding walls,” Dotson said.
The addition of Phil Pasini, who is the general manager and head of sales, marked the beginning of another transition in the early 2000s, shifting focus from selling ideas and designs to contractors to working directly with architects.
“Since Phil has come on in 1999, he has literally reinvented the way that our company goes to market,” Dotson said. “We realized something in 2002: a contractor’s vision is to just always do the space the least expensive way, which is drywall. The architect, who’s an artist, has a vision for doing it the most creative way.”
Around the same time, Modern Fold was purchased by German manufacturer Dorma. The European market had already shifted to the “office of the future” with glass walls, flexible space and natural lighting.
“Germany was 10 years ahead of America on this whole glass, flexible space, light transference [design movement]. In 2002, when they bought Modern Fold, they brought us in — we didn’t sell a piece of glass at the time — and they said, ‘You’re going to move the glass,’” Dotson said.
Pasini and his sales crew began pitching the glass office idea to young American architects and a little more than 10 years later the company has a number of prestigious projects under its belt, including the Washington Convention Center and a litany of hotels and high-end office spaces in Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C.
“Our flagship hotel, I think, would be the new Marriott Marquis downtown,” Dotson said. “That is the flagship hotel, currently. The new flagship, which opens in November, would be the MGM [National Harbor].”
He said that while most of the company’s projects average in the $25,000 range, multi-million dollar jobs have helped push the company into a $30 million a year business.
“[The convention center] was a $5 million moving wall job, which in my business that’s unheard of,” he said. “All the walls move up into the ceiling, on the first floor.” That project was in 2010 using Skyfold walls, he said, and remains the largest.
“We still have our traditional business,” he said. “The state is still spending money on schools. The economy is strong which leads to a strong hospitality market. We have a lot of hotels in Maryland, D.C. and Virginia that are buying the traditional moving walls to divide their ballrooms and banquet rooms.”
On the glass wall front, Dotson said his company has been doing booming business in the political arena as well. The U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens’ United decision in 2010 freed up corporate spending in politics and led to the explosion of well-funded political action committees, he said. And those more than 200 PACs and super PACs have offices in the region, mainly in the District and Northern Virginia.
“The Citizens United [decision] drove our business because it created this huge commercial boom in D.C.,” said Dotson, who is active in Republican Party politics himself. “The money in the super PACs is unbelievable. So, each one tries to outdo the prior office. We just did Americans for Prosperity [a Koch brothers super PAC] in Arlington. It’s unbelievable, a super headquarters. They have walls that move up into the ceiling.”
Dotson’s plans for light manufacturing piggyback on that growth by eliminating long delivery lead times from Europe and rolling with ongoing changes more quickly as architects and their clients get more creative.
“We’ve been fortunate to stay in the moveable wall business through this transition of glass dominating,” Dotson said. “Now we are the largest company in North America that does it, and we’re right here in Charles County.
“Having a local firm with a major contract with MGM [National Harbor], that’s a cool thing for Charles County,” he added. “That’s a national project. To have a Charles County company awarded such a prestigious job, that’s a highlight.”
Bill Dotson is the president of Modern Door & Equipment Sales in White Plains. It’s the largest “moveable wall” company in North America and lands high profile projects like the MGM National Harbor.