Volume 46, Issue 10 - November 2011

feature

One of a Kind
J. Sussman Inc. Focuses on the Art of Custom Frame Fabrication
by Megan Headley

In a way, J. Sussman Inc. in Jamaica, N.Y., is a throwback to an earlier time. The 105-year-old family-owned and -run fabricator produces customs windows one-at-a-time with limited automation.

“One of our real specialties is our ability to bend aluminum,” explains Steve Sussman. “That’s something we’ve done since my grandfather did it by hand, although today we have many proprietary machines that enable us to do things that nobody else can do.”

At any given time the 80,000-square-foot shop showcases a variety of large, highly custom frames in various states of completion at the hands of workers who will focus on that one product from start to finish. Many of these frames will go on to house stained glass as intricately designed as the frames. As owners Steve and his brother David Sussman point out, if the frame is off by so much as a fraction of an inch, reordering the glass is not an option. And these massive windows are designed to last, withstand massive windloads and protect against leaking.

“Not just the craftsmanship, but the engineering, has to be perfect,” Steve Sussman says.

In another way, the company is positioned for the future. It has a highly specialized niche that seems to have protected it somewhat against the down economy.

“No doubt about it things are slowed down compared to a couple years ago,” Steve Sussman says. “But I find that we’re usually the first to see a trend when it gets busy … Because we work off donated money a lot of times, if it gets slow it takes some time to trickle down to us.”

The company recently has begun using building information modeling, an up-and-coming technology that David Sussman reports has tripled the company’s leads. And most recently, the company installed a rooftop photovoltaic array that is powering 100 percent of the fabrication shop (see section below the below rule).

While the craftsmanship may not have changed, the company certainly is not one to stand in place.

An Intricate Framework

The short answer, as to the products the company offers, is “high-end commercial windows,” according to Steve Sussman. But that answer is true of many fabricators; what this company specializes in is the high-end windows that other companies don’t make.

“We do the fancy, intricate work,” Steve Sussman explains. He offers an example: “Where my kids went to school there are a whole bunch of windows and we didn’t do all the windows. There are four round windows there and those are the windows we did.”

The company fabricates one window frame here, another one there. But the frames the company sells are the ones that stand out on a project.

An example that demonstrates this well would be a window in Providence Baptist Church in Monrovia, Liberia. Rohlf’s Stained Glass Studio in Mt Vernon, N.Y., provided the stained glass that was set into an asymmetrical frame. “They liked the windows so much they made a postage stamp out of it,” Steve Sussman explains. How many fabricators can make that claim?

The company’s windows often feature challenging curves, various radii and massive sizes. While the products are designed to stand the test of time, David Sussman points out that they’re also designed to make for easy changes over time. Some of the windows feature two pockets within the frame, one for the insulating glass (IG) unit and another for the stained glass. That way the window can be installed with just the IG, should the venue wish to install the stained glass product later; it also makes replacement relatively simple.

The company supplies products to churches, universities, restaurants and, on occasion, other window companies.

“We also do work with other window companies,” David Sussman says. “Sometimes we’ll make the window for them. Sometimes they’ll send us their materials, we’ll bend it for them and send it back.”

“If they have a complicated window they’ll send us all their materials and we’ll not just bend it, we’ll put the window together,” Steve Sussman says. “One of them in particular actually made a mistake on the drawings. It would have cost a lot of money but we caught the mistake.”

With highly customized windows, a degree of highly customized machinery is required.

“There’s a lot of proprietary machinery, from years and years of experimentation on our end, so that we can do all sorts of intricate shapes, intricate craftsmanship and such,” Steve Sussman says. “It’s not the kind of thing where you go out and buy a machine. These are things we design ourselves. In fact, a lot of our machinery is custom-made by us. David designed a bunch of those.”

In addition to its custom work, the company will supply traditional rectangle windows, as well as sloped glazing, locally. An affiliate company, Sunbilt, manufactures sunrooms for commercial and residential use. Steve Sussman adds, “I never like to think of ourselves as a window manufacturer; we supply the entire architectural metals business in all sorts of specialties such as bending.”

The Art of Customer Service
Customers may range from stained glass craftsman to storefront installers.

“Some of our customers are very craft-oriented. They’re artists,” Steve Sussman says. “They’re fun to talk to and hang out with. And then there are some that are very high-tech. We do work with very small glass shops and we do work with the largest glass manufacturers.”

While many of the projects that J. Sussman supplies are notable, the brothers stress: “No job is too small.”

For example, David Sussman recalls having a mother come into the shop with her kids, looking for one stained glass window for her restaurant. “We spent an hour with her, holding her hand, showing her all the different finishes, etc.” he says.

