Columbia Elevator at 50
A history of innovation continues with the launch of a new product.
Columbia Elevator Products Co., Inc. began over a half century ago with the word “no.”
A 33-year-old sales manager for a leading manufacturer of elevator doors, cabs and entrances presented his employer with a new approach to marketing the company’s offerings nationwide to independent elevator contractors, but his concept was not accepted. That manufacturer was Williamsburg Steel, and the frustrated, eager young visionary was Lou Blaiotta, Sr., who decided to do it on his own. Thus was born Columbia Elevator Products, incorporated on September 7, 1965, and set on a course to satisfy the marketplace with an unrelenting eye on the “new” and the “next.” On its 50th anniversary, Columbia has multiple regional manufacturing facilities; a Miami-based sales and engineering “Center of Excellence”; and a wide offering of products and services, with yet another new product being announced for 2015.
As intuitive, logical and even easy as this progression may at first appear, there are tales along the way of extremely difficult and challenging times and circumstances, multiple loans, mortgaged homes, tapped-out college funds, devastating setbacks and sleepless nights. “Plus,” Blaiotta recalls:
“My early days were hardly a cakewalk. I was born to immigrant parents during the depths of the Great Depression on November 11, 1932, and began life in a coldwater flat in New York City’s (NYC) East Harlem. When I was just under two years of age, my mother and expected brother both died during childbirth, and, when I was 13, my father died in a fall while repairing a construction hoist at New York’s Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center – an event later contributing in part to the naming of my company. After my mother passed, my 72-year-old grandmother relocated to the U.S from Italy to raise me.”
Between 1949 and 1954, Blaiotta worked at odd jobs, attended the Pratt Institute School of Architecture and, via a referral from his future father-in-law, began his career as an office boy at Williamsburg, later rising to the position of chief checker of the listing department consisting of more than 30 men. Following his marriage to Marie and a two-year overseas stint in Japan with the U.S. Army as a cartographical specialist mapping French Indochina, he returned to Williamsburg in 1956 in various capacities, including engineering, construction management, estimating, sales and a side project designing the Williamsburg Elevator Products catalog. Drawing on his print-production expertise acquired in the military, in October 1958, Blaiotta designed and placed, on behalf of Williamsburg, the first four-color “tip-in” advertisement in ELEVATOR WORLD.
By 1958, believing that the “real money” was not in drafting or engineering, but in sales, Blaiotta had begun working territories along NYC’s northern tier and eventually rose to the position of National Sales manager for the Williamsburg Elevator Products division, selling doors, frames and cabs on commission. “In between,” related Blaiotta:
“I encountered problems moving certain of Williamburg’s products in a difficult market and, for a time, was spending time selling lithography services to the advertising industry and others, including Williamsburg. Having eventually returned my focus to Williamsburg, however, and never abandoning my strong views on redesigning the elevator product sales model, my life-changing moment occurred in the mid 1960s, when I presented the owners, the Katz family, with my own suggested manufacturing and national marketing strategy. When the Katzes declined, I gave them nine months’ notice that I planned to pursue my concept on my own. Despite the fact that I was announcing my intention to become a competitor, we came to a most amicable arrangement – upon the formation of Columbia, Williamsburg granted my new venture US$25,000 in merchandise credit and went on to become my primary source of UL-labeled, fire-resistant elevator door panels for the following eight years.”
Why the name “Columbia”? “For four reasons,” said Blaiotta:
“First, Columbus was Italian, a nod to my heritage. Second, the name is a metaphor for America, as in ‘Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean.’ I wanted to express my American patriotism, and the names National Elevator and U.S. Elevator were already in use by other companies. Third, my father-in-law was president of the Columbia Association of the NYC police department. And, finally, there was my father’s accident at the Columbia Presbyterian hospital. I didn’t want to name the company after myself, and all the signs were pointing in one direction.”
The year 1965 was especially momentous for the Blaiottas in more ways than one. Not only was it Columbia’s launch year, but a new life was launched with the birth of Louis “L.J.” Blaiotta, Jr., Columbia’s future president. During this pivotal year in his business life, and through 1966, Blaiotta, Sr. laid the groundwork for establishing his enterprise: working first from home and office space lent by a neighbor and friend; polishing up a business plan; renting and preparing 14,000 sq. ft. of factory space in Port Chester, just north of NYC; structuring finances; pricing steel; acquiring equipment; traveling to line up customers; and doing all else required to enter the elevator industry as an independent manufacturer, serving independent elevator contractors.
With the dawn of 1967, the first entrances made by the new company were rolling out the door. By 1972, Blaiotta was able to purchase the factory, expand into space previously occupied by others, recruit and train more employees from the industry, use the additional space to make car doors and begin making cabs.
