Lyle Hill on 50 Years in the Glass Industry—Listening, Learning and Playing Softball

Editor’s Note: In September, USGlass magazine columnist Lyle Hill celebrated his 50th year in the glass and metal industry and his 27th year of writing for the magazine. USGlass publisher Debra Levy talked with Hill about his career thus far, and some of the changes he has seen over the years. Their discussion follows. “Lyle is nowhere near finished with what he wants to accomplish in the industry” said Levy of the interview. “The only thing he asked me to point out was that he started in the business really young.”

Q Fifty years in any industry, let alone the glass industry, is quite an accomplishment. I suppose we should start at the beginning. It’s 1970 and you are fresh out of college. How did you get the job?

LRH—I got it the way most people did in those days; I answered an ad in the newspaper from a company called Globe Glass & Mirror. It was in a large complex on Fullerton Avenue in Chicago that it shared with another company with the same ownership called Tyler & Hippach Glass (THG). THG had six divisions, but the complex was dominated by Globe, the auto glass company where I was going to work. I interviewed for the position of “inventory usage forecaster.” I was going to make sure that inventory was maintained at the proper levels. There were no computers yet so it all had to be done by hand. After a few interviews, I got the job.

Q But you never did that job did you?

LRH—No, I never did. I showed up on the first day in my newly-purchased suit and was quickly told there had been a change in plans. They basically said “Listen, kid, I know you were hired to work for Globe but Tyler & Hippach’s plate department foreman just quit and they need you there.” Tyler & Hippach was highly unionized and they knew I had experience being a union steward. So they sent me home to take that brand new suit off
and come back in work clothes. I spent the rest of the day helping to load trucks for the next day’s routes.

Q So much for your foray into the white collar world …

LRH—That didn’t bother me. I’d been working since the minute I could as a teenager and it was always physical work. I’d gotten through college by loading box cars full of dog food at a General Foods plant in Kankakee, Ill. I had no problem with hard work. Still don’t.

Q But you didn’t stay the plate department foreman for long, did you?

LRH—No, after six months they asked me if I wanted to go into the contract glazing department. I wasn’t sure it was a promotion, but I said “yes.” It turned out to be.

Q You had a lot of different jobs in your first few years there.

LRH—From the plate department, I became an estimator/trainee, then head estimator and then I became a junior project manager, then project manager. In 1974, I became the manager of the contract glazing department.

Q That was a pretty quick trajectory, especially in those days and in a family-dominated company. How were you able to grow so quickly there?

LRH—I didn’t mind hard work at all, and I also knew early on that I should learn everything I could in every area I could. I started doing estimates on my own at night and having the head estimator check them in the morning to see if they matched his. I would ask the project managers to explain why we built certain things certain ways. I was always a student of efficiency and always looking for ways to do things better, and more time- and cost-efficiently. I guess that got noticed.

The company was owned by a man named Joe Kellman; anyone going back 20 or more years would know the name. He was a force of nature. He remains, to this day, the sharpest business person I have ever met, and he did it all on a tenth grade education. We got along well and I learned tons from him.

Q No one ever forgot meeting him.

LRH—You are right about that. We had our moments too, but I had such respect for him. He was an incredible teacher. After a few years, I started calling him “coach.” He didn’t have much formal education, but he had something way more important than what you find in a text book. He knew how to get every last drop out of you—every single drop of your ability and talent. He was an incredible motivator. He encouraged me, then funded my additional education, including getting an MBA in engineering and technology management from the Illinois Institute of Technology.

Q So you grew progressively and in 1974 you became the contract glazing department manager.

LRH—Yes, THG had operated continuously since 1886. There were six divisions including contract glazing, mirrors, insulating glass, wholesale/jobbing, service/re-glazing and board-up.

Q Then you were asked to take the position and …

LRH—No, actually, I wasn’t asked to. My boss, Bill Swanberg, was. He didn’t want the job.He loved building buildings and hated the paperwork. He called me in his office and said “Listen, kid, you are better with the administrative stuff and such, and I don’t think you could do my job if I move up. So I am going to pass on this job and recommend you for it instead. It comes with a little more money and a company car. You can have the salary increase, but I get the car, understood?” Bill and I laughed about it for many years. He was a great mentor too.

Q And you did that until you were promoted to general manager of the company in 1976. What did that feel like?

