Volume 41, Issue 9 - September 2006

What About Bob?
by Debra Levy

He makes it all look easy,
Bob Lawrence does. Pulling into his parking space at Glass Wholesalers in a late-model BMW, the 58-year-old company president seems about as laidback as you can get. We chitchat about his sporty car (“I really love to drive,” he says, “I can put on some old Rolling Stones and go.”) and a little about golf. We could just as easily be standing in front of his golf club as the brand-new, multi-million-dollar expansion of his business in a commercial area in Houston. We chat, that is, until our conversation turns to business, politics or family … and then you see that this man who loves driving, is driven himself—driven to be a high-quality supplier in tough times. And, in a region of the country where many said it would be tough to compete, Bob Lawrence has done just that and has done it exceedingly well. We caught up with him at his office in Houston in early April.

What follows are excerpts from our discussion. For the full text of the interview, please go to http://www.usglassmag.com/online/onlytoc.php.

Q.Well, let’s start at the beginning. How did you get into the glass business?
 
A. I got into it by accident. I was studying electrical engineering while attending the University of Texas at El Paso, then called Texas Western, and I saw that El Paso Plate Glass and Materials Co. was looking for a draftsman. This was 38 years ago and they had a window division at that time. 

I was a sophomore in college. I had done a lot of things by that time for summer work. I had gone to Walla Walla, Wash., and driven big harvesting combines for Del Monte and Green Giant. My friends and I had worked 12 hours a day, seven days a week, all summer. We harvested peas and beans. The combine was quite a piece of machinery; it was huge, six-foot tall tires and the first combines to incorporate automated leveling for steep hill harvesting.

My friends and I had a great summer. We got two weeks off and went to San Francisco. We were all single back then and we went to Haight-Ashbury and Berkeley and went to the Avalon Ballroom and the Fillmore Theater. We saw Big Brother and the Holding Company; no Joplin, though. We saw Jefferson Airplane and others. We were a couple of guys from El Paso and we had a time of it.

Q.So you are originally from El Paso? 

A. Yes, originally from El Paso. My three sisters and I all grew up there. With three sisters, I was very spoiled. My father was a typical father of the time—head of the house, head of the family and a friend to everyone. My mother was very strong, too. She decided that she was going to work, get involved in the community; she became a toastmaster and was heavily involved in JFK’s election. She still lives in El Paso. I go back to visit, and she is still as sharp as can be. Her determination was certainly passed on to my sisters; my oldest sister decided several years ago to start college and is the first in our family to receive a degree after all these years. 

Anyway, before college, I had attended a high school in El Paso and I had learned drafting there. Knowing how to draw still serves me well.

Q. Which is how you got the job at El Paso Plate Glass? 

A. Yes, I borrowed a car to apply and [laughs] they asked me to come back in an hour and start. They were that desperate.
My first job was doing window installation drawings for the Corps of Engineers. The company had a window division with a couple of huge jobs for the Army that required these submittals, and they were up against it. 

Man, did I learn bureaucracy! It helped me learn what the government wants and how it does things. Every tidbit of information had to be on the plans. It was a nice project; eventually I ended up managing El Paso Plate Glass.

Q. So how many people were you managing at that young age? 

A. About 15. We had some really good people there and I learned a lot from them. 

An entrepreneur in El Paso bought both the window and the glass company. Then he sold the glass company part of that purchase to a group of Texas companies that were known as the Mueller Group. His name was Fred Hervey; he had controlling interest in all the Circle K convenience stores and bought the window company so he could provide all the storefront installations for those stores. He was a real forward-thinker. He got into computer software long before anyone knew what software was. He was before his time. He’d say, “I’ve got these computer geeks who can do all this neat stuff, but can we sell it?” He’d drive that point home. It’s not what you can do, it’s what you can sell. 

Anyway, I learned a lot from this organization before moving to Western Glass & Mirror in El Paso, which was another Mueller Group company. They did commercial jobs and needed a contract glazing manager. I worked for Milt Hanley, who had sold a load of jobs; suddenly all these jobs had to be manned at the same time. That was the first time I worked with union people—a real eye-opener. There was a huge shortage of union glaziers, but the union still did not want to make apprentice exceptions. I was forced to petition the Department of Labor to allow us to increase the apprentice-to-glazier ratio to get these jobs done. 