“Even though you can’t make money on that one window some day that person may become [a customer]. We’ve seen that happen, so we spend time with everybody,” Steve Sussman says.

He adds that with every customer, a company representative will spend an extensive amount of time going through details.

“The kind of stuff we do is very intricate,” Steve Sussman says. “It does take a lot of personal attention. So we do have a very good rapport with our customers. I think it takes more communication than most other kinds of businesses because if you have a very intricate kind of curve, how do you communicate that to us so that we can manufacture it and it actually works and actually fits in an opening that may be 50 feet up in the air? It does take communication but we walk our customers through it to make sure that everything is communicated properly.”

Quality in the Shop
Approximately 50 people work in the New York shop, many who have been on site an average of 15 years.

“They come here, they stay,” Steve Sussman says with pride. “Usually there’s longevity because we invest so much in training.”

The shop runs one shift, so that at least one owner is always on the premises.

“When we get real busy—which we do a lot—we work overtime, morning and night,” David Sussman says.

“A lot of overtime, that’s for sure,” Steve Sussman adds.

Part of the reason for this is tied into the fact that each fabricator works on one window from start to finish.

“They’re not just doing something mindless, putting in the same moulding all day long. They’ve got it from start to finish,” David Sussman says. “They take ownership of it. It’s not like the window comes, they put a screw in it and they pass it off.”

“It’s not mass production,” Steve Sussman says. “Everybody is in charge of quality out there. Everybody. Every station is in charge of their [product] and they know if something’s wrong, they have to they stop it and redo whatever needs to be done.”

The Sussmans find this sense of ownership improves the overall quality of the highly custom products. It also allows for cross-training so that if one employee is sick, another can take up the task.

Working with Family
J. Sussman was founded in 1906 by Isadore Sussman, a Polish immigrant.

“Our grandfather made all of this out of steel,” Steve Sussman says with a gesture to the shop’s windows at large. “He was a great mechanic, made all these beautiful windows out of steel. He would bend metal by hand, never had machines. And our father took it to the next level, which is aluminum.” He adds, “He had the foresight to see the potential for aluminum.”

David Sussman explains, “We used to take this piece of steel and rivet this onto it and Dad figured out that he could make an [aluminum] extrusion the same way and save on labor, waste and everything else. That’s what really made our company grow, because he was one of the first people to figure out that you could make an aluminum extrusion the shape of bent steel.

“Grandfather was not in favor of this,” he recalls. “He liked the ‘old school’ way … Granddad did it with a hammer and anvil. He hit this [aluminum] and it would spring back. So he couldn’t work with aluminum as well as steel.”

Steve Sussman adds, “They argued about it a lot—there were huge arguments.”
It’s certainly one of the challenges of working in a family business: each generation puts its own touch on the way of doing things.

“Our father, even though he’s retired, he gets involved with work and knows what’s going on,” Steve Sussman says. He jokes, “If he thinks we’re doing something wrong or he doesn’t like the quality …”

“… He makes sure to tell us,” David Sussman finishes.

But it’s also one of the benefits of working in a family business. Each generation wants to put its own touch on the way of doing things. Today there are five Sussmans who work in the Jamaica office; alongside the brothers are David Sussman’s children Jake and Robin and Steve Sussman’s son Jon. When asked where they might be if not working in the family business, the answers are similar across the board. They’ve grown up helping in the office and despite following other interests in school, the younger generation seems to be here for keeps.

They don’t have set titles. As David Sussman explains, “Everybody pretty much does everything. They’ll take orders over the phone and as they get better and better they’ll learn more.”

Soon they’ll be learning the ins and outs of those management roles.


“A family business can be the best and I guess for some companies—not us—it could be the worst,” Steve Sussman says.

“There’s a lot of harmony here. We all get along. It’s a big family,” he says, encompassing the 15-person office as a whole with that thought.

“We’re the oldest window company under the same family management,” David Sussman muses, taking in the past and future in one breath. “Our kids are it now.”

While the company keeps expansion in mind—the Sussmans purchased the site next door to their existing facility years ago, when prices were still reasonable, should they need the space someday—the goal is to just keep doing what they’re doing: innovate and meet the next challenge head-on.

 


Driven by the Sun
J. Sussman Finds Incentive to Go Solar
by Megan Headley

The Sussman family started looking up about a year and a half ago—up at the roof of the 60-year-old building that houses J. Sussman Inc. in Jamaica, N.Y., and, beyond that, up at the sun.

Brothers Steve and David Sussman, who run the window fabrication company, began taking a hard look at installing a rooftop photovoltaic (PV) array to power their facility.

“We researched it. We had the help of the Jamaica Development Corp. locally,” says Steve. “They helped us research it and find vendors. Then I had an accountant get involved and we saw this was a no-brainer situation.”

