How Zetian Systems Uses Overseas Supplier Channels
for Las Vegas Projects and Beyond
by Megan Headley
In 2005, Greg Olin, then director of sales at Super Sky, found himself
in China at the invitation of architect Veldon Simpson. Olin was searching
for new suppliers to enhance the company’s supplier network both for aluminum
“We had been involved with [Simpson] on a potential project and it was
at the end of that project he said ‘I’d like to introduce you to some
of the suppliers we found,’” Olin recalls.
At the time, Weina Zhang was also working for Simpson doing the prequalification
“She was, let’s say, the master of the database,” Olin says. “We started
talking about what was available, what the potential was for sourcing
materials in China.”
Olin recognized that, after 15 years with Super Sky, he was ready to take
on new opportunities. At just the same time, Zhang was coming to the end
of a project that wasn’t going forward. “We very quickly discussed the
idea of using my glass knowledge and her information about the China suppliers
and creating a business that could do it a little bit better, a little
bit more efficiently than we were doing currently,” Olin says. “Within
a couple months we decided to form the company with that goal in mind.”
The early form of what is now Zetian Systems Inc. was called World Source,
and joined Zhang as chief executive officer and Olin as president. The
company’s goal was to supply building materials, with an emphasis on glass,
from suppliers around the world to projects in the United States. “We
realized very quickly that most of the advantageous sourcing was out of
China,” Olin says.
Las Vegas was chosen as the company’s home. Zhang already was supplying
architectural materials to the developer of the city’s Panorama Towers
1 and 2.
Plus, Olin adds, “It’s a very pro-business city, pro-business state, so
it was an easy choice to decide to expand here.”
In developing the business’ mission, Olin looked back to his time at Super
Sky. “What I really admired about them is they have very strong customer
service business and model,” he says. “The basic customer service model
was very much following the way that Super Sky organized its business.”
Today, the Las Vegas office of Zetian Systems includes approximately 15
people who make up the company’s sales and project management teams, as
well as accounting and related administrative activities. In addition,
Las Vegas is the base of Z Glass, a union glazing contractor formed by
Zetian in 2009. Olin explains that Z Glass was formed to complete the
glass installation of the Fontainebleau Las Vegas.
“The Z Glass personnel varies depending on the job,” Olin adds. “Right
now we’re manning the job at Smith Center downtown with about 25 Z Glass
employees, and that will vary up and down, depending on the job schedule.”
In addition, Zetian owns Zetian Curtainwall Design Ltd., a wholly-owned
subsidiary in Shenzhen, China, where the company’s engineering and design
work is primarily done. Olin considers those structural engineers to be
in-house employees as well. “That office is running at about 35 people
consistently, with the engineering department being the largest of those
departments,” he says.
Olin notes that having an overseas engineering firm allows the company
to have a nearly 24-hour operation. “Because of the time difference a
lot of times we’ll go to a meeting, we’ll decide on changes, we’ll send
those changes, we’ll get them updated and then the next day we can turn
Olin calls the overseas office “a support, an extension of Zetian. The
focus is, whether it’s China or anywhere else in the world, the customer
is going to be able to speak in their language and work with people that
they are comfortable with,” he adds.
An International Company
Despite the fact that the company’s engineering department resides in
China, both Zhang and Olin are firm on one point.
“We are not a Chinese company,” Olin says. “We don’t work in China. We’ve
never done a job in China. We don’t plan to work in China. But we do see
a great deal of opportunity in other markets.”
“In the international market what we do different is we’re marketing as
a U.S. company,” Zhang says. “Even in China, or any developing country,
[if] you’re a U.S. company they pay you premium … because they know what
they’re going to get.”
“For example, in Thailand there’s a developer who wants to do a very tall
condominium and he does not want to use local suppliers. He wants to use
a different standard,” Olin says. “The projects in Abu Dhabi, for example,
are very much like City Center [in Las Vegas]; you have an array of world
class architects who are demanding the highest quality standards.”
He adds, “Where we get involved is if there’s an advantage from a quality
standpoint, if it’s a developer who’s looking for the highest standards;
we can say ‘U.S. standards,’ almost.”
Zetian’s focus on glass is a result of market demand. “It’s very much
market-driven, but I would say it’s an architectural products business
more than a glass business,” Olin says.
The First Project
The company’s first project was doing aluminum trellis in the Cayman Islands.
“We did the job there basically because no one else could supply an aluminum
die as large as what they were requiring for that job,” Olin recalls.
