Volume 9, Issue 5 - May 2008

Opportunity Knocks

 Decorative Glass Affords a Way to Make a Profit, Even in a Down Market by Ellen Rogers

If you had an extra $30,000 lying around what would you do with it? Take an ultra-lavish vacation? Buy a fancy car? Put it toward your kid’s college tuition? Buy a door? For some homeowners the door wins. Some have spent thousands upon thousands of dollars on the front entrance of their homes. While these doors may not be solid gold or encrusted with diamonds, they often feature eye-popping decorative glass panels. 

Signature Door in Altoona, Pa., isn’t the typical door manufacturer. While most door companies purchase their decorative glass, Signature makes all of its own, in addition to making doors. The company has been in business since 1989, beginning as a door manufacturer and then adding decorative glass production a few years later. 

“We were driven to it because we couldn’t purchase the quality of glass we wanted,” says Dennis Nixon, vice president, who explains that today his company’s focus is on producing high-end custom glass for its wooden doors.

Though most door and window manufacturers do not make their own decorative glass, it’s an easy option for them to add to their product offerings. 

“Companies don’t have to change their core business, just how they present it,” says Bill Oates, general manager for Medieval Glass, a manufacturer of decorative door glass (see sidebar on page 46 for more on Medieval). “Window and door manufacturers can dress up their existing windows and doors with the use of decorative glass and the investment in changing the finished product is minimal. There’s no change to the design of the systems and they can sell a product at a value-added, profitable margin.”

Brian Finke, Kolbe & Kolbe’s glass manager in Wausau, Wis., agrees.

“It’s an easily incorporated product that requires very little extra effort on the purchasing and manufacturing side,” Finke says. “It’s a value-added product that can give customers a different option to accentuate the beauty of their homes.”

Whether a company chooses to make its own decorative glass or work with a glass supplier, most agree that decorative glass is an increasingly popular product that can mean good business for door and window companies—even in a down economy.

Keep it Simple
As the popularity of decorative glass increases, so, too, does the number of patterns and designs available. Experts say simplicity is the key to being in vogue. 

“The trend right now is toward linear, simple lines with less emphasis on beveled clusters and even a little color is coming back into the design,” says Bruce Pennington, director of sales and marketing for Specialty Building Products, the decorative glass division of Masonite. “If you looked back about 20 years you would have seen a lot of color. That went away to the use of clear glass, but now color is starting to come back.”

The architectural exterior of a home also is helping further the use of decorative glass. 

Denise Bergeland, marketing manager with Hy-Lite says some popular home designs right now feature a European cottage or Craftsman style.

“Those home styles have a lot of architectural features that you don’t typically see in a traditional home,” Bergeland says, explaining that the look is being carried into decorative door lite patterns.

According to Jeff Kibler, brand manager for Peachtree Doors and Windows in Mosinee, Wis., the arts and craft, prairie style and Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired patterns continue to be popular. He says that while the demand for decorative windows is not nearly as great as that for door lites and panels, it still follows the same trends.

“If you’re going to have a house full of windows with a decorative option, that’s [a popular style] we’re seeing a lot of,” Kibler says. “[Decorative glass looks] follow the architectural trends of the home, and [homeowners] typically want something simple and not over the top.”

Things to Consider
The business of decorative glass has proven to be a profitable one for both glass manufacturers and door and window companies. However, both groups still have challenges to overcome.

As the newest company to enter the market with a decorative product, Hy-Lite had a lot to take into account when it introduced its decorative windows in 2006. Before launching the line the company conducted market research and talked to customers, asking what they thought was lacking in the marketplace. The answer they received, according to Bergeland, was a beautiful window that offered privacy and sold at a reasonable price.

“We wanted to make sure we were bringing an advantageous product to the market,” says Bergeland. “We also had to develop a marketing plan that would get our product out there.”Kolbe & Kolbe has offered a decorative option since 1994, and, according to Finke, his biggest challenge is being flexible enough to meet customers’ needs.

“Our customers expect their visions to become reality, and we work with our suppliers so we can meet those needs and expectations as closely as we can,” says Finke. 