“At first we were looking for a 50-kilowatt (kW) photovoltaic (PV) system,” David Sussman says. “We saw that it would be paid off in two or three years. Then we thought: what if we do a 125 kW system? And [it seemed] the payback was the same.”

According to Steve Sussman, “We put in all the numbers and it paid for itself—and with the stimulus package it actually made it so it pays for itself in two years.” He adds, “It probably would not have paid if we didn’t have the government incentives” (see box below).

The incentives available may very well have been what got the Sussmans talking solar in the first place. Steve Sussman says, “We’ve done a number of things using government incentives. We bought this building because of that, many, many years ago.” He advises getting involved in the local community, and learning what other businesses are doing, to be on the lookout for an opportunity—like this one—that’s too good to pass up.

For the solar project, once the decision was made, the team had to move quickly to take advantage of those incentives.

“[The process] was pretty fast because it had to be finished before the end of the year,” David Sussman explains, for the company to take advantage of the local tax breaks.

The first steps involved ensuring the system would work and the company could support a PV system—structurally and financially.

“The government is very much involved here, which means every step of the game has to be planned out,” Steve Sussman says. After filing a plan with its utility, Con Edison, the company had visits from a structural engineer from New York City Department of Buildings and reviews of its finances to ensure it was current with its bills.

“You have to have good credit because there’s a certain amount of money up front that has to be paid,” Steve Sussman says. “You have to be a pretty solvent company, without any kind of credit problems.”

He adds, “You would think it’s easy to just hire a company—it doesn’t work that way. There are all sorts of regulations.”

Up on the Rooftop
Solar Energy Systems LLC (SES) in New York installed the more than 550 panels that make up the array. Schott Solar manufactured the PV modules while Boston-based Satcon Technology Corp. supplied the inverter.

The system is expected to provide annual energy output of 139,242 kilowatt-hours (kWh). According to SES, the system is expected to offset carbon dioxide emissions by 252,029 pounds per year, nitrogen oxide emissions by 295 pounds per year and sulfur dioxide emissions by 856 pounds per year.

The installer provided J. Sussman with a website (www.live.deckmonitoring.com/?id=j_sussman) that shows in real time how the PV array is performing.

“We can actually track how much energy we’re saving every day,” Steve Sussman says.

The company’s electric costs have gone from approximately $30,000 to less than $5,000.

Too Much of a Good Thing
While the installation was relatively seamless, as Steve Sussman says, “There are always a couple of bumps in the road.”

They came upon one of those “bumps” after the “on” switch was flipped.

“We turned it on Friday, went home for the weekend, we came back on Monday, and the plant was shut down,” David Sussman says. “Because we generated so much power, the neighbors had problems.”

The electric company had shut down the power as the neighbors complained of blown fuses. As a result, SES had to fine-tune the system further to produce the optimal amount of power on any given sunny day.

As Steve Sussman explains, now on weekends when the power isn’t being used, the PV actually reverses the meter.

“The New York City law is that we can’t make money on generating more electricity than we use and selling it back. The most we can do is break even,” David Sussman says.

Steve Sussman adds, “We’re not storing it. There are certain areas in the country where you can store it and they even allow you to sell it to other areas.” Not so in New York. “Every locality is different,” Steve Sussman says.

Today, the rooftop array provides virtually 100 percent of the shop’s electricity. The Sussmans expect it will continue to do so for a good 25 years; the inverter features a 15-year warranty while the modules themselves come with a 25-year warranty. For a company that’s been in business for 105 years years, that 25 years may seem just a blip.

To keep the system in top condition, SES drops in about every six months for routine maintenance as part of their agreement. Beyond that, both Sussmans agree little is needed to keep the PV system plugging away.

Staying Green
The company is likewise plugging away at staying green.

“We’ve always been very much aware of that,” Steve Sussman says. “For instance we updated all our windows with all high-performance glass and we redid our roof.” More recently, the company had a representative from its electric company, Con Edison, visit to review J. Sussman’s facility and make recommendations as to additional actions that could save energy. “He said there’s really nothing I can help you with. And I said, ‘you know, I don’t think this guy knows what he’s talking about, I want a second opinion.’ So I had another guy from Con Edison come here; he went with one of our business leaders around the whole place and said the same thing. So there’s really nothing they can do to help us save energy that we haven’t already done.”

For other companies taking a look at going solar, Steve Sussman advises, “Not everybody wants to go through that red tape, so that’s something people should know: there’s a lot of red tape. I think personally it was worth it and it will work for us but there is a certain amount of red tape.”

For companies thinking long-term, the time it takes to get through the red tape is nothing compared to the timelessness of working off the sun’s power.

Megan Headley is editor of USGlass. She can be reached at mheadley@glass.com or follow her on Twitter @USGlass.


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