Additional custom stainless steel work was to follow, although the company
also has done its share of structural glass projects, both point- and
“I would say 75 to 90 percent of the work has been focused on glass but
we’re just as easy to go to stainless or aluminum extrusions or that type
of product,” Olin says. “By chance, we ended up with the Fontainebleau
project, which very much threw us into the big leagues with a million-square-foot
project.” (Not by chance, court documents indicate that Zetian still is
involved in legal matters following a lien placed on that since-bankrupt
63-story glass tower.)
For Zetian’s structure to work, the company must offer products that are
both cost-effective and high quality, and for that the executives must
select carefully the suppliers that they work with.
“That really is the key to success: a good supply network,” Olin says.
Zhang says she works to develop long-term relationship with the vendors.
“When you talk about China, there are 100 glass companies, and we only
work with three major glass suppliers,” she says.
Zhang notes that the company does not work exclusively with China-based
fabricators, and currently is looking to partner with a company based
on the East Coast of the United States for a local project. At this time,
though, the company primarily supplies products from CSG Holding Co.,
Shanghai Pilkington and, “for special glass,” Sanxin Glass.
“In the early stage, those were the only three companies that had the
ASTM certification for the U.S. market,” Zhang says.
For many U.S. companies, concern over using products fabricated in China
has come from the fact that U.S. fabricators are held to rigorous standards,
such as those issued by ASTM.
“For our suppliers it is standard that they do 100-percent manual quality
control [checks] on the glass. They check each piece,” Zhang says.
As Zhang points out, using poor quality glass can be disastrous for a
company like hers, which relies on overseas shipping. She explains, “In
the factory they do the quality control check per piece, because we cannot
afford [changes]. Once the glass arrives to our shop, then you see a defect—now
you’ve lost four weeks or you have to air freight, in our case. So we
have actually three precision quality control checks, the final being
in our factory, to avoid losing time.”
Once out of the factory, Olin says the company works with one of two testing
facilities to test a mock-up for every project.
“There are a number of good options,” Olin says. “There’s a testing facility
in southern China in a beautiful town named Foshan that is the largest
curtainwall testing facility in the world. Most of the large curtainwall
companies of the world use that test facility from time to time. They’re
independent and they’re fully certified, and they’re associated with Hong
Kong. Hong Kong had this long history of world certification based on
the British standard and then the American standard. So there’s that facility,
especially for very large mock-ups.
“There’s a smaller facility in Hong Kong that we use and we’ve used both
for projects here. Every project we’ve built we’ve actually had a mock-up
done at one of the two facilities. More recently,” he adds, “we’ve established
our own facility here in our warehouse for small punch windows and smaller
units. That’s also certified by an independent agency.”
The other challenge in working with overseas suppliers is, of course,
bringing those products to their final destination.
“In the beginning, there was a lot “In the beginning, there was a lot
more fear of the unknown,” Olin says. “I always remember people would
say ‘well, what happens if the container sinks?’ And I’d say ‘if you were
to check the news there’s probably not many records of ships sinking...’”
However, Olin adds, “In reality, we’re a relatively small business, and
we have benefited tremendously from the world market in the sense of companies
like Home Depot and Wal-Mart that have perfected the science of the logistics
and shipping information, whether it’s China or elsewhere. As an example,
when we were doing Fontainebleau we were bringing in approximately 25
containers a week through Long Beach, Calif. That went on for more than
six months and there was never a missed container. Customs may pull a
container aside from time to time for a spot check but it just works like
Growth for the Future
Zetian’s executives try to look at the current economic conditions with
optimism, despite downward trending revenue.
“In 2009 we had revenues of that surpassed $40 million,” Olin says. “2010
was not as good.”
Zhang is quick to point out, “Compared with other people, 2010 is actually
not too bad.”
The year’s revenue between $12 and $15 million was profitable, Olin says.
“We still have a healthy backlog, and this is why we don’t feel any desperation
to buy jobs.”
“In this market, people get desperate; you pick up the job because you’re
desperate, and then you create a problem and you’re losing money and you
end up closing your door. That’s not our style,” Zhang says. “Each job
we pick we know we can make some profit—it’s not just to survive. We have
a good management model.”
Las Vegas locals are quick to point to the skyscrapers that dot the city,
remains of projects stalled until further notice. Although Zhang says
“Vegas is our home,” the company is branching out.
Construction growth now, Olin says, is in “New York, it’s East Coast,
there’s no doubt about it. In fact, we’ve opened an office just recently
in New York to service that market because that is where it’s at right
One of the company’s current notable projects, One World Trade Center,
is in New York (see Trade Center Challenges, below).
But it’s the international market that Zetian has its sights fixed on
“The international market is really going to be the key to our growth,
and to the growth of the industry really,” Olin says.
“Our business is pretty much 30 percent in the domestic United States
and 70 percent we’re looking at the international market,” Zhang says.
