A Once Shrinking Population of Independent Glass Fabricators Begins to Re-Emerge

By Ellen Rogers

“Where did all the fabricators go?”

That’s been a common question during the past two decades as the glass industry lost a number of these independent companies. Many are still around, but now operate under different names, were merged into other companies or became part of a conglomerate. Others simply shut their doors, many closing after decades and decades of business. The Great Recession takes a fair share of the blame, as well.

While mergers and acquisitions continue to happen, and always will, an independent U.S. glass fabrication industry has begun to re-emerge. New companies are starting, and older companies are investing into their businesses. What once seemed like a rampant streak of fabricator acquisitions and roll-ups, has slowed. And with that comes an increasing strength in regional, autonomous fabricators. These companies have a lot to offer— strengths that many believe set them apart and help them thrive.

Think Small

Over the past few years, the glass industry has begun to see and increased presence of regional, independent fabricators. What’s brought this re-birth? According to Brian Frea, president of GlassFab Tempering Services in Tracy, Calif., it’s in the way independents understand their people.

“It’s all about people. That’s our business and you carry that through to your customers and suppliers. As an independent, we recognize the importance of our employees,” he says.

310 Tempering in Louisville, Ky., celebrated its fourth anniversary in August, making it one of the youngest independent glass fabricators in the U.S. President and CEO Greg Abrams, also sees strength in independents, and says it’s partly due to a strong economy tied in with the use of glass in a wide variety of applications.

“Glass is being used in so many applications. You see it in kitchens more often, as well as bathrooms where it’s being used instead of tile,” he says.

Small but Mighty

Independents say being small also brings a number of benefits, which can be a plus for customers. One of the biggest advantages Frea sees is an independent’s ability to make decisions quickly.

“As independents, decision making is fast and you can react quickly to anything related to people, customers and suppliers. No matter how large you are you need to be nimble in your decision making.”

Abrams agrees.

“You can have a 25-minute meeting that gives you a completely new project and, as soon as you’re done you’ve got people working on it,” he says. “We can make decisions quickly and react to the environment we’re in.”

He adds that many small companies are hungry for jobs that larger corporations might not take on.

“There’s nothing that comes across my desk that I say ‘no’ to immediately,” he says. “I look at it and our capabilities and talk to our team … We just did some laminated circles for military tanks … can we do it? Yes.”

Jim Iaquinto, owner and president of Midwest Glass Fabricators Inc. in Highland, Mich., says the characteristics of being independent allow them to exceed their customers’ expectations.

“We remain flexible, decisions can be made quickly, and we continually win against larger entities that treat customers as an afterthought sticking to processes that are dictated from a distance,” he says. “The other way that an independent is winning is overall quality. The business is so hands-on that we, as owners, walk the plant and ensure that what we are
sending to customers is beyond what would be considered the industry standard.”

He adds that bigger players sometimes have an issue with service.

“As aggregated businesses, they place rules on how they serve the market. This leaves in their wake customers who don’t feel they are getting the service they need to be successful: exaggerated timelines, issues with remakes if quality is a problem, and inflexible pricing—all prevent the customer from winning, which creates market frustration,” he says. “This helps create a perfect storm for independents to come in and attend the local markets in a different way.”

It’s Not Always Easy

But nothing is always perfect. Even with the advantages, independents still face challenges. For example, small companies often have limited internal resources.

“With a large corporation you have a lot more you can reach out to and that’s limited as an independent,” Frea says. “But as you grow, the more relationships you expand upon, which helps with those resources. We focus on what we can control; if it’s out of our control there’s not much we can do.” Staying competitive can also be a challenge.

“When you get into some types of projects you might not be able to compete because you don’t have the volume pricing from a vendor like a larger company,” agrees Abrams.

Iaquinto says for his company, the greatest challenge is in expanding its reach without losing sight of the details that can set an independent apart from a larger corporation. For example, fair pricing, swift lead times and quality.

“We are currently operating across five states and have three additional states we are beginning to operate in via our own distribution,” he says. “This expansion is methodical, if we feel we cannot serve the area with the same quality we serve our local market then we really approach it cautiously.”

Steering the Course

The industry is continuing to do well, and could bring more new companies. But it’s not the end of mergers and acquisitions. In order for small companies to grow and be successful, they must stay focused on the areas that will help the business grow.

“Assess the market and the investment,” says Iaquinto. “Midwest Glass Fabricators has been in business 30 years; we weathered the recession, we added equipment that the market had demand for and we have been in consistent support of our customers.”

The other piece of advice, he says, is to pay close attention to the labor market.

“I think the biggest obstacle to growth is getting and retaining good employees who want to grow with you.”

And once you have those good employees, it’s important they remain top priority.

This focus will help ensure independents continue to grow.

“They will continue to do well because so many are focusing on their most prized assets and that’s people,” Frea says.

Abrams adds that after four years in business, one of the biggest lessons he’s learned is the importance of discipline.

“When you get started, you might feel pulled in different directions. Choose the projects that make the most sense for your team and the equipment you have,” he says. “You can’t understand that until you’ve been there. You start doing work and profiting and you want more … but there is such a fine line in this business to grow at a pace you can sustain and to sustain what you’ve promised the customers,” he says. “You have to be mindful and that takes discipline. If you can’t sustain the growth, there will be an equally hard fall.”

Ellen Rogers is the editor of USGlass magazine. Follow her on Twitter @EllenGRogers and like her on Facebook at usgellenrogers to receive updates.

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