Commercial Glass and Plastics Lynchburg, Va.
By Daniel Snow
Robert Hiller’s 15,000-square-foot glass shop is impressive by any standard— especially because it sits in the mostly rural foothills of southwest Virginia. But the 64-year-old didn’t just build Commercial Glass and Plastics Inc. overnight. He’s a second-generation glazier whose father started in the glass business in 1945—not that Hiller inherited the business either. After working for his father for many years, and with his brother’s help, he eventually spun off his own glass business in 1984.
Lessons from a Lifetime
Most good business stories start in a basement or two-car garage, and Hiller’s business starts in the latter. The company quickly expanded into two additional spaces and eventually a 20,000-square-foot warehouse. It grew steadily and, by 1989, he had built the edifice where his business is still located today in Lynchburg, Va.
Hiller believes he has one of the best marketing strategies out there—he doesn’t. He says he doesn’t need to advertise, and treats his customers well from the start. Thirty-five years later, those same customers keep coming back. Not only that, but those customers have told other customers. Word of mouth is enough to keep him fully booked. His secret? As Hiller states “we provide reliable service and do what we say we’re going to do.”
A conversation with Hiller and a tour of his shop gives the impression that he doesn’t worry about the short term. It’s as if he had a road map with a pre-determined route and stuck to it. Instead of worrying about where the next gas station is, he already knows exactly how to make the trip across the country. His “long game” is strong.
Armed with an architectural background and the help of a college friend, Hiller designed the 15,000-square-foot space from scratch. From the road, you can clearly see the business name on the side of the building and on the sign in front. It’s elevated on a hill and hard to miss. Pulling up the drive into the parking lot, any delivery truck would feel comfortable making the turns to circle the building and pull up to one of the four large bay doors. The ceilings are high enough to park commercial delivery trucks inside the 12,000-square-foot warehouse. This makes loading and unloading easy, especially in inclement weather.
The rectangular warehouse is quartered into four different areas. This keeps everything nearby and easy to locate. One section has industrial shelving for storing a lifelong collection of glass-related products. Behind it is the fabrication area full of aluminum framing material. Next up is the glass storage and staging area. Finally, one comes to the fabrication area with carpeted cutting tables, cutters, sanders, and other tools for cutting, trimming, and shaping glass.
There is a 3,000 square foot office space for running the business and meeting with customers. When first entering, the customer is greeted at a reception counter and, of course, lots of glass. From the glass block in the entryway to the large windows letting in an exceptional amount of natural light, it’s obvious that Hiller puts his products into practice. Moving through the office, he displays a number of old photographs on the wall. A black-and-white photo shows his father’s original shop in downtown Lynchburg. From hearing Hiller talk, it’s obvious that he is proud of his history. And not just his own history,
A Passion for the Past
Hiller seems to have a particular affinity for old-school tools, from the Chicago-made Sommer & Maca sander in his fabrication area to the Trestner & Sons Money Maker Glass Tank. The glass tank is something few know exist, and fewer have ever seen. There are electrical connectors on the side of the tank. Fill it with water, drop in a piece of laminated glass, and wait for the PVB to heat up for easy cutting.
Out back you’ll find one of Hiller’s hobbies. What may look like a pile of large rocks to some is actually the foundation of a dismantled stone mill. The actual mill stones rest nearby … the ultimate capstone (pun intended) to Hiller’s affinity for old tools.
An Eye Toward the Future
Hiller makes light jokes about how his then 12-year-old daughter was smart enough to tell him, “Dad, you have to work too hard. I don’t want to take over the business.” Hiller isn’t ready to stop working yet. But he isn’t opposed to talking about selling the business, either.
Ideally, he sees the business managed by a young person who has hands-on experience with installations and estimates. Hiller stresses how necessary an intimate knowledge of the industry is in order to operate a full-scale shop. The uninitiated would quickly find themselves in over their head. Then again, they’d be following the well-established route he laid out.
Daniel Snow is the vice president of operations of Glass.com®, a leading consumer resource for glass products, services, and information, and a sister company to USGlass.
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