LRH—I was very nervous about it. When Kellman offered me the position, I turned it down. I didn’t think I could handle it. So he called me in his office and fired me.

Q He fired you?

LRH—Yes. Over the years, he probably fired me three or four times and I probably quit three or four other times, but this was the most memorable. He asked me why I didn’t want to take the job and I told him that I was doing a really good job where I was, managing the contract glazing department. “Well,” he said, “I have someone else who can manage that department, but I don’t have anyone else who could be the general manager of the whole thing. If you are not willing to do what I need you to do, what good are you? If you don’t go up, you gotta go out.”

So I … got another offer I couldn’t refuse … and took the job.

Q Did that job come with a company car?

LRH—Yes, I finally got a car—and it was a better one than Swanberg’s [laughs].

Q So you were now in charge of people, many of them were family members, who’d been there for years. And you were dealing with systems that had been in place for just as long. You have told me that you knew things there had to change. Were you able to make those changes successfully?

LRH—It was a true challenge, but if you treat people honestly and openly, you save time and energy. People react positively to honesty and fairness. And it helped that I had started at the “bottom.” so to speak. I had a great deal of respect for the people I had worked with and for. They knew that too.

Q You told me in our prep that the 1980s were your favorite decade. Why?

LRH—Well I could say that about most of the five decades, but two big events happened in the 1980s. In 1985, we merged with Midwest Ironworks to create the company’s new name formed by M (for Midwest) and TH (for Tyler & Hippach). It was a challenging but exciting time; the people really clicked, worked hard and had tons of fun. So my role as president of THG expanded to encompass the new company. The other big event, at least to me, was the progressive development and improvement of the company’s softball team.

QI know softball has figured prominently in the company over the years …

LRH—We had one heck of a team; we won multiple park district championships. We fielded two complete teams and even the “B” team never had a losing season. It was one of the best teams ever in the 16-inch industrial softball league. 16-inch softball is relatively unique to Chicago.

QI know you never mind talking about softball, but let’s first go back to the acquisition of Midwest Ironworks. Did that work out for you?

LRH—We recognized early on that they were more sophisticated in some areas than we were. They were doing a lot of things better than we were. They were more computerized. They brought a great team of project managers and an incredibly talented team of ironworkers with them. Nothing changed in the way we built the jobs, but almost everything changed in the way we went after them. We adopted their methodologies. We got a lot more out of the deal than we expected. This allowed us to pursue architectural metal work, including curtainwall, more aggressively. That was a pleasant surprise.

Prior to the purchase of Midwest Ironworks, I was convinced we had one of the best glazing groups in the country, but I could not yet say that about the metals side of the business. The acquisition gave us a field force on the metals side akin in quality to what we had on the glass side.

Q The end of the 1980s must have been a very productive time for you.

LRH—The business grew nonstop in the 1980s. Our biggest challenges in the mid-80s was expanding office space to accommodate the merger and to assimilate the people and procedures of the two companies into one. I was struggling with certain personalities, from both companies, who had been resistant to the merger idea. At the same time, we had taken the biggest job in either company’s history: United Terminal 1 at O’Hare Airport. That single job had more than 100 of our field employees assigned to it at any given time. We were all stressed and had more work than we could handle comfortably.

Q Was self-doubt involved at this point?

LRH—Lots of self-doubt. Our only constant was the success of our softball team. I knew where the priorities were, but I maybe would have gone insane without the softball team. Overall, it was an exciting, fun time. We were doing work in a number of states for the first time and everything seemed like it was starting to click.

Q Well, then why did you want to blow it up by leaving?

LRH—I didn’t, it wasn’t me. In early 1989, Kellman informed me that the time was coming for him to sell his business holdings. He asked me what my thoughts were on how I wanted to spend the rest of my working career. I told him I was quite happy with the working relationship we had. I got to run things and Globe Glass provided us with incredible bonding capacity, handled the insurance, banking and other such matters. And I still enjoyed working for Kellman very much.

Q There’s got to be a “BUT” coming …

LRH—BUT I recognized he [Kellman] was significantly older than I was and I had concerns. He signaled the timing of his departure was sooner rather than later and indicated that a potential buyer wouldn’t want the architectural glass and metal business, just the auto glass one. He wanted to focus on building up the auto glass network during the next few years. He needed more people and more space and wanted to acquire or open more auto glass shops. I’d worked for him long enough to know that he always had a plan. He was always three to five years out. He was telling me that the division I ran didn’t fi t that plan.