For Peachtree which, according to Kibler, has had a decorative entry door option for as long as entry doors have been an integral part of their program, the challenge is simply keeping up with the changing trends.

“It’s just seeing what everyone else has in the marketplace and trying to stay one step ahead,” says Kibler. “There is a lot emerging when it comes to decorative glass and we want to make sure we’re offering the best variety possible at the best value possible.”

Despite the increasing demand for decorative glass, some say it’s still facing competition from clear glass.

“A lot of our research shows [consumers] are still choosing clear glass,” says Laura Garza, product manager for decorative glass at ODL Inc. in Zeeland, Mich. “I want to see continued growth and hope we can educate people on the value of decorative glass and what it can do for their home.” She continues, “I hope we can grow this category over the next few years and start to make that shift from clear to decorative glass with the consumers.”

Supplier Selection
Both Finke and Kibler say they rely on their suppliers when it comes to offering new styles and patterns.

“We typically go off of a standardized design that our suppliers offer to get a feel for what they have seen move over time,” says Finke.Kibler agrees and says it’s the vendors who have their fingers on the pulse of what’s happening with decorative glass.

“They are on the cutting edge of all the trends in glass, which are emerging in the market,” says Kibler, whose company recently re-launched its entry door line with eight new decorative glass patterns. “When we set out in 2007 to come up with a new palette for our decorative door line we went through a number of different glass manufacturers to find the glass that would be somewhat unique to the marketplace and would also give us the best variety of architectural styles,” Kibler adds.

Competitive Advantage
Even though the residential housing market is down, those in the decorative glass market say this segment has remained relatively stable. In some cases it’s because the companies cater to the high-end, custom homes. But, for the most part, they say they’ve been able to maintain a profit because they’ve found ways to differentiate.

According to Bergeland, her company’s competitive advantage comes from the quality, look and price of the windows. 

“Some companies just offer an etched glass product. Our products are camed with a pattern so it replicates the look of true leaded glass,” Bergeland says. “The look is important to customers and ours looks like true beveled/leaded glass.”

Others say they are able to stay competitive because of the variety they offer.

“Decorative glass gives us more options for our customers,” says Kibler. “If you look back ten years, there weren’t a lot of product options. Now [the industry] is option rich. So, the more we can add, the more distinction we get in the marketplace as a specialized wood door and window company.”

Nixon says that producing its own glass is advantageous for his company.

“It’s a great marriage to be able to take an order and spread everything throughout the shop and control it right here,” says Nixon. “It allows us to give lead times second to none because we have total control over production.”

Nixon continues, “Our strength is that niche market; we can’t compete with what’s coming in from overseas or south of the border [because there’s a] labor disadvantage and [some] quality issues.” 

Others disagree, however, saying offshore production actually helps them maintain their position within the decorative market. 

“We wouldn’t be able to compete against any of the large door suppliers out there [without importing from China],” says Kibler, who explains that his company buys full container loads of glass from a company that produces large runs so it’s very affordable. Oates agrees, explaining that Medieval operates manufacturing plants in China and India.

“The process of producing decorative glass is so labor-intensive along with the cost of precious metals, that it could never be affordable to customers if it was not produced overseas,” says Oates, who explains that the plants in China and India are company owned and operated. “That’s the key to getting it right.” 

Aside from manufacturing procedures and operations, there are other ways companies stay busy in the slow market. The key is just finding opportunities.

Oates says Medieval has continued to grow—18 percent this fiscal year—despite the slow market. He says growth is due, in part, to the customer service they provide.

Garza says her company has been focusing on introducing more patterns that are at lower or more competitive price points than some of their others to help continue the growth and keep people interested in decorative glass. 

“We’ve also started to look at different channels,” she says. “While our main focus is distribution, there is also the remodeling market and a lot going on within it. So we’re making efforts to get to the builder level and drive our sales force to have some relationships there so we can get into that market too.”

Nixon says Signature has also introduced a door line that’s more price-sensitive and has plans to introduce another in the near future.

