“Reluctant manufacturer” grows by putting all the pieces together

Len Morris smiles as he shows how his company fills orders and ships them for installation of staircases in homes and businesses. Photo by Marshall V. King

Goshen staircase firm enjoys rapid sales ascent

By Marshall V. King

In the late 1990s, Len Morris didn’t have the life he wanted.

He was in his late 20s and had resigned from pastoring a Missionary Church. 

A business he and his family had started wasn’t doing well. His family was racking up several hundred thousand dollars in debt.

He was praying and meditating — for five years — asking God, “Where do you want me?”

God kept answering, “You’re exactly where I want you.”

 “I felt like I was absolutely nowhere,” Morris said. “I was adrift in business. We were not doing well. We were losing money.”

He and his wife, Marci, shut down the business and repaid the debt. 

He had viewed the business as short-term and realized that he needed to go all-in on his business, his marriage and with God.

It’s now a very different story.

Viewrail, the Indiana company he runs with other family members, is growing 50 to 60 percent a year. It has sales over $100 million.

When Morris is asked how many employees the company has, he pauses because the number changes so fast.

 As of mid-November, it was around 325. He could greet nearly all of them by name as he walked through some of the 11 large buildings where they’re producing modern staircases for high-end homes and offices. The company is adding warehouses around the country.

Company values are focusing on eternal relationships, on cash, and on being responsive. “It’s a completely different culture than any other place,” said Kirk Martin, who has worked eight months in the powder coat division. “I’ve worked in other companies that say they care about the eternal part of a person. This company means it.”

Roughly 100 customers a day use a website to create and order open staircases made with hardwood, rods or cable, and metal handrails, or at least order pieces of such creations. 

The industry making, shipping, and installing custom staircases is small. But Viewrail has become a leader in it over the last decade and is becoming a great Goshen company.

As a small boy, Morris and his family went to church and worked together in agriculture in Arcanum, Ohio. His grandfather gave five-year-old Len two rows of tobacco they raised.

The boy hauled the crop in a little red wagon and gave some of the money he earned to his parents, spent some on himself, and put some into savings. The next year, Morris asked to farm five rows.

As a high school student, he started a business so that he wouldn’t have to continue working in a grocery store. He bought a kit at Radio Shack to clean VCRs for others, but realized he needed scale to make money offering that service.

He knew schools had a lot of the machines in their classrooms. He got contracts to clean them. 

In high school, he felt the call to become a pastor and studied to do that. The first eight years of his professional career were spent guiding a church or working to start other churches. 

But Morris realized that a pastoral role required him to manage more than lead, to keep things in order more than innovate. At the age of 28, the young pastor had a realization.

Morris realized he was trying to manage a lot of aspects of his life, but was what he calls “a terrible manager.” He added, “I’m a pretty decent leader. I can inspire people in a direction well. I’m really terrible at just managing a process because I’m always trying to lead a process and not manage it.”

He started a woodworking business making interior doors and trim. When it wasn’t successful, he was asking hard questions of God.

He had learned from the business that when they sold parts of staircases, they made a better margin.

In 2003, he started a company called Iron Baluster Inc. to sell the spindles along the steps and other supplies for staircases. He set up a website with a phone number that would ring a Motorola flip phone. 

His wife, Marci, who was home with young sons Caleb and Graham, sold eight jobs in one day while he was out making five sales in person. “It quickly became clear something had fallen in our lap,” Len said.

People who wanted a staircase like the one Viewrail now sells had to hire their local woodworker, glass worker and metal worker to create one.

Iron Baluster Inc. was later called Stair Supplies and then became Viewrail. The firm initially sold parts to builders putting in staircases. Morris told people he didn’t just want to resell things he bought, so he became what he calls a “reluctant manufacturer.”

In 2013, Viewrail created its first product. The company had 25 employees. 

The staircase had a two-inch-square post with wooden stairs, a metal handrail and cable filling in where the balusters would be. The focus was on design and the fine details.

“Response was immediately very strong,” he said.

“We don’t hire heroes. We don’t have a hero pay schedule.”

— Len Morris

As business grew, Amish welders who were making 10 posts a day couldn’t handle the demand. They gave two weeks’ notice and passed on the old drill presses they were using to Morris’ company.

Two weeks of bringing the rail creation in-house started the firm on the path of vertical integration. Viewrail has gone farther down that path than most companies.

To assure that it has a supply of hardwood, it helped create a lumber company that gets trees from across the Midwest.

In 2015, the company got its first computer numerical controlled machine to help with metalworking. By 2019, every cut was controlled by a computer.

Last year, roughly 1,000 CNC motors guided every cut in multiple dimensions to make all the parts of a staircase. The makers of Autodesk, a three-dimensional design software, collaborate with employees who are unleashing its power in new ways.

Presses cut steel into parts that become hidden upon installation. Lasers cut holes in bolts. 

An algorithm puts all the day’s orders into a series of cuts to maximize how wood is cut for that day’s jobs. 

The wood is glued together to make the thick wooden stair treads that seem to float in the air but are often on a single rail going down the middle of the stairs.

Cable comes from Korea and bolts from conventional manufacturers, but Viewrail is now tempering and cutting its own glass for the staircases. It also makes the posts and metal rods. The company is producing at least 85 percent of what goes into its product and maybe more.

Viewrail is now selling an average of $10 million of stairs a month at price points of $12,000 to $25,000. The staircase is often three percent of the total cost of building a house, Morris said.

His son, Caleb, who oversees sales and marketing, said they offer four different styles of staircases that are often put in houses costing $1 million to $4 million to build.

For all the CNC machinery on the clean factory floors, it’s the people who are the focus at Viewrail.

New hires make $25 an hour. Within a few months the goal is for them to be making $70,000 a year once overtime and bonuses are included. 

The pay structure at the company remains flat, with leaders making no more than four times the lowest-paid staff. “We don’t hire heroes. We don’t have a hero pay schedule,” Len Morris said.

Senior managers are homegrown and promoted from within. Caleb and his brother, Graham, work for the company. Their younger sister Ellie, who is a teenager, is sometimes there sweeping floors. Their mother, Marci, retired earlier this year to spend time with grandchildren.

The company has to reinvent itself with every 20 percent growth, so it’s doing so several times a year. A friend has referred to how fast he moves and how the company changes at “the speed of Len.”

A new online system allows a customer to use software to build a staircase, see it in three dimensions and sign off on the order, which is then turned into a work order automatically for employees to fill. 

Ryan Rittenhouse, the firm’s automation engineer, oversaw a team called “The Nerd Squad” that launched the new software in recent months. Another team dubbed “The Pit Crew” works to integrate people with developmental disabilities into the operation. 

Better machines don’t replace workers, but aid in growth as the people are reassigned to do other tasks. Morris emphasizes that it’s the people who drive the company, not technology. 

CNC machines that make parts, fancy powder-coating sprayers, and QR codes that help move parts through the process all help the people work smarter as they collaborate to ship a staircase in just 10 business days after it’s ordered.

Focusing on lean production, reducing waste, and running on solar energy are all happening alongside everything else. Viewrail is completing roughly 250 orders a day for parts and roughly 10 staircases for homeowners. 

The company wants to be selling to builders in the coming year.

By 2027, they have a goal of having $500 million in sales. Part of the strategy to reach it is to find great employees, promote from within and become more involved in the Goshen community.

“We need to continue to be healthy and create value,” Morris says.

Marshall V. King is a writer and journalist based in northern Indiana. His book, “Disarmed: The Radical Life and Legacy of Michael ‘MJ’ Sharp,” is being published this month by MennoMedia.

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