Q. But you moved into sales eventually, right? 

A. A salesperson named Clyde Bronson used to call on me while I was there. He was from American Saint-Gobain (ASG) and one of the nicest guys you’d ever meet. His territory was El Paso to Los Angeles. When he was promoted to district manager, they needed someone to take his job—to cover Las Vegas, Arizona, New Mexico and El Paso and points between. So I took it. I was still single and traveling to Vegas was appealing. I lived in Phoenix and drove to Vegas one week, Albuquerque, then El Paso. I’ve never minded driving.

Moving into sales was easy enough. They were looking for someone who had been on the buying side. ASG was probably one of the best glass companies to work for and get technical sales training. Charlie Van Winkle was my boss out of San Francisco. He was really quite visionary. I remember him telling me during my interview, this was over 30 years ago, that “there will come a time when people will be able to communicate with each other through what they have in their briefcase.” This was before faxes or cell phones. “Bob,” he said, “when you’re older, you’ll be able to go in and visit a customer, check inventory and be able to place and print out an order for him right there.” Everything he said came true. 

ASG had incredible characters, too. Cliff Knockles was president then, and liked to read sales call reports. Rumor was that one of our best ASG salesmen in the Northwest was seriously delinquent on turning in call reports. Art Aker was vice president at the time, and Mr. Knockles demanded that Art send that salesperson a letter threatening to stop reimbursing his expenses if he didn’t immediately catch up on his call reports. Remember, there were no faxes, so a week or two later, they get the letter back. The salesman had written a note on the letter, “Look what some SOB wrote and signed your name to” [laughs]. They had very good salesmen. 

ASG Industries (now AFG) was very innovative technically for sales training. They did a lot of seminars and a great job in turning us into more competent salespeople. 

Q.But you moved eventually. How did you get to Houston? 

A. After three years, ASG moved me to Houston. I had no clue that Houston was that big. It’s an oil town, sure, but it’s an urban center, too. 

Q. And you met Toni [Lawrence’s wife] here in Houston, right? 

A.
I used to be a golfer until I moved to Phoenix. I did not appreciate golfing in 106-degree weather, so I took up tennis and learned how to play pretty well. When I moved to Houston, I found my tennis club first and then chose where to live based on where the club was. I developed some friendships at the tennis club and one of the guys convinced me to become a tennis umpire. I met Toni when we were both umpires at a Virginia Slims tournament in November of 1976. I married her in April. Right after we got married, the Mueller Group came back into play, as they owned Glass Wholesalers here. 

At the time, ASG had serious problems with its float line, so it was challenging. Doug Kuhn managed Full Line Glass out of Fort Worth, and he was a stockholder of Glass Wholesalers. I had met him on sales calls at Glass Wholesalers. After a couple of years, the current manager was leaving, so Doug made me an offer I couldn’t refuse. I would become the manager a few months after the current manager left. So I went to Glass Wholesalers as a manager in training. 

This was 1978, and we started to grow. I was blessed to have recruited some very good people, and we grew Glass Wholesalers Houston from one location to six and added insulating glass, etc. And then, in 1986, Dee Hubbard of AFG bought the Mueller Group distribution facilities, which had grown to 26 operations. AFG had previously bought Southern Wholesale out of Atlanta the year before. Our purchase gave AFG a strong presence in distribution from the Carolinas to Phoenix. 

Doug and I were not known to be particularly friendly the year before AFG bought our group. But AFG needed both of us as part of the management team before eventually putting Steve Michaels of Southern Wholesale in charge. I have met only a few people in my lifetime that I didn’t like, and Steve felt the same about me. Suddenly he was my boss. So I was given the opportunity to work for myself about six months later, in September of 1986. Doug lasted about a year more, and it was probably a few more months that Steve was offered the same opportunity.

