Winners of the USGlass
First Annual CEO of the Year Awards
By Megan Headley
People define a good leader in different ways. Communication skills, commitment to an organization and employees, vision for future growth and the ability to see outside of the box are just a few qualities often used to describe a good leader. So when USGlass magazine decided to recognize glass industry leaders, we were looking for certain qualities and key elements from those nominated for the First Annual USGlass CEO of the Year Award.Here’s the information we considered when reviewing the nominees:• Specific examples of how this person leads his/her company toward excellence;• Specific examples of the nominee’s abilities to service his/her company; and• A detailed description of how the nominee has taken his/her leadership to the community as well.Those selected for this year’s award overwhelmingly displayed these qualities and many more. Our first winners in the categories of large and small companies are recognized here over the next 10 pages.For information on how you can nominate a glass industry CEO, president or top-level leader for the 2008 awards, please e-mail Megan Headley at
Don Pyatt, Viracon, Owatonna, Minn. – Large Company CEO
Don Pyatt assessed being named CEO of the Year as a nice honor, but not one that he could accept on his own. “I think it’s very hard for a CEO to be performing at a high level if, in fact, the company is not experiencing success. I guess what I’m trying to say is, it’s difficult to separate the leader’s performance from the performance of the company. They become really entwined, and in many ways are one and the same thing.” Pyatt’s boss, Russ Huffer, chair and chief executive officer of Viracon parent company Apogee Enterprises Inc. , agrees in part, but notes that it takes a leader to help the many individuals in the company to stand out. “The company certainly has greater strengths than any one individual, and Don’s responsibility is to ensure that those strengths come through for the company from all parts of the organization,” Huffer says.While Pyatt places the credit for his award in Viracon’s employees, he also says that having capable people in place is a quality that marks a strong leader. “I would say one of the things I try to do, that I have no doubt stolen from someone somewhere along the way, I very much think you need to have capable people working for you. And if you have capable people, you need to let them run their area of responsibility and give them full authority to run their area. A really critical task is to make sure you have the right people. That implies that if you don’t have the right people then you have to make adjustments. One thing that’s been totally unique in my experience coming to Viracon is that how little of that we’ve had to do.”Coincidentally, this is a quality the management at Viracon has taken notice of and appreciates in their boss. “We were looking for an approachable leader that wasn’t dictatorial or didn’t get involved in the daily activities and certain things were pretty much left up to us,” says Larry Kunkel, senior vice president of operations. Kunkel was one of several Viracon managers on the interview board when Pyatt applied to the company seven years ago. “I’d say with Don, in doing the job, that was probably what we got. He [gives you] a broad spectrum of objectives and how you get there or how you get the job done is pretty much up to you.”On the other hand, Pyatt notes that the qualities that make the Viracon management team so talented—their many years of glass fabrication experience—also needed some refreshing from his outside perspective. “We have people who are highly experienced in what they’re doing,” Pyatt says. “That also means we have people who are very much into their own habits and don’t necessarily like outside thinking. So what we’ve tried to do is bring some outside thinking in without stepping on toes. Just trying to encourage change rather than to require it.” In his own experience, Pyatt says the great bosses he has had have been those who put faith in him and his abilities. “One of the things I’ve appreciated—and you try to do the same for others—is when I was much younger, maybe the first 15, 16 years of work, I had equal parts of engineering and some marketing and sales and then a chance to run a manufacturing plant. So I had a broad base of experience and the only reason that was able to happen was people took a chance on me and gave me an opportunity.”Pyatt says he endeavors to place that same faith, and similar opportunities, in the employees of Viracon. An Open DoorKunkel adds that while it’s important to have space to work, it’s beneficial to know, “If I need something I can go and ask for it.” Approachability was a characteristic Jim Wendorff, vice president of human resources, was looking for when interviewing individuals for the position of president. “[Someone] who listened to concerns of the customers and the workforce, was flexible, who was open and approachable—and he’s