Wearing many hats, Blaiotta singlehandedly sold, engineered, produced and personally delivered many of his early projects up and down the East Coast in rented U-Haul trucks. He explained:
“I’d get up at 1:00 in the morning,” he recalls, “and drive to Worchester, Massachusetts; Washington, DC; Baltimore, MD; Richmond, VA; Philadelphia; and as far west as Harrisburg, Pennsylvania – wherever I needed to go. I’d make the deliveries first thing in the morning, then change into a suit and tie to make sales calls in the afternoon. Those were my loyal customers, to whom I believe I owe my entire Columbia career, a few of whom followed me from Williamsburg to support me.”
The business initially had ramped up without any onboard sales staff prior to 1967. As Blaiotta recalled:
“I had put on agents, in cities such as Boston; Philadelphia; Washington, D.C.; Detroit; Chicago; and Kansas City, and only hired those who could do installations. Back in those days, while elevator constructors did the rest of the work, only ironworkers were permitted to put up the rails and set an elevator entrance. It wasn’t until NYC, that the elevator union managed to capture all the work on the elevator.”
In NYC, it was still required to have an ironworker and a carpenter to set an entrance. The carpenter would need to hang the door, while the ironworker would need to set the frame, rails and so-called “rough stuff.” To work around this, Blaiotta put on sales agents who were fully able to do all of this work. He elaborated:
“These agents were strictly on commission and would sell the product installed, which is how I was able to break into the OEMs – by eliminating conflict between the ironworkers and elevator constructors. Further, my concept, which had earlier been proposed to and rejected by Williamsburg over perceived sales-tax issues, was to redesign the product and ‘convert’ these agents into manufacturing and stocking distributors. Not only could they do the installations, I could also supply them with components for a combined sell.”
Blaiotta had launched the business with only US$50,000 in startup capital, and it was obvious to him – and, in fact, part of his business plan – that going it alone with this model (including relying entirely on Williamsburg for delivery of door panels) might lead to production issues, unhappy customers and financial problems. “For example,” explains Blaiotta:
“Williamsburg, which was making entrances for major NYC projects, each involving several hundred entrances, was not ‘getting around’ quickly enough to making what I needed for my typically much smaller, faster two-, three- and four-stop jobs outside greater NYC. Because my low-rise, out-of-town work was such a low priority to them, I was constantly getting ‘no-deliveries,’ especially when it came to painted jobs.”
A new action plan was needed, prompting Blaiotta to move toward his own fabricating and painting line in Port Chester and, in the process, substituting the former welded one-piece frame with an easier- and safer-to-handle, knocked-down, bolted version. During these early years, Blaiotta also developed a fascia hooking system that holds components in place to provide safer adjustment and installation for mechanics, and, before too long, he was making his own cabs, as well. As for doors, Blaiotta phased out of his eight-year arrangement with Williamsburg by buying, together with Elevator Doors Inc., a label procedure from another hollow-metal competitor, New Jersey-based Pioneer Fire Door Co. And, with the acquisition of a self-designed gang welder, he began mass producing his own UL-labeled doors – universal, rather than left- and right-handed, for the most efficient adaptation to any situation, and associated hangers and hardware. “This was yet another innovation that I had proposed to Williamsburg, that it had not accepted, and a format we have been shipping at Columbia even through the present day,” reminisced Blaiotta.
With the 1980s came the next wave of change, including further expansions to add computer-numerically-controlled equipment and upgraded manufacturing of cabs with UL certificates. In 1983 came the “official” entry of 18-year-old L.J. Blaiotta, Jr., who, for the previous three years, had performed custodial duties on Saturdays. During summers through high school, he worked his way around the shop’s various manufacturing departments, and, while in college, began the computerization of various administrative processes. Upon receiving a Civil Engineering degree at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and an MBA at the Pace School of Business, he steadily worked his way into the company’s leadership, spearheading introductions of new technologies. He recalled:
“This was the beginning of an exciting time for me: the ability to help my father take the company to new thresholds of safety for our crew and installers in the field, to help create manufacturing efficiencies to speed up jobs through the plant and ever-evolving new ways of saving time and money for our elevator contractor customers.”
In 1986 and 1987, a particularly fast-moving period, the company saw several new developments, as Blaiotta, Jr. recalled:
“We introduced our first computer-based production-control system, began offering entrances tested with draft seals in accordance with the 105A National Fire Protection Association Standard (a U.S. Coast Guard requirement for shipboard elevators) and conceiving new approaches to improving the elevator experience at every level. For example, we designed one of our signature solutions, a sill incorporating what we call an ‘upthrust retainer.’ Instead of a conventional rectangular door-tracking groove, we fashioned an alternative groove with a mushroom shape that works with a bushing to capture the nylon shoe guides in the track and anchor the door bottom. If forcibly struck or vandalized, the door is much less likely to swing freely and come loose at the top, thereby creating a hazardous opening to the elevator shaft. Not only is this much safer for passengers, the additional ‘wriggle room’ allows for less friction and wear of door gibs, and, because of the sill groove’s larger space, for fewer door jams when refuse accumulates within it.”
