We know it for its own icons, for the landmarks, and the landscape inside our borders, we know it by name.
Outside Iowa, that name carries, but becomes something else. If it’s not our state’s most famous product, it’s certainly among those most welcome in America’s homes.
The Pella Window. The corporation and its headquarters are so intertwined, you just have to ask.
“Which came first?” asks Kathy Krafka-Harkema, “The community of Pella, Iowa, or the company? And certainly the community came first, in 1847 when it was settled by Dutch immigrants.”
Of course. It wasn’t until 1925 when a Des Moines resident named Pete Kuyper responded to an ad that spoke to his fascination with innovation. “Investors wanted for the Rolscreen window concept.”
“If you think about the concept of a Rolscreen that rolls into place to keep bugs out, rolls out of sight so that it’s not darkening your room, taking away natural light, or attracting dust and dirt when it’s just sitting there,” Harkema explains.
Kuyper’s innovative mind was just getting started, but first, he wanted to move home and brought his new Rolscreen company with him to Pella in 1926.
“We still occupy part of that plant from 1926 today, and like many families and many businesses, we’ve kept adding on through the years.”
The named changed to “Pella Corporation” in 1992, and today the main plant covers over forty acres.
Wood windows and doors are produced here, entering as raw pine boards taking shape as they’re fitted with double and even triple-paned glass , and finally finished with the signature Pella bullseye and wrapped to travel.
“Everything that we produce here is made to order,” says operations manager, Brad Jungling, “and you can see, here’s an example, these two windows just came off the line and this one’s headed to Omaha, Nebraska and this one’s going to Mexico.”
30 semis full of completed windows leave here, each day; and that’s after a housing crash that devastated the construction industry.
“Since 2006, we’ve been in a tough downturn,” says CEO and President, Pat Meyer, “the single-family-new on the residential side, that piece of the pie, the market size has dropped 75%.”
Meyer took over three years ago. To deal with the recession at hand, the new boss channeled the old one.
“I’ll tell you, he wrote a book, it’s called ‘Pete’ and it’s a collection of his writings,” Meyer says, “and I will tell you that I leveraged that book and there’s some very important words that he used in the 30s to get through this tough time.”
Pella says 82% of its employees here didn’t miss a day of work, last year. Some haven’t missed one in decades. During the Great Depression, their loyalty was even more remarkable.
“People gave back part of their salary to the company to help the company get through tough times,” says Harkema. “To help keep their friends and neighbors at work.”
Inside Pete Kuyper’s perfectly preserved office, there’s a letter on the wall from another employee who was paid for 36 hours while only working 32. The cash difference accompanied the letter.
If Kuyper admired work ethic, he was in love with innovation, and it’s startling just how much of that there is under this giant roof.
“This panel will open up, and we can change the color of the shades seasonally if our customers want to do that,” Jungling points out.
And there are the mad scientists who test every product to an almost comical degree against temperature and water (and since their windows go to coastal cities) Pella invented a salt fog test.
And then every last scrap is cleaned up and reused .
“This material may get put into archery targets, for instance,” says Jungling.
From recycling to reinventing, it always goes back to Kuyper and his love of innovation.
“He started with a big idea, the Rolscreen,” says Meyer. “And throughout his career, he was always designing and trying to find a better way, every day.”
What once did little more than open and shut, now give light, shade, value, warmth and bug-free fresh air to homes around the world, where everyone calls them by name, “Pella”. Sealed fast are the products that leave here, the people who don’t, and the place where it all began.
That’s an Iowa Icon.