Volume 38, Issue 8, August 2003
Walking the Distance
and Steady Innovation
Fuel Walker Glass’ Success
by David Jenkins
When you have a great team of people focused on innovation, quality and customer satisfaction, 60 years is only the beginning,” said Lee Harrison, president of Walker Glass, about his company’s 60-year existence. “Walker Glass’s greatest strength is its cohesive team of very adaptable people. We have always been quick to adopt new technology, both in information and manufacturing processes, and we pride ourselves on the speed with which we can transform a concept into a deliverable reality.”
Established in Montreal by Arthur Walker in 1942, the company has strived from its inception to deliver the products, quality and service of an artisan at a competitive cost.
“Arthur Walker’s goal was to carve a niche for his company in between the small artisans and the industrial giants of the glass and mirror industry,” said Harrison.
Walker Glass’ six-decade evolution into one of the only fully integrated mirror manufacturers in North America is sprinkled with milestones. In the 1960s, the company opened a brand-new manufacturing plant that included an 84-inch silvering conveyor, and during the next decade, doubled the size of this facility. The 1980s saw the company introduce stoce mirror to the marketplace, along with the addition of a 100-inch double-coat silvering conveyor to its Montreal plant. In the 1990s, Walker Glass became certified under ISO 9002 and adopted the Kaisen process of value-added manufacturing, while in the last few years, the company has once again doubled its plant size, now occupying 200,000 square feet of space.
Despite this growth, Walker Glass continues to straddle the line between large and small company.
“Since our inception, Walker Glass’s goal has remained essentially the same—to stay small enough to be responsive and innovative, yet large enough to be efficient and competitive,” said Harrison.
Walker Glass Timeline
|1960s||Opened brand-new manufacturing plant with an 84-inch silvering conveyor.|
|1970s||Doubled the plant size and added a full range of glass fabrication equipment.|
|1980s||Introduced stoce mirror to the market and added a 100-inch double-coat silvering conveyor to the plant.|
|1990s||Became quality certified under ISO 9002 and adopted the Kaisen process of value-added manufacturing.|
|2000s||Redoubled the plant size and developed and introduced the Textures line of acid-etched float glass.|
From silvering glass, beveling and decorating mirrors and molding and finishing frames, Walker Glass always has been diversified. Yet, because of its relatively small size, the company has been able to control all aspects of the production process—a luxury that larger manufacturers must often forgo.
“Carving a small niche is what Walker Glass is all about and I certainly believe it remains a very viable business model,” said Harrison.
However, Walker Glass is also dedicated to bringing innovative products to the marketplace. Thus, when the company noticed a lack of acid-etched glass manufacturers in North America, the decision to corner the domestic market was a no-brainer.
“Our company always has pursued a course of steady, controlled growth either through market expansion or product development,” said Harrison. “It is important to keep the two in balance. We felt the time was right to bring our customers a new product and acid-etched glass was what they were looking for.”
Harrison believes smaller companies can be competitive with larger ones as long as they have originality and fresh ideas at their disposal.
“The decision to expand into acid-etched glass is very consistent with our philosophy,” he said. “Through innovation, we have brought our customers a new product that complements our existing line, and we make it available with all of the advantages a highly responsive domestic supply source has to offer.”
For a company that has stressed steady growth during its 60-year history, blindly jumping into a new marketplace has never been a consideration. Before making the final decision to enter the acid-etched glass market, Walker Glass performed meticulous research and preparation.
“The decision to make acid-etched glass was a very conscious one. We researched the market thoroughly and made the decision based on a definite need,” said Harrison. “Demand for the product was growing steadily, and the market was being severely underserved. Our customers were looking for a flexible, responsive and reliable supply source for acid-etched glass—something they could not find from the various offshore manufacturers.”
Textures Acid-Etched Glass
“We had seen acid-etched glass in the European market for awhile, and were baffled no such product existed domestically,” said Peter Biebl, director of manufacturing for Walker Glass. “We wanted to diversify from mirrors, yet maintain our flat glass networks. A product such as acid-etched glass allowed us to accomplish these goals.”
As the first North American company to manufacture acid-etched glass, Walker Glass faced a number of difficulties. Since the European method of making the glass was unknown, there was no tried-and-true template to follow; the company knew what the cake looked like, but didn’t have a recipe.
“All of our equipment had to be custom-made, which involved a lot of research and development to determine how to produce the right equipment,” said Biebl.
Walker Glass eventually cracked the code, with the result being Textures acid-etched glass.
Although Biebl jokingly said his company’s acid-etched glass production process is “top-secret,” he did divulge it is a manual operation in which various chemicals are poured onto the glass surface.
