Volume 37, Issue 9, September 2002
Above and Beyond
Jim Dunstan, Founder of Azon USA, Takes His Place
in the 2002 Glass and Metal Hall of Fame™
By Ellen Giard Chilcoat
The following profile is first in a series highlighting the inductees into the 2002 Glass and Metal Hall of Fame,™ taking place during Glass Expo Midwest,™ November 7-8 in Indianapolis. This year, Jim Dunstan of Azon USA and Carl Jolliff of Jolliff Glass Co. will take their places in the Hall of Fame. Jolliff’s profile will be in the November/December 2002 issue of
Throughout his career, Dunstan has accomplished much, including having appeared in an Asian advertisement.
Starting up your own business is never an easy task. Many individuals have tried and failed. Others have succeeded. This is the story of one who succeeded. Despite the challenges and tribulations, Jim Dunstan, founder of Azon USA of Kalamazoo, Mich., has taken the company that he and his wife, Ruth, launched in 1977 to be a successful manufacturer of thermal barriers for aluminum windows.
In recognition of his efforts, Dunstan is being inducted into the 2002 Glass and Metal Hall of Fame, sponsored by USGlass magazine. The ceremony will take place November 8 in Indianapolis as part of Glass Expo Midwest 2002. (See "Regional Education" to learn more about this event.)
Having been born and raised in Detroit, Dunstan’s story begins near the end of World War II when he was 17. He took a job as a merchant seaman, giving him the opportunity to see much of the world. When returning home, Dunstan decided he needed a trade. “There were always a lot of ads for auto repair, and there was big money there; we made about $100 a week,” he said with a laugh. “So I worked as a painter in a paint shop.”
His career in the aluminum window business began in 1969 when he took a job with Seasonal Windows of Indiana, Pa., as general manager of the Michigan aluminum extrusion painting facility. A few years later he was hired to run Acolar Inc., the extrusion painting division of Acorn Building Components of Detroit, which was located in Kalamazoo. Dunstan was with Acorn for five years before he was let go in 1977 due to a conflict within the manufacturing industry. “Within one week of leaving I had the papers to found [what was then] Azon Systems Inc.,” said Dunstan. “My wife and I started the company with about $22,000. The banks wouldn’t talk to us,” he added. “So we did this out of our own earnings. But we doubled our business every year for the first five years, and after two years we began getting inquiries from Europe.” So at the age of 50, Dunstan, along with his wife, had started their own company, which manufactured machinery for the thermal barrier process.
Dunstan said starting his own company was on his mind for quite some time, and upon leaving Acorn there were no jobs in the area in his specialty market. So the decision was made to found Azon. “If we had known then what we know today we never would have done it,” he said. “We were too naïve to think we couldn’t have done it.”
Ups and Downs
As with most every company, there were difficult situations. “Throughout his career he has made mistakes, but learned by all of them,” said David Mills, who now serves as president of Azon. “But even when he failed, he never gave up.”
One difficult situation Dunstan recalled happened in the early years of Azon when it manufactured machinery only and not the chemicals. “I knew we wouldn’t be a player until we had the chemicals,” he said. “We had to buy our chemicals, and they were very hard to process. We sent an employee to install a machine along with the chemicals, and he just couldn’t get it to work; he came back in tears. So, we called a competitor [that did make its own chemicals] and we put its materials onto our machine.” He continued, “We’ve only had to do that in two instances, and I think it was a monitor of our credibility.”
The World Over
Today, Azon not only operates in Kalamazoo, but it also has offices in the United Kingdom, China and Korea, and 65 employees worldwide. One of the things Dunstan is most proud of is his staff. “If I have a talent, it is in assembling wonderful people,” he said. “I have the best, dedicated crew; the best small company [anyone] could wish for.”
With offices around the globe, not surprisingly, traveling is one of Dunstan’s favorite things to do. “He’s absolutely one of the most energetic people I know,” said Nancy Peterson, Dunstan’s daughter, who is also Azon’s market communications manager. “They travel all over, taking trips to Europe and Asia, and he’s 75 years old, and those are long flights,” she said.
Another exciting experience for Dunstan took place in 1993 when he was invited to the White House. “I was a director for the National Association of Manufacturers and was invited to the White House when President Clinton signed the accords to NAFTA. All the living presidents were there,” said Dunstan. “That was probably the highlight of my business career.”
As a young sales representative for a company that made paint finishes, Dunstan (right) demonstrated applying a wood finish to onlookers in the 1950s.
At the end of last year Dunstan released much of his responsibilities as president of the company to David Mills. Though he is no longer active in the day-to-day administrative duties of the company, he is still very involved as chairperson of the board. “I’m still engaged in the strategic thinking,” he said. “I initiate ideas, I’m involved in recruiting, editing product data sheets and other communication initiatives. I’m also still involved in expanding.” He continued, “In 1979 when we started in this building we had 859 square feet. Today we have 50,000 square feet. So when the employees see me with my tape measure they know what I’m up to.”
Though he has passed the reigns of much responsibility over to Mills, to Dunstan the employees are still the most important aspect of the business, a trait not typical of all companies. “Azon places the well-being of its employees and their families ahead of every consideration in making business decisions,” said Dunstan.
In August of 1994 Azon instituted an Employee Stock Ownership Plan and each employee is an owner of the company. According to Mills, Azon is set up so that it can continue exactly the way in which Dunstan established it. “It [Azon] is set up so that it will never have to be sold, it will not have to merge, it can remain an independent company and support the families of the company,” said Mills. “If there is anything about him that comes through, it is that the employees come first. To him, they come before the company, because it is the employees that make the company. I’m more business-oriented, but [his way] is rubbing off on me.”
Others who have worked with Dunstan over the years feel much the same way about him. Jim DiBacco, president of Astro Shapes Inc., has known and worked with Dunstan for more than 20 years. He recalls their first meeting.
“At the time, Astro Shapes was a young company searching for identity and a market niche. A large commercial-grade widow manufacturer had encouraged us to consider supplying them with thermal-barrier extrusions, a process with which we had no knowledge or experience. We were referred to Azon, and upon our request, Jim came to our offices to tell us about filling and debridging.” He continued, “I remember vividly walking out to the plant with Jim in search of a location to install the necessary equipment. At the time we had limited square footage, and I had no idea how we could possibly fit this equipment. But Jim obviously had experience in plant layout and square-foot utilization, because he was relentless about coming to a solution. It was through Jim’s vision and leadership that Azon provided us with the technology, chemicals and equipment that we needed to evolve into what we are today.”
For the Future
As far as what’s to come from Azon, new developments are in the works. For example, the company is creating a new design center for developing advanced performances that can make aluminum windows more attractive in residential window applications.
Dunstan, who is confident of Azon’s future, and his wife today divide their time between their winter home in Florida and their home in Michigan. When not traveling, Dunstan says he likes to build and remodel. “I like buying property and remodeling it,” he said. “I’m not happy unless I’m creating or doing.”
As a result of her father’s influence, Peterson says she too has an interest in construction. “I have that because of his influence,” she said. “He’s a builder both by heart and by hobby, and that appeals to me.”
But probably the most important part of his life is his family. Between he and Ruth, they have ten children, 35 grandchildren and are expecting their 15th great grandchild. “He’s a real family man,” added Peterson. “And is very much a vision person, and has always projected toward a certain level of excellence.”
Ellen Giard Chilcoat is managing editor for USGlass magazine.
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