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May/June  2004

 

A Tradition of Success
Bartelstone Continues to 
Thrive After More Than 100 Years
by Leslie Shaver

Nobody has to tell Bobby Kent that the glass industry is rough these days. Like many business owners, he has a jar of candy to offer guests. But the candy in his jar is not quite as big as it was in better times. Or so he said.
“Things are so bad now,” he chuckles, as he carries a jar of lollypops over to a guest. “We used to have the bigger lollypops, but we can’t even afford those anymore. We have big problems.”

As he is most of the time, Kent was kidding. It seems the only thing greater than Kent’s passion for auto glass (and maybe the New York Yankees, whose posters adorn the walls of his office) is his sense of humor. It’s this humor and passion (along with a loyal group of employees) that help him run Bartelstone Glass, one of the biggest glass distributors in the country. He and his father, Jack Kent, have owned the company since 1991.
With these assets, Kent keeps a fairly optimistic view of the industry, despite the sad state of the lollypops in his candy jar.

“As long as cars have glass in them, I feel confident about the industry,” he said.

Bronx Zoo

If you are a glass shop owner in Peoria, Ill., Scottsdale, Ariz., or Mobile, Ala., or anywhere else that is not New York City, you may not recognize the auto glass industry in the Bronx.

As Bobby Kent, vice president of Bartelstone Glass in Belleville, N.J., describes it, a driver with a cracked 
windshield can drive ten blocks in the Bronx and see ten glass businesses. As a matter of fact, he said there were once estimated to be about 300 glass shops in the south Bronx alone.

“You have a lot of small, independent businesses going on the city, which makes it different from rural areas,” said Ed Fennell, general manager for Bartelstone.

When one of these businesses ropes in a customer who needs glass that’s out of stock, it will simply send someone on a bicycle over to Bartelstone’s Bronx location to pick it up. Needless, to say much of this business is not of the insurance variety and many of these installers really don’t care about the latest NAGS price. It’s almost entirely non-insurance related business pricing. “The competitive forces take hold there,” Kent said. 
It is a section of the glass business that is like nowhere else.



A Rich History 
Maybe one of the reasons Kent can take such a long-term view of the glass industry, while everyone else seems stuck in the latest NAGS drama or network news, is because he is running a company that has been around since the 1890s. From this, he knows the industry will see its ups and downs. 

The glass company was founded in England, but the Bartelstone family moved it to the New World, or more specifically, Manhattan, in the late 1800s. The company, which specialized in glazing, moved across town to 
the Bronx in 1925. Later on, Joe Bartelstone, the second-generation owner of the company, asked Jack Kent, Bobby’s father, to come aboard as the foreman.

“I was a union man,” Jack said. “They were looking for someone that knew about auto glass. I had been working on auto glass since I was 12 years old.”

As the business grew, so did Jack’s stature. In 1965, he, Ann Parker and George Silverstein bought into the business. The trio became the sole owners in 1969. At that time the company was selling auto glass and flat glass and installing auto glass. This would soon change, for a number of reasons: auto glass was easier to store in the company’s small Bronx location; George Silverstein, Jack’s partner who specialized in plate glass, passed away; it wanted to specialize in one part of the business; and, most importantly, it was more profitable.

“Auto glass was becoming more profitable because we had been selling flat glass in boxes and window glass and mirror and plate glass for just a few cents a foot over our cost,” Bobby said. “Auto glass, at the time, was also a lot easier to maneuver, especially in the city. You could put auto glass in station wagons or in vans as opposed to big trucks.” 

As it moved further and further into the auto glass side of the industry, it began to develop a niche in foreign and hard-to-find glass.

“We had every foreign car that was out,” Bobby said. “When a foreign car came out, we usually had it by the time it came out or shortly thereafter. We were even ahead the manufacturers.” 

Bronx Base
While Bartelstone’s owners and product line evolved, its headquarters remained primarily the same—a cramped location in the Bronx, which is still operational. The location provided a good base of operations in New York City and, if you believe Bobby and Ed Fennell, general manager, it also had its own “flavor.” For instance, employees would often have to deal with a subway going over the building and a garbage truck coming through as they took auto glass numbers over the phone.

“You either got it right or you lost it,” Bobby said. “I think we were fortunate because we got more right then we got wrong. It was pretty incredible.”

Then there was Bobby’s office, which was under a set of stairs.

“It was the only place I could go to get away,” he said. “Salesmen would have to go between the racks of glass and crawl back to see me. The phones from out of town also rang back there. So, if no one was back there and those phones rang, you had to run back to answer the phone.”

Surviving in the auto glass industry, in the Bronx, was quite an incredible feat in and of itself anyway—having to deal with other auto glass entrepreneurs like the son of convicted mob boss John Gotti, who owned an auto glass company there some years ago.