It was the 1990s, however, that saw Columbia begin to broaden vastly in scope. With the start of the decade came the introduction of QuikEnt®, Columbia’s proprietary “tower” system engineered to allow safer, faster and more flexible installations of elevator entrances. “This was a breakthrough product line for us,” said Blaiotta, Jr.:
“While it is suited for both low- and high-rise construction, it helped us in a major way to break into the high-rise market because of its many time-saving aspects and safety advantages.”
The implementation of Columbia’s first parametric engineering system for much more precise production and order fulfillment, and the Columbia-tested and UL-labeled Cab Procedure occurred in 1992. But, it was 1995 that turned out to be the decade’s most remarkable year. At Columbia’s 1994 Christmas party, it was announced that Blaiotta, Sr. would assume the role of Chairman and that, effective on New Year’s Day, Blaiotta, Jr. would become the company’s president, with responsibility for day-to-day operations. In accepting the position, the new president stated, “This is a life-changing opportunity, the chance for me, with the help of my father and technological advancements, to take Columbia’s product offerings to an entirely new level.”
A number of new offerings were soon in evidence, including Columbia’s LamiCan® and patented InstaFast® technologies. Blaiotta, Jr. explained:
“InstaFast is Columbia’s process for instantly fastening interlocking elevator cab panels that use male and female joints and eliminate the need for bolts. LamiCan is a laminated InstaFast steel shell, with plastic laminates, wood veneers or metallic skins applied directly to the steel wall panels, with splines or stainless-steel strips installed between them to create the appearance of hanging panels.”
With the arrival of the new millennium came the vast expansion of Columbia, both physically and in cyberspace. By 2001, the company had launched a comprehensive new Internet presence with a feature enabling elevator contractors and architects to design and order their cabs, entrances, parts and accessories online, and to request 3D, high-resolution renderings to help them sell their jobs. “Point. . . Design. . . Click” read the ads and cover of a CD-ROM tutorial distributed to customers for this program, which has since evolved to include online price quotations.
By late 2005, business was booming. Columbia had gone to double shifts but found itself with sufficient work to run four. Blaiotta Jr. said at the time:
“These past couple of years have been wonderful for our industry, and the next few look equally as positive. I’m thinking it has to do with low interest rates, the general trends in construction today, plus the maturation of the architectural products industry and its associated shakeouts and consolidations. The environment is driving us to meet and exceed the demands of our present and prospective customer base, and it is imperative that we remain ahead of the curve. Our options are to move to a larger space or open a second location, and, for several reasons, we choose the latter, including better, faster service to the Southern region.”
With this came the announcement of a second manufacturing facility in Miami and the formation of a new organizational structure. Cabs were made in Florida and entrances in New York, with a separate, nearby “Logistic Distribution Center” established in Port Chester to coordinate the timing of customer shipments. In announcing the new structure, Blaiotta, Jr. explained:
“If it is convenient for the customer, we can store the work for as long as needed. . . . If the work is needed quickly, the center’s staff researches the best carriers and rates for the shipment, and it hits the road in 48 hr. or less. Or, our customers can send their own trucks.”
“At first, I was worried how all this would go,” said Blaiotta, Sr. shortly after the Miami opening. “But, it is wonderful to see how fast this second facility has come online. It took this company more than 30 years to reach a certain level, and now it has doubled twice in a very short period of time.” And, virtually as he was saying this, yet another geographic expansion and acquisition of new product lines were on the horizon.
Late in 2007, Columbia announced its next expansion, this time, according to Blaiotta, Jr., to “better serve the heartland.” But, this acquisition, in Winfield, Kansas, went far beyond the mere addition of space: it resulted in the taking-on of several new lines made at the facility, including MAC® (Moline Accessories Co.) equipment, harmonic operators with track and hanger options and linear operators/options known as ALURE® (Automatic Linear Use Residential Elevator), which brought Columbia squarely into the rapidly growing residential and limited-use/limited-access markets. Adding this plant and its capabilities was the result of purchasing Elevator Solutions International, Inc., the location of which previously housed operations under several banners, including Western Manufacturing, Montgomery Elevator, KONE and Wittur. Also in 2007, Columbia became a U.S. licensee of the major Spain-based Fermator company, which allowed for Columbia to sell its operators for domestic residential installations and its more rugged Robusta® operators for commercial applications.
In 2009, Columbia dove into the modernization market with the launch of XChangaCab®, which, Blaiotta, Jr. explained, is “our way of providing our customers with a fast, easy, economical way for building owners and managers to increase their properties’ aesthetics, market value and ability to attract and retain tenants.”
