Remodeling and Home Design

Arcways continues its upward spiral

Neenah company found big niche in world market for custom-made staircases

Reprint of article from "The Business News"  December 24, 2007

By Amanda Lauer

Business News

Business is always looking up for Arcways Inc. in Neenah, which claims to be the oldest curved and spiral staircase manufacturer in the United States.

The company, started in 1966, was born out of necessity, said Tom Stilp, who co-owns the business with his sister Sharon Stilp-Kressin.

Stilp said that their father, Don, was in the home construction business at the time and was building a home in Oshkosh. The homeowner, John Boehme, wanted a curved stairway in the house, something that was relatively unheard of at that time.

“You had the Great Depression that wiped out all of those wonderful craftspeople that knew how to construct a curved stair,” Stilp said. “Then you had the emergence of the ranch home in the late ’50s, early ’60s. There were no manufacturers that were building these curved stairs, so my father constructed the stairway basically in his garage.”

Boehme, with a background in sales and marketing, suggested that he and the elder Stilp go into business building curved stairs. The emergence of two-story homes in the mid-’60s made the stairs a viable product.

In 1990, the Stilp family bought the Boehme family out, and in 1999, the Stilp children bought their father out.

“We’ve grown the company from a mere 1,800-square-foot facility to a 60,000-squarefoot facility with very high-end technology,” Stilp said.

“We are not only very forward-thinking from a technological standpoint, we have also built an infrastructure for our education side,” he said. “We’re so blessed locally to have Fox Valley Technical College, which educates people in wood techniques and the high schools that have accredited Woodlinks programs. We’ve been able to assist high school kids that ‘have sawdust in their veins’ to come and experience companies like us and see the type of technology that we’ve embraced. The woodworking industry plays a vital role in Wisconsin, and it’s not just a hobby, which many people in the past would think of it.”

Education is the lifeblood of a company, according to Stilp. Some of the stairways they build are quite complicated. “It’s like building a complex bridge, especially the free-standing stairways. We need very well-educated individuals here at Arcways to pull off these massive, monumental stairs that today go worldwide.”

The company currently has a seven-month backlog of orders. “We have this niche that we’ve developed over the years that has afforded us an enormous amount of new customers. We are still a control-growth company — we won’t grow more than six to eight percent annually — but we’re growing our dollar volume per unit, like on the curved stair side, as much as 21 percent last year to this year, by concentrating on larger projects that are $60,000 to several hundred thousand dollars per unit.”

The State of Wisconsin Department of Commerce awarded Arcways a grant to train their employees on the use of a high-accuracy robot in their plant, “because it’s new technology to Wisconsin manufacturers,” Stilp said. “This robot has a milling head, and we’re programming it and carving out all these complex twisting and turning parts for our stairways. It’s unchartered territory and we’ve been extremely successful at it in the last six months.”

Eight years ago Arcways assisted Advanced Relational Technology Inc. in developing a threedimensional software package called Chief Architect that was made available for architects and builders nationally and internationally.

“Arcways curved stairways are in the package along with the various handrail and baluster designs that the architect and builder can choose from,” Stilp said. “Consumers can visually understand the impact of a stairway like that versus a straight stairway. You can literally do a walk through of the home and see your Arcways stairway in there.”

The 48 employees of Arcways work 10 to 12 hour days Monday through Thursday.

“Friday is open shop so every employee has the opportunity to come back in and work on personal projects of all magnitudes — millwork for their homes, all the cabinets can be constructed here and they only pay Arcways the material cost. Most everyone takes advantage of open shop.”

That perk gives employees a sense of ownership in their company.

“We get all kinds of new, inventive ideas through our employees,” Stilp said. “Owning a manufacturing business is as simple as surrounding yourself with very gifted and inventive minds, with people who are not afraid of coming up with all kinds of new ideas that we look at and test. Every stairway that we construct is a custom, one-of-akind creation that could have an exotic wood, laminated bent glass for the balustrade system, fiber optics, hammer-forged wrought iron. It’s a unique creation specific for the customer’s requirements.”

Every single stairway is a new challenge said Stilp. “Customers come up with and we come up with things we’ve never done before. We have to research and understand the new material that they want to use or how to engineer the stairway to be free-standing when it’s serpentining back and forth between floors. There are just new challenges that emerge every day. That makes it extremely exciting.”

Arcways has customers in countries throughout the world including China, Japan, Ireland, and Spain. In addition to installing staircases in homes and businesses, they also do stairways for yachts from companies such as Burger Boat and Palmer Johnson.

“Now, we’re dealing with a global aspect where we are given the opportunity to somewhat pick and choose where we want to go with the company because we’ve created so much awareness with the marketing tactics that we use. We get, on average, 1,200 unique first-time visitors on our Web site per day ( This year we developed a 96-page book that is supplied to new and existing customers that has proven to be very beneficial. When a consumer’s trying to decide species, rail profiles, baluster profiles, they get all this information that shows different materials being used that many consumers are unaware of.”

Arcways, which Stilp estimated has constructed more than 20,000 stairways in the last 41 years, was recently honored with the 2007 Manufacturer of the Year Award by the Fox Cities Chamber of Commerce and Industry. They are currently being considered for statewide recognition by the state of Wisconsin.

Stilp is proud of the stairways his company creates. “It’s a beautiful product. It’s the first impression when you open that front door and it’s normally the largest millwork item — certainly in the entranceway — and quite often in the entire home.”

The future looks extremely bright for Arcways, Stilp said. “When you are working in a specific niche and all of your energy is put forth in one specific product, you get really, really good at it, and that affords you the opportunity more so for growth than all this diversification.”

Accolades and financial success are admiral but it’s the intangible things that mean the most to Stilp. “You have this family situation here at Arcways, the whole company is sort of one big family,” he said. “It’s just really fun to see a lot of smiling faces and excitement go on here every day. The environment that we’ve assisted in creating along with everyone else here tends to be our greatest accomplishment. It is really a cool environment.”