Both Biebl and Harrison extol the benefits of Textures and of acid-etched glass in general.
“On regular glass, fingerprints and oils can mar the surface, leaving a permanent stain. On acid-etched glass, such blemishes can be wiped off easily,” said Biebl.
When asked how the Textures line of acid-etched glass is unique from similar European products, Harrison said the greatest difference is its mar-resistant surface.
“There are many acid-etched products on the market that look similar, but the surface is open and porous. The result is that these products are susceptible to permanent marking from edging equipment and staining from oily contaminants. In the Textures satin process, we make the glass surface as resistant to marring as regular float glass.”
Walker Glass offers Textures in sizes up to 96 by 130 inches, which the company claims is the largest on the market. In addition, the flexibility of its manufacturing process allows Walker Glass to etch virtually any flat glass substrate in quantities as small as a single stoce or case.
Although learning how to make the acid-etched glass was the primary challenge the company faced, there were other difficulties.
“Since some of the chemicals used in the process can be hazardous to the environment, a major start-up challenge was finding an environmentally-safe system,” said Biebl.
Harrison agreed that finding a process that not only ensured the worker’s health and safety, but also protected the environment from pollutants, was a primary concern.
“The acid-etching process can be very dangerous to workers and the environment if the proper precautions aren’t taken,” Harrison said. “Starting this business has involved a significant investment and well over half of it has been on environmental and safety equipment and R&D.”
Another challenge Walker Glass encountered was marketing a product largely unfamiliar to the domestic marketplace.
“Although it has been used in Europe for several years, acid-etched glass is a relatively new product in the North American market,” said Harrison. “There are a lot of frosted glass products on the market, from sandblasted to coated to etched, and then there are a lot of different types of etching. Our challenge is to help the market understand the subtle—and, sometimes, not-so-subtle—differences between products.”
Walker Glass’s hard efforts have paid off. With Textures, the company has created a product that’s both environmentally and consumer-friendly.
“Right now, the Textures product is very new and remains our number one focus. It is also a product platform that lends itself to diversification. In the short term, our new product development efforts will likely be devoted to expanding the Textures line to include a variety of patterns and surface textures,” said Harrison.
For a company dedicated to “carving a small niche” in the industry, international dominance is not at the top of the agenda.
“Walker has always limited the sale of its products to the North American marketplace,” said Harrison. “We believe when you try to do too much, it’s hard to do it all well. Remaining focused on our domestic customer base is what keeps us a step ahead of import competition.”
However, Harrison is quick to point out selling products in foreign markets is not the only way a company can flex its global muscle.
“When it comes to technology, equipment and materials, we are active members of the global market and ensure our processes and products are always on the leading edge,” said Harrison.
In particular, Walker Glass has ventured outside its domestic niche with PT Walker International in Semarang, Indonesia.
“This subsidiary was established primarily to supply Walker’s decorative mirror division with hand-carved framed mirrors,” said Harrison. “These high-end products, mostly marketed under the Royal Doulton brand, are one of the key elements in the decorative division’s increasing penetration into the hospitality supply market.”
Harrison also says the Indonesia subsidiary serves as protection against cutthroat competitors.
“Like any North American manufacturer, parts of our business are threatened by low-cost, Asian imports,” said Harrison. “Our Indonesian subsidiary provides us with a lower cost manufacturing alternative, enabling us to counter these threats when forced to do so.”
However, Harrison stresses Walker Glass’s niche is in North America, and there are currently no plans to penetrate the global market.
“We still believe strongly in domestic manufacturing and future expansion plans will most likely be local ones,” said Harrison.
With a successful new product and a 200,000-square-foot facility in Montreal at only 80-percent capacity, Walker Glass is poised and ready for expansion and continued success. However, future success will not be abetted with money from outside investors.
“My partner, Ross Christie, has been in this business with me for 15 years,” said Harrison. “Frankly, Ross and I have a lot of fun doing what we do and we work with a great team of people. Unless something changes, I don’t see us selling out any part of this business in the foreseeable future.”
Despite the recent success with Textures, Walker Glass has no plans on becoming an industrial giant of the glass industry. Instead, the company will continue along the path of slow growth and steady innovation—a strategy that has paid great dividends during the past 60 years.
“As the rate of change increases, I am certain the next 60 years will demand even more speed and agility from a company and its people,” Harrison said. “There are always excellent opportunities in an ever-changing market and Walker is extremely well-positioned to keep itself on the leading edge for many years to come.”
David Jenkins is an editorial assistant for USGlass magazine.
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