Volume 42, Issue 9 - September 2007

Full Speed Ahead  

No Slowdown in Sight 
for Southeastern Glass Businesses

Ah, Atlanta—home of CNN and Coca-Cola. While many of us would be lost without our daily fix of Headline News and the afternoon Diet Coke break, there’s more to this city of Southern charm than these two staples. Atlanta has proven itself as one of the country’s fastest growing cities. In 2005, for example, metro Atlanta led the nation in housing units authorized, reporting 72,861 building permits, topping New York (67,207) and Phoenix (62,617)1.

Yes, you might say, it’s not such a bad time to be a contract glazier in the Southeast, as other cities, such as Charlotte, N.C., also are experiencing plenty of work. And it wasn’t an easy task tracking down a handful of Southeast glass and glazing contractors to ask about the business climate in their segment of the country. It’s not that they didn’t have the interest, they just didn’t have the time; after all, business is booming. According to John Juba, president of Juba Aluminum Products, a mid-sized commercial glass and glazing contractor based in Concord, N.C., the work availability is unprecedented. “In my 37 years of business I have never seen such opportunities as I am seeing today,” says Juba. “Every month and with each new project comes extraordinary complexity and scope in design. It is tremendously exciting.” James Sawrey, a partner with Summit Glass Contractors who handles the sales aspect of the operations, agrees. “It’s as busy as I have ever seen it,” he says. Based in Charlotte, Summit is a mid-rise contractor specializing in construction projects fewer than five stories. The company was founded just seven years ago by Sawrey and Murray and Larry Lavender. “It’s really a simple business and all about service,” says Murray Lavender, one of the three owners at Summit Glass, who has been in the glass business for some 40 years. “Being in the midst of a growing area certainly helps.”

Glass Stream Inc. founder and owner Randy Osborne “is second-generation,” explains Jeff Post, contract sales manager for Glass Stream. His company specializes in mid- to high-rise commercial construction in Kennesaw, Ga. “He left his father’s family business [Tuxedo Glass & Mirror, founded in 1959] to start Glass Stream with his partner Tom Pepper … in his garage no less. That was 16 years ago and both businesses are thriving today in an environment that’s about the best it’s ever been,” says Post.

According to Sawrey, the greater Charlotte construction market is hot right now. “I anticipate it being extremely active through the next four to five quarters,” he says. “I don’t think it’s a bubble,” adds Lavender. “I think the growth and opportunity will be here for awhile.”

Renewed Excitement
The growth and opportunity that characterizes the Southeast’s level of activity has enabled many companies to shine. A renewed sense of enthusiasm for their craft and a positive outlook for the future is spurring expansion and diversification within their operations. “There has been a great deal of growth in our area over the past couple of years,” says Sawrey. He believes this has been a major contributor to the boom in new construction and expansion activity. “There is an incredible increase in development, especially around Charlotte’s light rail system that includes heavy residential and condo construction. It’s very exciting.”

Juba focuses on the entire exterior façade and the company specializes in custom, high-performance systems. “As a glass and glazing contractor, the market has demanded we move beyond traditional glass and curtainwall and the opportunity to do so is here,” says Juba. He says his company works with a variety of exterior products, including aluminum, composite, granite, ornamental metals, steel and glass panels. “Owners, architects and contractors count on our expertise and knowledge when it comes to interfacing these various products into one functioning system.” “The city of Atlanta is booming,” says Post, a former manufacturer’s rep, who has been with Glass Stream for more than seven years and in the glass industry for more than 30. “It’s hard not to be excited about the opportunities glazing contractors have at this time.”

Rick Strickland, custom products sales manager with W.S. Nielsen in Alpharetta, Ga., says his company is as busy as it has ever been. “We have a large backlog and quite a number of high-profile jobs underway throughout the Southeast and other areas,” says Strickland, who has more than 30 years of construction experience.

According to Strickland, Atlanta always has enjoyed a steady staple of growth in healthcare, hospitality, condo and other multi-family residential construction segments. “Today, however, we are seeing a boom in specialty development projects such as Atlantic Station, formerly the Atlantic Steel Mill. It is among Atlanta’s premier live-work-play communities. A massive renovation has taken what was once an industrial eyesore and transformed it into a city within a city bringing with it unique housing, retail, and commercial development opportunities.”

LEEDing the Way
Today’s trends in the industry not only impact how buildings are being designed and built, but also the speed at which they are created as well as the way by which they are managed.

One industry trend that is having a significant impact on the industry is the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Green Building Rating System. “This environmentally friendly trend is rapidly becoming a way of life in our area. These green programs are topping the list with developers in our area,” says Juba. 

Michele Juba-King, who handles Juba’s marketing and communications, has found that it is essential for glazing subcontractors to be familiar with LEED and committed to meeting the goals of the LEED program in order to remain competitive. “Because general contractors are now responsible for sustainable buildings, they are selecting only subcontractors who share the same conservation of energy perspective and are committed to doing their part in creating a healthier, more productive and more efficient place to live and work,” Juba-King explains.