Q. You got to work with Dee Hubbard. I’ve heard quite a number of stories about him …

A. Oh yes, Dee Hubbard is a story all unto himself. He had a long-range plan that few people were privy too. I understand his key negotiators returned from what seemed to be a failed attempt at making a deal with Jack Reidinger of the Mueller group. This deal gave AFG some serious distribution exposure west of the Mississippi. Dee reminded them that he sent them there to make the deal, so go make the deal. They did. This gave Dee the major pieces he needed for what was to become AFGD.

Q. Did Rick [Cunningham] and Dee Hubbard know about your firing? 

A. That is what Steve told me. 

Q.That must have been a shock. What did you do then? 

A. A couple of years before I left Glass Wholesalers, my father-in-law had a friend who owned a diaper manufacturing business and wanted to sell it. He thought it might be a good investment for me. I had no ambition to own a diaper factory, but as a courtesy to him, I looked at the business. It was then that I met the world’s greatest salesman. He sold me that business—a cloth diaper business—in the 1980s. Toni said I was crazy, but I bought it. Disposable diapers were in their heyday and I had bought a cloth diaper business. Six months later I gave the business to Goodwill just to get rid of it. 

So now I had this 10,000-square-foot building where the diaper plant had been, and needed to find something to help me pay for it. As I was managing the Glass Wholesalers operations, and glass was my only experience, mirror wardrobe doors was about the only thing that I could put there and not be a conflict of interest. That was the start of Custom Glass Doors. This is where I went when I departed AFGD in 1986. Soon afterward, James Whitefield of Alumax looked me up, and we became a serious shower door distributor-fabricator. 

Q.I would think was a very gutsy move? 

A. I owe a lot to James. We did business with Alumax immediately. So now we had shower doors and mirror wardrobe doors. We bought mirrors from Jim Charles of Carolina Mirror. Soon after, we bought tempered glass from Jim Collin of PPG, patterned glass from Ray Berlin and Jerry Winn at AFG. Do you see a pattern here? Great past relationships meant everything to the opportunities that I was able to nurture. I am forever grateful to James and his people, and all these other people for their support.

Q.But Glass Wholesalers still took off?

A. We started to grow and grow. AFGD didn’t like the sealants or tools business and sold their supply business to Barton Glass. I thought this was a bad move for them. But they let it go. AFGD would say “Bob, why would you want to compete with CRL?” I just thought that when you package the products together and make one delivery, that’s a real service for the family-owned glass shops. They need their people out on jobs, not waiting for deliveries. One consolidated delivery cuts down on the amount of time away from the jobsite. We built our business on family-owned glass shops. They will always be important to us.

Q. Did you ever talk to Dee Hubbard again? 

A. Yes, a couple of times. I had a non-compete that was still in place with AFG. I remember calling Dee a bit later to talk about an opportunity for me to get involved with San Jacinto Glass and Texas Mirror, both had been consolidated in a roll-up by Universal Glass. I told Dee that although I had yet to see their financials, I didn’t want to go too far and then have to test the non-competitive agreement. I also didn’t feel either of us wanted to waste the money to find out. He said that he was just an hour away, for me to come up and let’s talk about it, which I did. He was very gracious and finished our conversation with, “If you need any help just let me know.” I appreciated his candor during our conversation. After seeing the financials of the companies that caused this meeting, however, the point became moot. 

Q. And eventually you got the Barton inventory, too, didn’t you? 

A. In 1988, Barton Glass elected to leave Houston, saying that wasn’t their market. It was too hard for them to compete with CRL. John Linhart came back to work with me and we made a deal to buy Barton’s inventory at their cost and got the name Glaziers Supply and Tools back. While I was looking at assumed names, I found that AFG had dropped Glass Wholesalers, so I grabbed that name, too, and activated it later. We invested in Royal Door Company a year later and we were able to convince Bob Larson to become part of our team. Please keep in mind that there are a number of people who were involved in these decisions who were vitally important to our growth, and are still with this company.

So by now it’s 1989 and we are in a building 10 feet high and making bath enclosures, mirrored wardrobe doors and heavy glass doors. I was also involved in a brake metal company called Brake Shapes in another building. That was where we put Glaziers Supply and moved Royal door. 