In the early 1980s, the company began importing even more glass from overseas and its tempered lines grew. There was not enough space in the Bronx to accommodate this added inventory, so Bobby started looking for another warehouse. Finally, he settled on a spot in Belleville, N.J., with a loading dock—a luxury Bartelstone did not have in its cramped Bronx location.

“We would hire one guy who unloaded the stuff and would leave it here,” Fennell said. “As we needed it in the Bronx, we would get it.” 

But as Bartelstone’s customer base grew in New Jersey, it was sending more and more customers to its Belleville location to pick up glass. Eventually it just moved its headquarters there.

“We started to get too many calls like that and we realized it was easier to open up this location,” Fennell said. “We already had business in New Jersey and we figured we could get a lot more if we had people here.” 

Industry Challenges
As the glass industry has changed, Bartelstone’s challenges have evolved from recording auto glass numbers under a noisy subway to dealing with manufacturers who are competing with them. Despite his long-term view that the industry will be OK, Bobby admitted there are some major short-term problems.

“Our biggest challenge is the manufacturers,” he said. “Unfortunately they are all at the point where they feel they need market share and they have to be involved in every phase of the business from retail to wholesale.”

Instead of scaling back in this climate of increased competition from manufacturers, Bartelstone has gone on the offensive. Fortunately, it has the staff, product line and industry alliances to do just this.

“It’s very hard to compete,” Bobby said. “You have to carry everything, from OEM to non-OEM glass and from foreign to domestic glass.” 

Bobby said this gives his company an advantage.

“We can sell any brand,” he said. “We are not restricted to OEM, upon which the manufacturers compete with us fiercely. The only other choice we have is to sell non-OEM. This is what most people want because they want the cheapest glass they can possibly get.”

To offer the necessary service, Kent has a staff of experienced employees that are very familiar with the industry.
“Our employees know the products that we sell,” he said. “We have brought in people from every corner of the auto glass world. The people who sell our auto glass products have a background in the industry. We actually know what we are talking about because we have been living it our whole lives.”

On top of this, there are other ways that Bartelstone can differentiate itself from the manufacturers in the service arena, such as being available at 6 p.m. Eastern time when a customer is calling with a last-minute order.
“While the general rule of working may be from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., we expect a little bit more from our employees,” Bobby said.

Now Bartelstone customers can even order at midnight, if they want to, with the company’s online ordering plan.
“We hope it will help our customers,” Fennell said. “If they want to order after-hours or when they go home at night, they can do it.”

A Growth Strategy
While Bobby is wary of how the manufacturers can control their employees in satellite locations, these fears were not enough to keep his company from forming a partnership with Iowa Glass Distributors seven years ago to form a chain of warehouses called Independent Glass Distributors. The companies opened six locations: Pittsburgh; Annapolis Junction, Md.; Philadelphia; Raleigh, N.C.; Charlotte, N.C.; and Cincinnati. Iowa handles fleet and human resources issues at these locations, while Bartelstone is responsible for fleet (sales) and purchasing decisions. The companies also split supervision of the facilities, with Bartelstone running the five eastern locations and Iowa running the Cincinnati warehouse.

With some of these locations more than 600 miles away, Bobby needs people he can trust to run them.
“In a lot of cases good people became available [to run these locations],” he said. “We felt we could open up a warehouse because we knew a person who could run it in the area.”

The other key was finding people who knew the areas where Independent Glass Distributors would be opening locations.

“You can’t transplant somebody who does not know the area and you can’t expect somebody who does not have auto glass experience to be able to start up a new place,” said Leigh Andersen, operations manager for Bartelstone and the person in charge of the logistics for each new warehouse.

But finding good managers is only one criteria Bartelstone uses before opening a location. It not only has an idea of the building (including size, roof size and number of bays) it wants to open in each area, but also the demographics, the state inspection laws and the competitors in a location.

“When we go into an area, we know what others are doing. If there is a need for an independent, with foreign, domestic, OEM and non-OEM glass we will look at it,” Fennell said. 

So far, Anderson said each location has worked out well.

“Each market was a little bit different, but for the most part we were received with open arms,” she said. “People were looking for an alternative other than buying from a manufacturer. I think our reputation preceded us. The people that run each location know the market and have the confidence of the shop owners. In all locations, we exceeded what we expected to do within two years.”

The operation could not run without a smooth partnerships and Anderson thinks Bartelstone has that with Iowa.

“The people at Iowa are auto glass people,” she said. “Bobby is an auto glass person, and the people we hire at each location are auto glass people. They were either born into it or they are making a career out of it. It’s the thing that makes our branches successful.”

Auto glass people are not just found in Bartelstone’s satellite locations. There are also a number of them among the company’s 80 employees at its Bronx and Belleville locations, Bobby said. This helps the company thrive more than 100 years after it started in Brooklyn. 

“It’s a people business,” he said. “If you are personable enough, have a decent price and the service is good you will be fine.”

And, with these ingredients a company like Bartelstone can thrive, even if its candy jar only has the small lollypops.

 

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