White Plains business keeps mov­ing its walls

Mod­ern Door is plan­ning ex­pan­sion into light man­u­fac­tur­ing

Maryland Independent - - Business - By DAR­WIN WEIGEL dweigel@somd­news.com Twit­ter: @somd_bized­i­tor

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.”

STAFF PHOTO BY DAR­WIN WEIGEL

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.

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