Q That was a big shocker, right?

LRH—Somewhat. “What do you want to do?” he asked me. I told him I would do what he recommended—that I could stay or could start looking for another job. I had a contract that said I had to give one year’s notice if I was going to leave and the company, in turn, had to pay me one year’s salary if it released me. I was a little confused about what I should do next. Then Kellman said I should meet with my senior managers and we should buy the company. I chuckled at that. I had a general idea of what the company might be worth and I knew it far exceeded anything I might be able to raise.

Q Yet you did it, so how did you pull it off?

LRH—It was during the era of leveraged buy-outs. Banks were in the practice of lending more money than they should. Kellman put me on to and paid for a good merger consultant who helped find a friendly lender to help finance it, and we pulled it off. We put together a group of key employees and off we went.

Q If I remember, you were able pay about 2 percent down.

LRH—The business appraised at $11 million and we put $212,000 in. $112,000 of it was mine. We were only able to go forward because Kellman guaranteed a big part of the loan. I had to cash in any and everything we had including the kid’s college funds. I asked my wife, Sandi, to take a leap of faith on all this. She has always been very supportive. Everything we had went into it. The deal closed August 29, 1989.

Q How were the 1990s for you?

LRH—We acquired other companies including Illinois Bronze Works, Rotoswing Door, Midwest Glass & Glazing and Hayes Glass & Mirror. We started a metal refinishing and service business. Then, in the mid-1990s, we launched Glass America.

Q That’s a big load again?

LRH—Sometimes we were in over our heads, but we always made it work out. There were some warning signs on the horizon. We were running out of new talent. The old-timers were retiring, the new talent pool got watered down a bit and we had taken a lot to handle.

Q Is that what led you to sell the company?

LRH—I sold the company in 1998 to a venture capital fi rm. I stayed on to manage it under contract. We were planning to go public in 2001, but after 9/11 all those plans were crushed and put on hold. It was a hard time to manage through. Not being able to go to the next level was very disappointing and trying for a lot of people, not just us.

Q But you bought the company back. Why?

LRH—In 2002, I reached an agreement to repurchase back the non-auto glass portion of the company and relocated it. A number of factors went into that decision, not the least of which was I realized that the plans put in place weren’t going to happen. Maybe I also disagreed with certain decisions being made and felt that I had lost control of the very thing I had spent my entire career helping to build.

Q Is it fair to say you had to adapt to a business environment that had changed quite a lot in those five years?

LRH—It was very difficult. We were incredibly successful in getting high profile jobs and the service side of the business had become dominant. However, we were doing it all on a shoestring relative to finances. The bank was making more money—a lot more—than we were. It was challenging to manage through that. I felt like we were working for the bank.

Q Would you say you completed some of your best-known jobs in the 2000s?

LRH—The highest profile job we did, by far, is the Cloud Gate sculpture in Millennium Park in Chicago. It’s known as “the Bean” because it looks like a giant kidney bean, or alternatively a big drop of mercury, hitting the ground and bouncing back up over itself. It appears as one big seamless piece of shiny metal.

Q That’s a pretty gutsy job to take.

LRH—I said no to it at first. I told our vice president, Lou Cerny, “absolutely not.” Now Lou … ALS took him three years ago at the age of 61… was one of the finest and most talented people I’ve ever met. Yet he more or less tricked me into meeting with Bob Wislow. Wislow was the president of U.S. Equities and in charge of getting Millennium Park built. Wislow promised us that, in areas in which we did not feel comfortable providing a fixed estimate, we could do the job on a T&M (time and materials) basis. So we had multiple contracts to do the job. If not for Lou Cerny and his ability and talent,
I am not sure Cloud Gate would ever have been built. Through Lou, we tried different techniques, customized machinery, and we partnered with 3M to developed means and methods. Lou spent nights in the job trailer. He slept there because they had worked so late refining techniques. The Bean represents Chicago to the world. I am very proud to have been a part of it.

Q That’s a great legacy. Tell us about a few more projects.