proven to do a pretty good job in those factors.” Among the few changes he has worked upon taking the helm at Viracon, Pyatt has worked to provide the production department with a forum. “What we tried to do initially was just to make sure [we were] giving production a chance to be successful.” To that end, Pyatt says he has aimed to let the production department know “that if they need something all they need to do is ask.” That also meant cost-related changes, product decisions and better discipline on the front end of the business, Pyatt explains. “For example, we have a very strong leader in sales and a strong sales department and they tend to do things their way. Sometimes we just need to haul them back a little bit and give the manufacturing people a chance to be successful,” he says. Huffer adds that many of the processes were in place before Pyatt came into the picture, but he helped in supporting, essentially, the support areas.“He really worked with the people and the information technology (IT) department—the support areas—more so than anywhere else—to really make a difference,” Huffer says. “He really brought those kinds of things together to live up to the reputation the company had and support the sales-marketing efforts that this company has ...”In addition to providing a voice to the various departments, under Pyatt’s tenure Viracon has provided a voice to employees who might not otherwise have had the opportunity to rise through the ranks. “One of the things we’ve experienced in much of Don’s tenure is our workforce has changed quite dramatically,” Wendorff explains. “As we’ve grown here in Southern Minnesota, we’ve had to tap into an immigrant population that has come into the area, primarily Hispanic and Somalian. And that’s come with a lot of opportunities and challenges in how we deal with that new immigrant worker.” Among the changes was the addition of a training program for the company’s minority workforce. Its “Employer of Opportunity” training program, developed in conjunction with Riverland Community College, was created to give minority employees the language, academic and technical skills necessary to elevate them into higher wage-earning positions at Viracon.“Short-term that’s very difficult for us to do, given our level of business—to take people off the line, to dedicate time to train and so on—but long-term I think he recognizes that this is going to pay dividends for Viracon,” Wendorff says. “And, more importantly, what I’ve heard him say is that it’s good for the individual. It’s going to empower people to do better in their career. It’s good for the community, good for their families and good for Viracon.”Huffer notes that, in today’s marketplace, it’s difficult to find employees much less highly skilled ones and the training provided at Viracon has helped to add to the skill level of the workforce. “… In our business it’s custom manufacturing, it takes a highly motivated workforce to deliver to that promise,” Huffer says. “And I think [Pyatt’s] done a great job providing education, training, accommodating the different things that different groups need and really promoting a lot of diversity in the workforce.”Growing UpGrowth was also among the foremost goals for Viracon when Pyatt was brought on board. “We were looking for someone who was a strong leader who could help us grow,” Wendorff says. “We could see that our business was growing, there were great opportunities. We had done the expansion, in Statesboro, Ga., we were already talking about possibly expanding further, so [we were seeking] somebody to put together a framework to help us do that.”And the company has certainly done that. For several years Viracon has focused on growth, with investments in new capacity and increases in revenue and profitability, according to Pyatt. But with the industry preparing for the slowdown in residential to move over to the commercial side of things, holding steady is now the name of the game. “We’ll be watching the economic climate and really thinking about what we can do to minimize the impact of the downturn on our business,” Pyatt says. “Really the thrust of the activity today is whether we have a year or a year and a half or two more years to get more out of what we’ve got.”As Huffer notes, “[At the time of] the downturn in the economy the last time—in 2001, 2002, 2003—we had lots of capacity as we brought on our Statesboro facility and then the markets shrank a great deal. So they had to change a lot of their service levels in order to broaden … the market.”Keeping pace with growing demand for new products, while adjusting product offerings in anticipation of an upcoming slowdown, means striking a fine balance. Still, being unable to fulfill demand is among the big long-term challenges Pyatt is anticipating. “We have demand on our manufacturing facilities that far exceeds our capacities,” he says. “And so the big challenge we face is how do we get as much product through and out the door as possible.”Meeting Strengths and Changing WeaknessesWhen