Q. Where does Craftsman Fabricated Glass come in? 

A. Dan Shepler opened Craftsman Glass and Mirror back in 1977. He had developed a good high-end retail and small commercial glass business. His niche evolved to heavy glass tabletops and decorative applications that would be polished, beveled and V-grooved with some excellent equipment. He was great on computers, but he was pretty open about hating to deal with customers. He said, “I’ve got a great glass fabrication plant and you need to be my partner.” We talked more for a couple of years then decided it would be worth a try. As part of the deal, he had to give up the installation end of the business so we would not compete with our customers. This potential partnership fell in place for our future plans, but as we had already grown exponentially, cash was tight. I was still financing the business, but he showed enough equity in Craftsman that we could become partners in 1991.

This was not a good thing. It’s seldom good to have an equal partner. As good as he was, he preferred not to deal with customers and never got comfortable with the employees who helped me grow. I had a similar experience with some of his key employees, but as equal partners, neither of us could do much about it. We lasted about a year before we decided to split. We both thought we had a really neat buy/sell agreement clause in the contract, except that we had two buyers and no sellers. Neither of us wanted to name a price. We finally negotiated a way out. He had already gone through cancer treatment and passed away a year later.

Craftsman continued to grow. We started the artistic part of our divisions when we convinced Jim Le Blanc to move on board. He immediately focused his efforts on etching and design, glass awards and unique glass models of buildings, ships and the like. He was delighted to have someone else take responsibility for the business end of his creativity. But he is also one of the few artists who don’t submit to the urge to sell something cheap just to express his artistry.

Our awards department does a lot of creative stuff. It’s funny, it’s less than 5 percent of what we do, but it’s the one thing people remember and tell acquaintances. I always tell them they need to see the other 95 percent.

Q. It must be really hard to be an independent fabricator these days. 

A. There are few independents left that haven’t been bought out. I don’t have an interest in being part of [a bigger company] because I like being able to call my shots. We get letters and phone calls every week, but I’m not interested.

Q.You seem unflappable. You don’t get angry, do you? 

A. I get p-o-ed about the little things. Tabs on the floor drive me nuts. 

It doesn’t necessarily make me angry, but it still amazes me that the same people will argue that $8 a square foot for glass that provides far superior comfort and energy savings and lasts the life of the house is too costly. Yet, they have a spouse at home who is negotiating to pay up to $100 a square foot for marble or granite or wall coverings.

Q. Do you have any advice for our readers? 

A. You have to put your faith in people and let them go. You need to give them help. You find out who the real leaders are. It’s the employee that you’ve procrastinated firing that always gets hurt. And your word should be worth something. Cautionary advice? Everyone in business eventually learns that it’s the people you trust the most that are the ones who steal from you. You have to keep your ears and eyes open. Trust, but verify.

Q. Is the employee situation tougher today than in the past? 

A. The morals of the people in the hiring pool have changed. We grew up with Ozzie and Harriet and Leave It to Beaver. You learned lessons from those shows. The fifties was a time when people were concerned about what was being transmitted to families and kids. The seventies and eighties brought us Beavis and Butthead and two-income parents who parked their kids at the daycare. 

Something I’ve been thinking should become standard training for us … ethics and taking responsibility. We’re not going to punish an employee for chipping a piece of glass that should be replaced, but I also want that employee to know that if he allows that chipped glass to get to the customer because he doesn’t want to take responsibility, I have a real problem with that. 

Q. I know Toni is involved in government service. [Lawrence’s wife is a member of the Houston City Council.] Have you ever thought about running for office?

A. No, I’m not interested in politics. I don’t have the patience. If somebody fabricates something about me, as is allowed in politics, I might want to punch them out [laughs].

Q.So what are the bounds of the market you serve? 

A. It’s probably within 150 miles of Houston for delivered products. For products like frameless heavy glass entry systems and bath enclosures where freight costs are negligible, we go nationwide. 

Q.Sometimes companies of your size are too large in some respects and too small in others. Do you ever feel that way? 

A. My concern is the balance of product we provide that goes directly to the customer with the product that is needed in our value-added divisions, such as insulating glass. With the volume of business we have now, it would be easy to starve one or the other. We’re going to remain loyal to those family-owned businesses that got us where we are today. So we added a new tempering furnace and we will keep doing those kinds of things as we grow.