“If you’re not on board, you’re going to get lost,” adds Juba. “It’s definitely the way of the future.”

Juba continues, “Something else that seems to be the wave of the future is the green initiative that I have seen among some very large corporations building in our area. I have really been impressed with the likes of Wachovia, Bank of America and Duke University, to name a few, who have taken the lead in going above and beyond, and on their own, in terms of making their buildings more environmentally friendly, energy efficient and more sustainable. There was a time when many companies seemed only to be interested in bigger and prettier buildings. Now it’s as much about aesthetics as it is about function, environment and conservation of resources in the design and construction of their buildings.”

“We are seeing more interest and activity involving the LEED program, too,” says Strickland. “We buy extruded aluminum framing, a portion of which is made from recycled aluminum. This is probably the most reusable LEED product we utilize.”

“Projects committed to LEED are definitely moving to the forefront in our industry,” Post says. “It impacts all of us, from the way buildings are designed to the products we use to how a structure is constructed. Being environmentally conscious is not just a trend or the way of the future, but makes good business sense as well.”

Boom Benefits 
The benefits of a bustling market enable glass and metal companies to excel in their niches, expand into new products lines and services and enjoy greater choice in their project selections and labor pools. Post says one of the benefits of today’s bountiful work environment is that his company can afford to be choosy with certain projects and general contractors with whom it associates. “We look for a clientele of general contractors who, one, build a good building and two, who will pay us in a timely manner,” Post says. “We’ve had our share of dogs and we’ve scratched them off our contact list. We like to be involved with quality people and quality general contractors that build a quality structure. We go above and beyond and always make it a point to do a little bit more than is asked or expected. If we can give our customers a good return on their investment we are rewarded with repeat business.”

“Several years ago it was pretty challenging to get the types of projects we wanted based on our company niche,” says Juba. “Now, we are fortunate enough to be able to pick and choose our projects of choice.”

“Unlike some of my colleagues in the vertical curtainwall industry,” says Strickland, “we don’t turn away any opportunity. We chase everything we can—we have to. In our niche just one out every 100 structures involves skylights or slope glazing, so we are always pounding the streets for work no matter what the business climate.” 

“Another benefit to the growth is that it is bringing us more selection in terms of the labor market,” says Juba-King. “We continue to bring on qualified employees who have come to the area in search of work opportunities.”

Sawrey has a similar perspective. “Currently, let’s just say we all have enough work to support competition at this level and are not overly hungry so to speak,” he says. “None of us have to give away work just to create a backlog. We all seem to be on a level playing field and are happy with the current backlog of projects.”

Challenges
In today’s construction environment the pace at which people and projects are moving is staggering.

“It seems we have quickly gone from the fast-track to flash-track, moving through incredibly complex projects at the speed of light,” says Juba. “Design-build projects can face additional complications when it comes to the flash-track. Building owners push the architects to produce their drawings and get their designs out at an increasingly faster rate. General contractors then get with their subcontractors and start on projects before they have all the documents in an attempt to keep up with the pace.”

Juba continues, “In these times of plentiful opportunities, we must be responsible and realistic of the volume of work that we, as a company, can adequately handle. Despite the faster pace, the owners do have adequate time to find a suitable site to build and the architect can take the proper amount of time to give the owner the best design for his money. The bottom line is there must be an absolute partnership among the owner, architect, general contractor and glazing subcontractor for a successful project from beginning to end.”

Money matters also can be a concern.

“Rising and skyrocketing costs in some areas will always be an issue in this industry,” says Post. “It’s just part of the headache and we deal with it everyday. As a glazing subcontractor, you have to understand your actual costs when bidding and build this in as part of your cost analysis. Understanding your costs is essential to success and making money. Not understanding the costs involved in your business is what can, and does, put a lot of glass companies out of business.”

Keeping other construction parties up-to-speed on the changing glazing industry products, codes and requirements also is important. “We must educate our general contractors, customers and suppliers in terms of scheduling, product performance, ample notice to proceed and booking production slots,” says Sawrey. “As one of the last trades to flow into the building, and always under tight deadlines, we don’t have the luxury of any extra time for delays or problems. This tends to add a little pressure to our work.”

“Anyone in the industry knows that glass and glazing contractors are typically not given enough notice along the way so a project manager has to really be on top of his game,” Sawrey adds. “We spend a lot of time at our jobsites working with project managers and superintendents to ensure we’re on track with each and every project.”

Unlike many other areas of the companies where contract glaziers are struggling to find and keep a solid workforce, this has not been the same negative issue in the Southeast.

“Our greatest challenge with labor remains proper supervision of our projects. We put a great deal of effort into working with our labor force and empowering them to take on additional responsibilities and lead roles on projects,” says Sawrey. “Labor is not an issue for us and we virtually have no turnover,” says Post. “We have outstanding people in our office. By surrounding ourselves with good people inside and out it has paid off with a loyal following and a backlog of business.”

Tips from the Top
Staying in constant communication and working closely with the architects and general contractors has proven to be a positive move for some Southeastern glass companies.