“The new lines are made with the same quality, but with different types of wood and with less customization [than our others],” says Nixon. “We’re doing some of these things to help cushion the impact of the next year, year and a half.”

In addition to offering design excellence, Pennington says if a company wants to grow, even during a slow market, a strong sales force is also essential.

“We want to make sure our salespeople are out there, getting our literature to the customers and making sure they are explaining the value proposition of decorative glass and how it can change the look of a house,” Pennington says.

Snelling says that since most of his company’s work is within the custom market, the effect of the slow market has been minimal.

“The majority of our customers are not as tied into interest rates and are in higher-end homes,” says Paul Snelling, president of Kitsilano Glass in Richmond, British Columbia. “I can’t say that business hasn’t dropped off, but I would say our market share has increased during the slow period.” He adds that these slow periods also have allowed his company to work toward expanding its market.

“We’re able to get out there to reach more people than we can when business is booming,” says Snelling. 

What’s Next?
The use of decorative glass in doorlites, transoms and even some windows once was an architectural detail reserved for the high-end homes. Increased competition, however, has helped make the products more accessible to a greater number of people.

“The more competition we’re feeling the more we’ve looked at options to make our glass more competitive,” says Garza. “We know that we want to provide a range of products and we have five different price categories positioned from highest to lowest so that any consumer has the option to put it into [his] home no matter how much [he] want[s] to spend on it.”

Along with increased competition, prices also have dropped.

“When we started out we were making glass for one company and we would sell them a piece of glass for $300 and then they would sell it for $800 or $900 and then the consumer would be paying maybe $1,600 by the time [he] got it,” says Pennington. “Over the past ten years glass prices have come down and it’s fairly inexpensive now to put a nice piece of glass in your home.”

One of the reasons prices are so low, according to Nixon, has to do with the fact that many product lines are mass-produced and imported into the United States. 

“It’s really created a new market, because now middle class families can afford it,” says Nixon. “At one time it would have cost $400 to $600 to go from clear glass to a decorative unit and now they can go to a [big box retailer] and get the decorative unit for maybe $60 more than clear glass.”

Snelling agrees. 

“It used to be we’d have someone here who would manufacture custom bevels all day long just to produce one piece of glass. Now, because of our offshore facility we get all of our custom bevel pieces at a fraction of the cost of what they used to be,” says Snelling. “This means we can provide a beautiful entrance at an affordable price, when before we probably couldn’t do it.”

But one thing on which everyone seems to agree is that the use of decorative glass most likely will continue to grow. Those who plan to stay an active part of the market will have to continue working diligently to stay ahead in the game.“

The more we do to advertise that we have this option available will make it easier for customers to include it in their selections when placing an order,” says Finke. “We don’t want them to sit back two years later and wish they’d known about the options or done something different.” 

A Closer Look at the Decorators
Hy-Lite Products Inc., traditionally known as a manufacturer of acrylic block windows, in recent years has begun offering decorative glass windows as well. Hy-Lite offers a line of standard decorative patterns for its decorative windows.

Kitsilano Glass is a manufacturer of custom decorative glass products. The company offers everything from sandglasted to stained glass patterns.

Kolbe & Kolbe is a manufacturer of doors and windows, also offering products that include decorative door lites. The company works with suppliers for their decorative products and offers a standard line as well as custom designs.

Medieval Glass is a manufacturer of decorative door glass and blinds between the glass. For more on the company, see page 46. 

ODL Inc. is a manufacturer of decorative door glass as well as decorative windows. The company offers standard product lines, but plans to launch a custom decorative program later this year.

Peachtree Doors & Windows is a manufacturer of doors and windows that also offers decorative glass options. Standard products are available, but the company can also provide customers with custom selections.

Signature Door not only manufactures all of its own doors, but all of its own decorative glass as well. The company focuses on the high-end custom market, but does off a standard product line, too.

Specialty Building Products is the glass division of Masonite. The company offers a catalog of decorative glass, but also has a full custom department.

Ellen Rogers is a contributing editor for DWM magazine.


DWM

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