the technically-minded Pyatt considers the company’s strengths, he jumps straight to the company’s extensive product and capabilities offerings, the ability to manage a large project and the process the company uses to fabricate its products. “We temper first and coat second,” Pyatt elaborates. “Others in the marketplace today are doing just the opposite … We believe we have a process that gives us less distortion in the glass just because of the way we process. I think we end up with the preferred position in buildings where there is in fact a large expanse of glass.”High demand only makes it that much more challenging to remain true to one of the company’s signature strengths. “Our goal is 100 percent complete and on-time and we work very hard everyday accomplish this,” says Wendorff. “We do the largest, most complex jobs in the world,” Kunkel adds. “The quality is just expected to be there. To be a notch above everybody else. That’s the expectation.” That’s part of what made the situation challenging, Pyatt says, when a coater went down this fall. “People don’t expect that out of Viracon. And that’s part of what made it especially difficult.” Understandably, “in the glass business, as well as other businesses, equipment goes down,” Pyatt says. Although the equipment is back up and running today, Pyatt admits, “We were unable to do the volumes of coated glass that we needed to meet the commitments we had made to customers, that’s a true statement. … We had six coaters at the time and we had five and a half of them running, but there was no talk about five and a half running, there was talk about the half that was down.”With such high demand, explaining this to customers is the big challenge. And the concern was that, for some customers, it wasn’t explained. Part of that, Pyatt says, was because the company didn’t know how great the concern would be. However, he adds, “I think the real concern … is that when we didn’t have the solution it was impossible—we didn’t know how to make commitments to when things would be right again.” Not having an answer for customers as to when operations would be back to normal turned “just another problem” into a big concern for customers looking for deliveries.Pyatt notes that the company was very diligent in communicating with customers once it had answers. “Now it’s also remarkable how it was once there were answers, people didn’t like the answers … and we didn’t like the answers either.” The problem did lead to backlogs in orders and larger-than-usual amounts of product on the facility floor. “So where people don’t like any of it, they know [what the problem is] now,” Pyatt says. And now that the company knows the concern that this problem created, the goal of keeping pace with the ever-growing demand for new products has only been reinforced.Once An Engineer Wendorff says that Pyatt was “a seasoned veteran” before he reached Viracon. His background as group vice president of Intermet Corp., his position prior to coming to Viracon, provided him with plenty of experience. The son of a “lifelong foundryman,” Pyatt was the first person in his family to go away to school. He left Easton, Pa., to graduate from Princeton with a degree in electrical engineering; he later earned his MBA from Syracuse. Pyatt admits that he “lasted as a pure engineer for about a year and a half.” However that engineering background has proven useful. “I would say all the jobs I’ve had over a lot of years have either had an engineering requirement or it was a highly engineered product and if it wasn’t an absolute requirement it was a major benefit if you had it,” Pyatt says. Viracon wasn’t looking for an expert in glass when founder Jim Martineau retired, an unusual factor in this industry, Pyatt says. But his technical background has helped him in working with such highly engineered products. In fact, he regrets that there aren’t more “technical-types” at the glass fabrication company in Owatonna, Minn. “We need a bunch more,” he says. “My boss, who is the CEO of Apogee, and I are the only engineers in the top management ranks, and even among the board.”Employees at Viracon appreciate that technical background. “He comes out of an engineering vehicle so as we started Six Sigma here, that’s one of the areas that he really grasps onto and took off with. And we’ve done a lot with Six Sigma since its inception,” Kunkel says. “Six Sigma has gone from a beginning to a very mature problem-solving unit.” Kunkel adds that Pyatt has also supported and pushed research and development. Wendorff says that despite Pyatt’s technical background, he keeps a good grasp on how to work with people. “He understands how great organizations work and the importance of taking care of the customer; he certainly understands employee relations and the importance of having an engaged workforce.” And while Pyatt gives credit to his employees for the company’s success, his leadership has certainly not slowed them down.
Company: Viracon, glass fabrication company
Location: Owatonna, Minn.
