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Glass shops, like people, come in all shapes and sizes. As someone who will soon celebrate his 50th anniversary in the glass business, I believe I have seen, worked for, or with, virtually every type of glass shop or business in the country. It’s quite difficult to fully explain or describe every facet of what might be referred to as the “glass business” and I am probably taking on a task here that is going to be a little overwhelming. However, I have committed to trying, so I’m going to do my best. For our purposes presently, I am going to describe what I consider the five most common types of glass businesses and tell you just a little bit of how they operate. Please understand that there are dozens of variations and unique combinations of these business types. I am just going to try to stay with what I feel are the most common types. First, we’ll talk about who they are and then we’ll talk about how they operate. Here we go.
It is estimated that there might be as many as 18,000 companies of this type in the USA at the present time. Some of these local small businesses specialize in a given area of the glass industry. These special areas of concentration might be auto glass replacements, mirrors, shower doors, residential and/or commercial glass replacements, or window replacement work. All of these shops are in the glass industry but are often, in many ways, not at all alike.
My first encounter with a small family-owned glass shop took place when I was about seven years old. My mother’s cousin was the office manager at Maywood Glass in Maywood, Illinois. They are still in business today. I think they currently perform residential and light commercial repairs and replacements primarily. I remember having the picture window at our home in Maywood replaced by them and also getting glass tops supplied by them. They were the preferred local supplier and everyone in the area knew them and used them.
Remarkably, when I went to work at the Tyler & Hippach Glass Company after getting out of college, Maywood Glass was one of our customers. We sold them fabricated glass (glass tops and mirrors) as well as boxed window glass. I often have wondered if the glass tops my mother bought from Maywood Glass in the 1950s were fabricated by the glass company I went to work for in the 1970s.
My son Patrick’s shop, Glass.com of Illinois, is located in Elmhurst, Illinois. It is another example of this type of shop. There are a total of seven employees here and while they primarily do commercial replacement glasswork; they will also provide glass for some cabinet makers in their area and will also replace the screens or glass in a storm window that is dropped off there. They also recently finished a commercial mirror installation project for a new office complex in their area and regularly do new storefront installations. Currently, they are also providing custom metal fabrications for a large project in Texas. I am very familiar with similar-sized shops in the area that only do auto glass replacements and there is one large glass shop just north of my son’s shop that only does mirror and shower door work. These types of businesses are typically, in the glass industry, referred to as glass retailers.
These types of businesses are often individually or family-owned but they can also be part of a larger national organization. These business types may do glass replacements but they typically focus on new construction or remodeling/renovation work. These glass businesses come in varying sizes and may employ a half dozen or over a hundred field employees. While most of these operators will be regional in their market coverage, some will perform work far from their home base on a regular basis. Some will own a fair amount of glass fabrication equipment and may operate satellite offices or shops around the country. Many of these glass companies will tend to specialize a bit also. Some will pursue interior glasswork (office build-outs and so forth) while others will focus on glass products for midrise buildings. Yet others will pursue glass remodeling or renovation work. These businesses can be quite diverse. The auto glass counterpart to what I am calling the ‘contract glazier’ would be the multiple shop auto glass replacement companies, some of which may have a hundred or more business units spread across the country.
There are less than 20 very large operators in the ‘flat glass’ segment of the glass industry. They pursue only large glass projects where either their engineering expertise, financial wherewithal, or fabrication/field capabilities may give them a competitive advantage. These glass organizations may have ties to overseas suppliers and may have several hundred employees working for them at any given time. Some are independent companies/corporations while others may be subsidiaries of publicly traded enterprises. They probably should not be called ‘glass shops’ … they are large corporations who work within the glass industry.
This group of glass industry players also comes in all shapes and sizes. These companies play an incredibly important role in the overall glass industry. On the architectural glass side (what I have been referring to as the ‘flat glass’ business segment) there are companies that supply everything from tempered glass to insulating glass units to shower doors to glass tabletops. Very few glass shops have the ability to fabricate these various types of glass components. So, they outsource these items and focus on the sales, estimating, and installation side of the glass business while leaving the glass fabricating to others. These glass (and metal framing) fabricators also can be local, regional, and/or national in scope. While it is somewhat common for glass tempering companies to also be in the glass insulating business … plenty of insulating glass units are made up of tempered glass … many others are highly specialized.
For instance, there are companies specializing in bullet-resistant glass fabrications. Others work only with fire-rated glass products while yet others only fabricate laminated glass products. If we add the aluminum, vinyl, fiberglass, and steel suppliers that furnish framing and doors to the glass industry, there are quite possibly another 5,000 companies of one type or another that is involved in what we broadly refer to as the glass industry. We also need to be careful not to leave out a group of glass industry players commonly referred to as wholesalers. Many flat/architectural glass wholesalers will also do some fabrication but often, especially on the auto glass side of the business, these wholesalers get their glass products from a primary glass manufacturer and distribute glass products as needed to the various glass shops doing fabricating and/or glass replacement work.