LRH—The Glass Ledge at Willis Tower is another we could not have pursued without Lou. He was one of a kind. We also had an incredible group of talented ironworkers who loved working with Lou on these projects. Ironworkers can say “I built the Bean, I cut that submarine apart, I built  the Ledge at Willis Tower” because of what they did together with Lou. We attracted the cream coming out of Local 63 in Chicago because of his efforts.

Q Having a half-century viewpoint sure gives you a unique perspective. What are the biggest changes you have seen come about in the last five to ten years or so?

LRH—Everybody wants big and unusual. The glass has gotten much larger and the designs are more extreme and complex. The technological advances have allowed the architectural community to push building design to a greater extreme than ever before. The improvements in energy efficiency, driven by the research performed by glass manufacturers, is nothing short of amazing. When I started, we were just beginning to see insulating glass units mandated in specs. We were “forced” to use IGUs then; they are totally expected now. Distribution channels are completely different than they were. At that time, only certain companies could distribute certain products. Whole companies were bought and sold simply because they had a certain distributorship. Fabricators then were an extension of the manufacturers; typically you bought fabricated products from a manufacturer or one of its branches. They sold almost exclusively to their own fabricators. Today, the manufacturers will sell to anyone who can write a check.

Q If you were competing in today’s market, what changes would you have made to your company?

LRH—I would have dramatically changed the company’s direction. It’s forever going to be difficult for glazing contractors of a certain size to sustain themselves by focusing on new construction. I thought this way back, even before COVID. I would have continued to build our service division with the thought of expanding it into other cities.

If you are seeking profit, go for service work; if you are seeking volume go for the big jobs, but remember that is where the big risks are.

Q Was that part of why you decided to sell again in 2011?

LRH—The recession that started in 2007 took its toll on everyone. We were sustaining ourselves, but it was a struggle. Then the bank really knocked the wind out of our sails. The bank that had promised they would renew our line of credit at the beginning of 2011 was under a lot of regulatory pressure. So they were unable to go forward, even after we were told we’d be renewed. We had less than two month’s notice. It was the height of the recession and we were having a hard time collecting receivables because no one was paying their bills in a timely manner. While I was able to find a new banker, the terms and conditions were not as good as what we’d had. We were also dragging around a lot of debt and there was a lot of pressure on me. As the majority owner of the company, everything from truck loans to performance bonds and lines of credit were guaranteed by me personally.

Two of our long term competitors had closed their doors between December 2010 and March 2011 because there wasn’t enough profitable work. A third, our primary competitor in service work, had announced it was relocating outside Chicago. I saw that as an admission they were ceding service work to us and that assumption proved true.

Even though the competitive landscape improved greatly, there wasn’t much work to pursue. In recessionary times, the glass industry is the last to go down and the last to come up … just as glazing contractors do their work close to the end of the job.

I was not sleeping much at night, I was no longer a young man. I was in a very risky business at a time when I should be reducing my risk. So when I received an offer to buy me out, an arrangement was made to do just that with the help of my long-term friend and attorney.

Q Totally out?

LRH—I still own a small share, less than 10%, but I have no active involvement with that company.

Q So how has this decade been going? What do you do now?

LRH—I do some consulting, I write for USGlass magazine, I do some expert witness work and I had a tough fight with cancer that kept me from doing anything between 2013-2014. In addition to helping my son when he lets me I’m managing the Glass.com® web business that grew from some research performed by USGlass magazine. I get to work with forward-thinking retailers and consumers and I enjoy it. Life’s a great deal.

Q Are you healthy?

LRH—They tell me I am. I am past the five-year mark.

Q I remember when you were sick, you told me that USGlass magazine readers really helped you. Do you remember telling me that?

LRH—I could never forget. I was overwhelmed by the readers of USGlass during that period. I will never forget the support I received from former coworkers, suppliers and readers. I had two-plus shopping bags full of cards, notes and even gifts from many people in the industry. They really helped get me through it. It was very humbling.

Q How much involvement do you have with your son’s business?

LRH—Not as much as I’d like, but that’s because he doesn’t need me. You know he started working in the glass industry when he was still in junior high and there are many segments he knows better than I do. He’s got a growing business in Elmhurst, Illinois, with a solid reputation. My two daughters are successful in other businesses in their own right. I’m a proud dad.

Q Thank you, Lyle, for all your time and for your 50 years.

LRH—You are quite welcome. It’s been a wonderful experience so far. Thank you for your kindness.

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