One of the problems we encountered a couple of years ago was how competitive the price was getting for the “vanilla” types of glass; it was to the point that it wouldn’t support our costs. You have to understand that service, technical support and quality isn’t cheap, and because of those benefits, whatever price we used would become the threshold that some competitors would try to slip under. We knew where we had to be and decided that was going to be our bottom, 
period.

Now, when we did that, a good majority of customers went to competitors. Within a couple of weeks, we had a good part of those customers back. In a month we had almost all the business back. We lost the price buyers, but we never had them to begin with.

Q.That must have been a tough week. 

A. Oh yeah, sometimes you have to back off. We have a saying that some of the finest jobs that people use in their brochures are usually the ones they lost money on. We don’t want to have a lot of projects for a brochure and not much else.

Q.There’s been a lot of talk about the fuel surcharges being added to many invoices. What’s your feeling on it?

A. We charge it. It’s a necessary evil. Our overhead doesn’t dissipate just because it’s a fuel surcharge; it’s part of material costs. Fuel surcharges are no different a cost than labor or glass that has to be marked up. 

Q.You know that the surcharges really ignite customers. 

A. They have a right to be upset. The problem is when a customer quotes a job when a lower fuel surcharge existed. If the surcharge goes up, it’s something that wasn’t in the original quote. And I don’t blame them a bit for being upset, but we can’t absorb that cost any more than the manufacturer.

Q. Let’s talk a little bit about the company as a family-owned business. You have one son … 

A. Phillip … 

Q. Phillip, and he works in the business, as does his wife. Do you think it’s tough on him to be the owner’s son? 
A. You have to work just as hard as everyone else. I told him in the beginning that “if you need to be fired, I will fire you.” But we’ve never had a problem on either count. 

Phillip was brought up like I was brought up. He got a passbook account at age three and we explained interest to him early, so he understood how things worked. Phillip was never allowed to say, “I’m bored.” Toni would always put him to work. 

In high school, he would come to work and work as hard or harder than our other employees, so everyone knew how hard he worked. He graduated from Texas A & M with a business degree in MIS and he has a lot of common sense.

He started doing IT for us and phased into doing equipment evaluations when we were deciding which furnace to buy. He took all the manufacturer’s specification crap and put it in a spreadsheet to help us make the right choices. He’s well-respected in his own right. He ran the insulating division, all the maintenance, and is now expected to get involved in larger project sales with Bob Larson and Ron Biberdorf.

Q.You really emphasize quality in your business. How do you answer cynics who say the glass industry doesn’t care about quality?

A. So many people go into business with the mindset that everything has to be done cheaply. There is no argument against doing it this way. But then they get to the point where they can provide a substantially better product for a little higher cost. Most will evolve to the next level. Some don’t, and rely on being cheap. Who’s to argue with their choice? There are retail customers who want cheap products, too. They are just not our customers. 

Q. Do you really think you can sell based on quality? 

A. The last thing I want is for my customer’s customer to question the quality of my materials. If there’s a question about quality, I want it to be about the competitor’s quality. It would be difficult if everyone did it. But when there’s only one, it works. You have to know who you are. You have to know you can’t compete with the guy with the cheaper price. You will lose and be out of business. We have a sales staff of technically-trained people who can answer questions. We have showrooms and do a lot of product submittals for customers … and we don’t compete with our customers. We have the best vehicles that don’t break down and leave our customers hanging. So for all those reasons, it costs us more to be in business.

Q. Does it take that commitment to quality to be a successful smaller company? 

A. The most profitable ones are more into relationship-building with vendors and customers. The ones that fail are always trying to get something from everyone. The ones that make it are the relationship people. 

Our industry has failed the most in the art of selling. It’s not just price, price, price. Anyone who allows lesser competition to set the rules of engagement by focusing on price is toast. No customer wants to pay a higher price without some kind of justification. How many times have we been asked: “why should I pay you more?” A cheap price is the customer’s only weapon. They vigorously argue that the price is all-important, and seldom admit they are willing to pay you a premium … this is a competition—debate at this point. He is forcing you to 1) justify the value of products and services you provide, and 2) convince him that your price is the lowest price you are willing to offer. Customers want to be seduced. 