While the ability to work internationally has been a boon, recent strife
in the Middle East has slowed down projects. Still, Zhang says, “If the
Middle East is smooth, then in the next six months we’re looking at some
decent jobs there.”
Overall, Olin says there are a lot of positive indicators.
For now, Zetian Systems executives are aiming to prepare the company for
the next boom.
“Really it’s a matter of managing the business well through the downturns,”
Olin says. “I think you see that the successful companies, especially
the ones that have been around for decades, they’ve gone through these
cycles. I was with Super Sky through a very difficult cycle in the ’90s.
It’s really a matter of do you manage your business so you’re prepared
for it, and then, can you weather it? Usually the ones who are around
on the upside do quite well. So that’s our expectation. Watch out for
2012,” Olin says.
Megan Headley is the editor of USGlass.
Trade Center Challenges
Zetian has overcome some challenges in the short time since
its founding; among those challenges, finding itself in 2009 the subject
of outrage for supplying products from China for a symbol of America,
the World Trade Center in Manhattan (see April 2009 USGlass, page 30).
It’s a significant project for any company, and Zetian’s employees are
proud to supply the glass that will clad the podium wall system, covering
the lower 20 stories of Tower One*.
Zetian Systems was formally contracted by Solera/DCM in early 2009 to
perform design-assist services, fabrication and delivery of the unique
glass and bird screen components for the podium at One World Trade Center.
Looking back to the initial decision in 2009 to suggest to the project
architect a product from CSG Holding Co., Olin recalls, “On a relative
basis for a float glass manufacturer, it’s not a big job; it’s 100,000
square feet of surface glass … but to be associated with the project …
So [CSG was] very aggressive in trying to sell their product and we were
very happy to help that process and to submit the samples. But when it
came right down to it, it’s a subjective decision and that’s where the
architect takes over.”
After a review of available materials, PPG’s Starphire® ultra-clear,
low-iron glass ultimately was selected (see December 2010 USGlass, page
“When we put the options on the table and the architect says ‘I want that
one,’ I don’t ask why,” Olin continues. “The combination was just perfect.
Once [the architect] saw that it was available, and there was some inventory
available immediately to do the trials that we needed in order to keep
the contract schedule, it became a no-brainer.”
Zetian awarded PPG the glass order for the podium in October 2010. PPG
will supply the glass to Zetian, which has contracted Sanxin Glass in
Shenzhen, China, as fabricator.
“We’re very happy with the final decisions,” Olin says. “We’re working
with PPG Glass now. In fact, we’ve just gone through two months of trials.”
Although PPG representatives said they were surprised that the contract
had returned to them last fall, Olin comments that it’s not unusual to
go through a long period of sampling.
“What made [the glass selection] even more difficult on the prism glass
is you’re looking at two things: you’re looking at the color of the glass,
which of course is a low-iron glass, and between the, say, four suppliers
of the world that produce low-iron glass, only two of them produce the
glass in the size that is required,” Olin says.
From there it was a matter of working out logistical details. “Zetian
was not a customer of PPG previously so that made it a little more complicated.
But in the end it all got smoothed out,” Olin says.
Zetian representatives are working closely with all parties involved on
this complex project.
“We have a great relationship with Solera/DCM, which is the steel erector
for the entire tower,” Olin says. “It’s really a true partnership where
everything is decided for the best benefit from the fabrication side and
the installation side. No one aspect is ignored over the other. Everything
we do with design and fabrication ultimately has to work in installation.
And it is an installation challenge,” Olin adds.
The challenge begins, Olin says, with the logistics of moving units from
the New Jersey storage area to the construction site in New York, where
there’s little to no staging area. In addition, he says, the glass units
are unusually heavy.
“You start off with 1 ½-inch thick glass to begin with, then it’s
unitized to an aluminum birdscreen. On part of the building there’s a
small area that actually goes to stainless steel birdscreen, so the weight
doubles. [DCM/Solera] developed a gantry system that is not in place yet
but will basically lift the units and drop them into place. Then they’re
hung pretty much like standard curtainwall,” Olin says.
He adds, “The other sort of unusual part of this is the cleaning mechanism.
Obviously the glass is such a highlight of that podium that they want
to keep it clean. Developing a tracking system that will both keep the
glass clean and protect it from breakage has been, and continues to be,
quite a challenge. It’s not complete yet; there will be additional testing
on the cleaning mechanism in the next couple of months.”
*At press time, the project contract was in jeapordy. Visit www.usgnn.com
for updates as they are available.
© Copyright 2011 Key Communications Inc. All rights reserved.
No reproduction of any type without expressed written permission.