Two years down the road brought another Columbia innovation: an adjustable, “floating” cab base that enables field adjustment upon installation and subsequent installation of the wall panels. This, according to Blaiotta, Jr., is safer, “because it is much easier to square and secure all components, then install the ceiling in pieces, rather than as one, hard-to-handle unit.” But, the 2009-2011 period also saw arguably the most dramatic change in Columbia’s history: the acquisition, relocation and major expansion of its corporate headquarters.
For the previous several years, the Village of Port Chester had been undergoing a massive process of downtown urban renewal, making Columbia aware that, because it was an industrial, rather than a “lifestyle” business, its property would likely become a target for eminent domain eviction. Columbia found a buyer whose business would be more harmonious with the contemplated downtown plan, set about scouting a new location and landed at a 170,000-sq.-ft. property in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Columbia began occupying the new premises in 2009, with major environmental issues remaining to be remediated and tested. It took nearly two years for these to be resolved, reconciling what the Environmental Protection Agency wanted at the federal level and requirements at the state level by Connecticut’s Department of Environmental Protection.
In September 2011, Columbia was able to close on the property and begin operating at full capacity, including manufacturing, painting, logistical staging and shipping to jobsites as needed. This milestone was celebrated with a grand opening ceremony in early October, an event at which Blaiotta, Sr. explained that the company had reviewed numerous sites for relocation but decided to remain in the northeast to remain faithful to its decades-long roots. Further, he noted:
“A majority of the 300-plus million people in this country live within 800 miles of one of our three facilities, with the bulk of them within 250 miles of our new Bridgeport facility. We want to be where the action is, and the action is where the people are. The Northeast is where we need to be, and we’re here, bigger and better than ever.”
In February 2015, the company relocated and expanded its sales and engineering offices to a new Miami Lakes, Florida, site to create a “tech-forward” operation designed to support its manufacturing locations and vastly enhance the customer experience (EW, April 2015).
Over recent years, Columbia has continued to roll out new products and processes: examples include the development of InWall residential installations that save significant space by placing pocket doors inside the walls (instead of in the hoistway), and its LIFEGUARD® light-curtain solutions for independent contractors and OEMs. Presently, to coordinate with Columbia’s 50th anniversary, the company is announcing the addition of a new approach to speedy deliveries. Blaiotta, Jr. explained:
“It’s called InstaCab, a service that makes in-stock cabs available for vastly accelerated delivery. We began testing this concept about a year ago, and, based on the results, are now bringing it to market. We have developed this to serve today’s compressed, highly competitive construction environment in which time is such a critical factor and our customers are under ever-increasing pressure.”
InstaCab products are steel-shell passenger cars, prefabricated to various standard capacities, such as 2500, 3000, 3500 and 4000-lb., with doors of corresponding sizes. They are shipped quickly for immediate installation and functionality, but without finished interiors. With prior installation of Columbia’s QuikEnt entrance, customers can “instantly” install and temporarily use the car as a construction hoist or freight lift, while the building is being completed, with no concerns about damaging the panels. The product ships complete with lighting, fans and all components required for the car to pass inspection and allow for a Certificate of Occupancy, without the need to wait for an aesthetically finished interior.
“It’s essentially a two-step process, utilizing InstaCab and XchangaCab,” according to Blaiotta, Jr.:
“Upon order, we send the shell out immediately to get our customer ‘out of trouble,’ and, later, when the architect has finalized aesthetic decisions, ship the specified XchangaCab interior to top it off and make it look ‘pretty.’ The initial package is shipped in two crates: one containing unhanded components, such as walls and ceilings, and the other containing the car front, which is either left or right handed (as specified by the customer), along with desired capacity. We do this by prefabricating all the base wall panels in standard sizes and configurations, and using different filler pieces to accommodate specified capacities. This enables our customers to receive their cabs in a couple of weeks, rather than dealing with the usual 10-12-week lead times common in today’s high-demand marketplace. Once the building is ready for the cab to be finished, the XChangaCab interior aesthetics can typically be installed in one or two days.”
These days, Blaiotta, Sr. shares his knowledge of the elevator industry, acquired over the past 50-plus years, via a comprehensive blog called “Lou’s Lessons” (www.ColumbiaElevator.com/Blog), with more than 60 items currently posted and new topics, tips and images regularly added on a biweekly basis. It offers the opportunity for industry veterans, newcomers and students to pose questions and receive detailed information on virtually any subject relating to elevators.
When asked to evaluate the past five decades, Blaiotta, Sr. leans back in his chair, gives the question a moment of considered thought, and, with an air of determination and paternalistic pride, shares, “Columbia’s history, from inception, has been one of passionate commitment to excellence and using revolution to create evolution – a philosophy that we plan to carry forward for many more years to come.”