This group is made up of the large, often international companies, that produce the primary glass (and framing) products which are then sold and distributed to the glass fabricators, wholesalers, and end-users of the various glass products that end up in homes, buildings of all types and in the vehicles we drive They start with sand and create glass. It is probably appropriate at this point to point out that virtually all of the glass products we are discussing here start out as a piece of flat glass coming off of a float glass manufacturing line. Yes, even that windshield in your car is actually two pieces of what was once flat float glass that was cut to size and then laminated together with what is known as a PVB interlayer. Some of these float glass manufacturers do fabricate certain glass products that are then either sold to distributors or “second step” fabricators” but for our purposes today, we will simply refer to these businesses as the primary glass suppliers. As with most commercial product discussions, the lines sometimes get blurred as we try to fit everyone into a certain “box” with a label on it.
The glass industry has all kinds of hybrid models among its various industry participants though we are not going to try to get too detailed here. For instance, there are glass shops that only deal with stained glass and others that only make framed mirror products or sliding mirrored doors. Lead-infused glass for use in medical center x-ray rooms is yet another example.
Now that we have attempted to identify the major glass industry sectors, let’s turn our attention to how they operate. For this exercise, we will again stay with our five basic glass business types.
The typical local glass shop will have an office manager typically referred to as a customer service representative (CSR). This may or may not be the owner and they are, in this writer’s opinion, an extremely important component in the shop’s daily efforts. They will often through either phone calls or e-mail, handle almost every customer or supplier contact. They also may do pricing, scheduling, ordering, and light accounting work. On occasion, they will even get involved with truck unloading or loading. They are the heart and soul of the small shop.
The other people involved will be those who measure and or estimate jobs and then, of course, there are the glass techs that do the glass fabricating and installing. In most small glass shops, everyone involved has multiple hats to wear on any given day. The auto glass shop equivalent to the flat glass ‘retail’ shop operates quite similarly.
Because these businesses typically are a little larger and the work they do can be a little more complicated, they will tend to have a more specialized workforce. Depending on the size of this type of glass business, it is possible to have a separate sales/estimating department and a separate production team. The mid to large-sized glazing contractor tends to break down into the three components that are common in most businesses. These are sales, operations, and administration. The larger the contract glazier the more specialized will be the employee components. This will also be true with the auto glass branches that are larger than the local glass shop. The bigger auto glass operators will be departmentalized as well.
These glass industry corporations will often have a centralized (home) office where strategy, marketing, and financial decisions are made by a management team of some type. Each of the three typical business functions can become even more specialized.
As an example, the large glass company with a multi-state or national presence could have an accounting operation broken down into accounts payable, accounts receivable, payroll, cost accounting, and so forth and so on. The larger the operation, the more specialized will be the various functions of any organization.
While there are very small (2-5 employee) glass fabrication shops, most businesses of this type are larger and while they have the basic components of all businesses, they will typically have a bigger emphasis on transportation and machinery than the other glass industry players. The larger glass wholesalers, particularly in the auto glass segment, may have large fleets of vans that are on the road all day. The flat glass fabricators may have large glass tempering or glass laminating autoclaves that will require a constant maintenance and inspection process. Highly skilled and well-trained machine operators will be found here with a much bigger emphasis on programming and process than on fleet and other transportation concerns. These types of glass businesses typically must run very leanly concentrating on raw material costs and process efficiency whereas those glass businesses whose primary business model involves installation will focus on project scheduling and field labor productivity.
For the most part, these glass industry players are quite similar to any other business that processes raw materials into finished goods by way of manufacturing processes that needs space, energy, and some type of processing methodology. Perhaps the marketing and sales effort for these glass and framing manufacturers is the biggest difference between them and the other glass industry participants.
The glass industry, while being quite unique, is at the same time very much like every other business in a free-market society. The glass industry constantly strives to create new products in an effort to attain a competitive marketing advantage. It is also always striving to compete for market share will making efforts to improve production efficiency. They have no choice but to compete for their very survival.
The string that runs from the glass manufacturer to the tech that installs a piece of glass in a consumer’s home, business or vehicle snakes around a great deal, but it never loses its connection. As a participant in the glass industry for over 50 years, I can report with confidence that while the glass industry is constantly changing, it remains a business that relies on people to allow it to survive and thrive. In that respect, the glass business is identical to every other business. For purposes of this report, I have had to do a fair amount of generalization but the product – glass and all that goes with it – is one of the most unique products ever discovered.
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