Q. Vickie Stewart of Stewart Glass wrote a moving tribute to all you did for her and other glass shops during the hurricane last year. I remember after she listed all the amazing things you did during that time, she wrote, “Now I tell you all this and you don’t know that we are not even customers of Bob Lawrence. We don’t buy from him. Yet he did all this for us.” That was really nice of you.

A. We’ve been flooded ourselves before. Our house was flooded and I knew how tough it was on Toni. We helped customers—we helped anyone we could get a hold of. There are a lot of people who deserve the credit. Lakeview Glass did an incredible job and just jumped in. He sent generators. We gave and provided the manpower to get the supplies over there. It’s just something we had to do. It’s our community.

Q. Would you tell me a bit about your company’s new expansion? 

A. We reinforced our capabilities. We had been sold out for two years and we had wanted to expand, but we knew it would be a problem. So we figured if we are going to do it, we should go ahead and do the whole building. We now have net space of 230,000 square feet; 108,000 feet of that was original. We knew that eventually we would use the space. We did it while we could.

Q. What do you think are the industry’s biggest problems? 

A. One of the problems is the same for decades: that some companies are being propped up by the manufacturers because those manufacturers don’t want to show the write-off yet. Eventually someone will, but no one wants to be the one responsible for writing it off. These companies stay propped up until a new guy comes in and writes it off because he knows he won’t have to take the fall for it.

Q.One last question, what do you do for fun? 

A. Golf is it. I would love to sail, but the sun and rough seas don’t like me. I really enjoy good music. Good wine, unfortunately, is also a weakness. I have a taste for it. You can get a good wine for $50 but a great one for $150. If I can afford to do it, I’ll go with the $150 one. The older you get, the more you know you can’t take it with you. So those are my pleasures … that and a fast car on an open road.

About the Company
Lawrence owns Glass Wholesalers Inc. (GWI), a privately held Texas Corporation. GWI is broken down into several divisions. The divisions are as follows: 

Glass Wholesalers Inc. supplies flat glass by the case or stock sheet, rare glass, PPG Starphire glass, reflectives and insulating glass. 

Custom Glass Doors Inc. is a distributor and fabricator of Alumax shower enclosures, mirrored wardrobe doors and custom heavy glass shower doors. 

Glaziers Supply Inc. furnishes a complete stock of tools, sealants and sundry items for the glass industry. 

Royal Architectural Systems/Brake Shapes Inc. fabricates heavy tempered glass doors and glass wall systems, glass handrails and custom cladding (the application of precious metals to the door surface). Royal supplies Visionwall™ head and sill components used for glass wall conference rooms, display areas, showcases and mall front applications. Brake Shapes custom fabricates brake metal and distributes aluminum, brass and stainless steel flat sheet and insulated panels. Brake Shapes also fabricates custom aluminum doors and frames and distributes aluminum storefront glazing systems as well as standard doors. 

The Craftsman Divisions are three divisions geared toward supplying the very best in tempered glass, custom tabletops, mirrors, awards and much more. The three divisions are as follows: 

  • Craftsman Fabricated Glass & Mirror Inc. is a fabricator of custom glass tabletops and shelving. Custom beveling and edgework is provided on glass and mirrors. This division also incorporates a CNC waterjet cutter that enables Craftsman to produce glass, metal and masonry projects that have very intricate cuts. 
  • Craftsman Awards Inc. produces glass awards and recognition items. Craftsman recently has produced awards presented to George Bush, and Hillary Clinton. Also provided are offsite sandblasting capabilities. Completed jobs include the George Bush Library Donor Wall and Walks and the Texas State Cemetery granite engraving. 
  • Craftsman Tempered Glass Inc. produces tempered glass from 1/8- to 1-inch thick. Craftsman Tempered Glass can temper a variety of glass including low-E coated glass, reflectives, bronzes, specialty shapes, glass with shapes and glass with holes and notches.

SOURCE: Glass Wholesalers Inc. website 

USG
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