ORIGINALLY WRITTEN DON RATZLAFF
Twenty-five years ago, Roger Hofer’s desire to make some apartments he was building more energy efficient led him to purchase a sideline business that could help him accomplish it.
Today, that sideline company, called Wheatbelt Inc., is his primary business objective-and he wouldn’t have it any other way.
Hofer and his staff of eight people will be celebrating 25 years in the rolling-shutter business with an open house from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday at their 17,000 square-foot plant at 300 Industrial Road in the Hillsboro Industrial Park.
“We just wanted to have a party, and invite the community to join us in that,” said Hofer.
Hofer was a welfare supervisor for the Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services during the mid-1970s, building energy-saving apartments as a sideline business.
In 1979, he saw rolling shutters from Europe promoted in Popular Science magazine as an energy-efficient window covering, and was interested in using the application on his apartment project on Ash Street.
“But I couldn’t find anyone anyone in the country who could do it, so that building never got them,” he said.
About a year later, he came across rolling shutters at the Kansas State Fair. In 1981 he started building them part-time to meet his own demand.
That fall Hofer purchased a company in Manhattan that was producing the shutters. He quit his job with the SRS and went full-time into the shutter business.
In 1989, Hofer enhanced the business with the purchase of the rolling-shutter division of Pease Door Co. In 1994, Hofer bought the controlling shares from his investment partners and went nationwide with the business.
He also moved the business to its current location, which he has since expanded as the business has grown.
“Before, (producing rolling shutters) was my hobby, then my hobby became my employment,” Hofer said. He added with a smile: “I haven’t had any hobbies since.”
Today, Wheatbelt Inc. sells to clients across the country, as well as Mexico, Canada and the Caribbean.
“It’s not a big market,” Hofer said, “but there’s a niche.”
The primary application for rolling shutters in the early days was as window coverings, especially in parts of the country vulnerable to hurricanes.
Hofer said he shifted his focus to non-glass covered openings such as concessions stands, kiosks in shopping malls, screened-in porches and cabinets that that lend themselves to light-weight but durable roll-up doors.
“What we’ve done is taken our product and revised it for other applications,” Hofer said. “Basically, it’s the same shutter, but we’ve just made a lot of changes to it.”
In recent years, Wheatbelt rolling shutters have found a good reception in such wide-ranging applications as degreaser tanks to high-dollar outdoor kitchens.
“If it’s a rollout cover that projects and comes back, we’re one of the few companies-if not the only one-to make that kind of cover now,” Hofer said.
He is quick to credit the growth of his business to the Internet.
“Somewhere in ’98, in the early days of the Internet, I got onto that-luckily,” he said.
Hofer started with a Web site created by the Free Press, then found his way onto the now giant search engine Google in its early days of development.
Today, he estimates Wheatbelt gets 1,300 hits a day-“that we know about,” he adds.
“I’ve probably done as well on the Internet as anybody around here,” Hofer said.
But it’s not a panacea.
“If you depend only on Internet sales, you’ll never make it,” he said. “You’ve got to have a broad base of dealers and ongoing contacts. But for new, long-term contacts, it’ll be on the Internet.”
As he reflects on a quarter-century in the business, Hofer said the long-term relationships he’s developed with some of those business contacts across the country has been one of his most satisfying aspects.
“It’s just interesting meeting a lot of people-finding out what they do and their experiences,” he said. “They teach you a lot of things.”
Working for much of his professional career amid the red-tape of a state agency, Hofer said he also likes the freedom he has in private business to pursue the goals he sets without restrictions.
“I own Wheatbelt at this point, and there aren’t that many people who own their own business anymore,” he said. “Most of it is franchised. This is our own creation.”
Looking to the future, Hofer sees bright days ahead.
“I’ve got the best staff I could ever ask for,” he said. “Every body at Wheatbelt has a key to the building. They are a very hard-working, trustworthy staff.”
Hofer said has no plans to make an early exit.
“I’m 61, in good health and I don’t know why I should retire,” he said. “I’m having a lot of fun at this point in my life.
“(The company) is finally where I want it, where I don’t have to work that hard. I’ve got good staff, a 17,000-square-foot building-and at times I wonder if it’s big enough.”