“We definitely try to get in with architects on the front side of projects to help with the design,” says Post. “Being in this position allows us to provide valuable input in terms of the design, product selection, products that meet building codes and helping the general contractor put together a competitive quotation for a bid.” Sawrey says if he knows a contractor is thinking about working with his company he will do a lot of work on the front end, whether a contract has been signed or not, to try to get as much lead-time as possible. “While this can be a gamble,” he says, “I have found the initial effort typically pays off. Following along these lines, we have been working with developers on the front end, too. I find if we get conceptual drawings and assist in the design and development stage of a project (i.e., be available to answer questions, price products, etc.) it also can pay off. The down side is it does take a long time to bring a project to a close, but it helps us get a foot in the door and create a future project.” 

Strickland agrees that getting in on the ground floor and providing design assistance to architects is advantageous. “We like to drive the ship, so to speak, from the initial contact through the bid and ultimately to the contract and installation. We want to be viewed more as a resource than as the silent sub. We don’t want to cause our general contractors any headaches. We like to get in and get the job done, quickly, efficiently and with minimal problems.” 

“Here, we don’t subcontract anything,” continues Strickland. “All employees are OSHA certified and trained in-house. We have the ability to provide custom products of just about any size and scope that is appealing to the owner and architect. For example, we installed 1,000 skylights in the High Museum in Atlanta. This project had special requirements in terms of light infiltration, quality of light and condensation. We recently finished a project [North Park 500] where we erected two 50-foot diameter glass dome skylights over existing cladded copper domes. This allowed the area to be in the dry and viable for use during the renovation of a garden terrace area.”

Summit Glass operates by the same philosophy. With working owners, the staff pretty much does it all themselves.

“Because we have definitely felt a pinch in our skylighting segment as the regional mall trend gives way to the outdoor or lifestyle mall movement, we’ve had to make some changes in how we do business, “ Strickland explains. “We’ve picked up the slack by expanding into other areas such as custom glass and translucent canopies and entryways. We’ve diversified and have added more products to our bag of clubs to include more architectural skin features such as louvers, sunshades, aluminum grills and architectural metal mesh. We also provide turnkey solutions to general contractors where we furnish and install products and that has helped us increase market share.”

Even during times of heightened activity, employing the principals of good business is as important as ever. Good service never goes out of style and yields far-reaching results. “Our business mantra is to not ‘let our business get any bigger than we can put our arms around,’” says Sawrey. “We have to be realistic. We have a limited number of staff members, a limited number of hours in a day and can only feasibly manage a certain number of projects well. It’s a disservice if we offer our customers anything less.”

Customer for Life
“We make a legitimate effort to make a ‘customer for life’ and we won’t load ourselves just because we can,” Sawrey adds. “Even if it means sending a contract back in certain cases because we can’t provide the level of service a customer deserves then that’s what we have to do. It’s definitely painful but we also have to be realistic with our limitations. If you stub your toe on one project because you get a little greedy, it can take a long time to live that down.”

Post says it’s important to work together as a team. “If we give the owner a good project and everything comes together we all win and we all make money.” More often than not, a company’s reputation and workmanship will best help in building long-term, successful relationships, which can be key to success.

“People like to do business with people they like. Having a good customer base and taking good care of those customers helps keep a steady stream of work flowing. Our performance on each job is what paves the way to the next,” says Strickland. 

1 Source: Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce.

the author: Peggy Georgi is a contributing writer to USGlass magazine. 

Atlanta's Total Private Construction Valuation 
(Atlanta MSA 2003-2005 in units)

Construction Type 2003* 2004** 2005***
Office $510,207,040 $481,773,300 $728,744,093
Retail $944,644,093   $269,717,787 $1,435,010,661
Financial (Bank) $74,049,921   $135,105,908 $70,088,509
Medical/Long-Term Care $225,594,685   $239,662,007 $451,151,722
Educational $521,096,294  $426,726,973  $672,190,748
Government $208,345,055  $165,600,501  $106,842,474
Total Commercial Units Authorized by Building Products 
(Atlanta MSA 2003-2005 in units)
Construction Type 2003* 2004** 2005***
Office 1,918  1,919  2,328 
Retail 2,797  2,799  3,736 
Financial (Bank) 144  144  145
Medical/Long-Term Care 418  419  406
Educational 273  273  234
Government 187  183  131

Source: Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce/DEC International
*Figure represents 18 of 28 counties in the metro Atlanta area. 
** Figure represents 19 of the 28 counties in the metro Atlanta area;
*** Figure represents 20 of the 28 counties in the metro Atlanta area.

Private Housing Units Authorized
(Atlanta MSA in units)
Year Total # Single- Family Multi-Family
1995 48,277  35,162  13,115
1996 48,262  37,527  10,735
1997 49,774  38,482  11,292
1998 57,803  45,786  12,017
1999 61,046  48,275  12,771
2000 64,216   46,747 17,469
2001 65,268  48,423  16,845
2002 65,551  50,151  16,400
2003 66,377   55,033 11,344
2004 73,995   57,304 16,691
2005 72,861  61,558  11,303

source: U.S. Census Bureau, 2006


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