Number of employees: 2,600
Revenue: Approximately $250 million this year
John Wheaton, Wheaton & Sprague, Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio – Small Company CEO
It was a tough time for WSE, a curtainwall and glazing industry design and engineering company in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio. But that tough time best displayed chief executive officer (CEO) John Wheaton’s leadership abilities. So says Dan Adams, president of Advanced Industrial Marketing and a member of Wheaton & Sprague Engineering’s (WSE) board of directors.“John is to be credited with [the] rebuilding of WSE, post 9/11,” Adams explains in his nomination of Wheaton. “John admits that he tried too hard to hold onto employees, and waited too long to minimize the size of the firm after the huge fall of business in 2002. He went from a high of 27 employees in the middle of 2002, to 11 employees by the end of 2003.”According to Adams, it was a renewed commitment toward strategic planning, operations and profitability that allowed the company to increase its number of employees to 20 today—and growing. The firm is currently looking for another curtainwall engineer, and expects to do $2 million in revenues this year.It was a hard lesson, but one from which Wheaton says he has gained valuable insight about what it takes to be a leader. “The first thing I learned is that while we have influence over what we do, there are many forces beyond our control. I think we give ourselves more credit during good times than we should and I think we beat ourselves up too much in the bad times. Secondly, I realized that we really didn’t have sufficient metrics and systems in place to accurately predict what was coming.”To prepare for the future, Wheaton led a restructuring of the company. “We built better accounting and financial systems, better technology systems; basically rebuilt the foundation … it’s a totally different company,” he says. “It’s built on a base that allows us to leverage; it’s built on a base that gives us very good financial metrics so we can see what’s going on now and predict what’s going on in the future. And I think we’re doing a lot better job at hiring people. We’ve got better performance standards, better core competencies that we’ve outlined.”As for future company growth, Wheaton points specifically to a seemingly paradoxical goal of “getting smaller as we get bigger” through market segmentation. He explains that the company has divisions that focus on very specific market segments and clients within those segments. “We want to keep breaking down into client market driven teams, so we have segmented. For instance, in the building envelope realm, [we have] different areas—the curtainwall world, the panel world, the stone world, railing and accessory-type things—to focus on specific market segments and clients within those segments, and trying to build project management people and base, to be able to work uniquely within those realms. Adams explains by way of example how Wheaton has worked to grow the building envelope division during this process of rebuilding. “John strategically targeted existing clients and prospective clients, examining which would be the best fit for his firm. He evaluated them based on need for services, corporate philosophy fit and payment history. He minted into the companies with multiple offices and pursued companies where buyouts of former clients had occurred. He watched the industry closely and began to develop relationships, building confidence in his firm. The quality of work resulted in more trust, more projects, more satisfied customers and more referrals. As a result of his efforts, the firm has grown 66 percent in revenues since 2003 and is on track to reach its best year in its history in 2007.”While each of the market divisions are kept separate, Wheaton says the company’s various departments are tightly linked. “Our approach is to simultaneously do marketing and operations and growth to where those are linked together. In other words, we don’t do marketing as, ‘Well we’re the marketing department.’ ‘We’re the operations group.’ Everything is integrated into our business pattern. Financial, marketing, operations and growth, all are moving in the same direction.“So we’re trying to grow. From the marketing point of view, we’re growing by continuing to define our segments and putting project managers in place, and we’re growing by continuing to add financial measurements and client satisfaction reports, different types of reporting that can give us good information so we know in what direction to head.” While entirely rebuilding a company might seem daunting, WSE office manager Debra Parker, says that Wheaton has never been afraid of change. “In the eight years I have been at WSE, I have seen us go through several different types of situations, all of which could have been the devastating blow to a smaller company,” Parker says. “[Wheaton] is not afraid of change and does not use the comment ‘…but we’ve always done it that way …’ John is constantly reviewing and analyzing our procedures and processes to see if we are moving forward—if the plan is working, if it is not, he is ready and willing to make the necessary changes to see that we get the final results we desire.” After 24 years in the glass industry and 14 years as CEO of WSE, Wheaton has faced his share of challenges, and they have formed his ideas about what makes a strong leader. “I think the ‘servant leadership’ phrase can be trite and overused, but certainly a leader needs to be there to serve and support the people that he has working with him,” Wheaton says. “However I think a leader needs to be very strategic in making sure the direction of the firm is clearly established.” While working to support his employees, Wheaton also ensures that he is not working alone. Adams says that Wheaton has made sure his actions are accountable by appointing a board of directors. “To be a principal of a firm, and to appoint a board of directors to hold you accountable and challenge you, tells all those who work for him that he recognizes that he doesn’t have all the answers, and that this company is not all about him. He seeks to be held accountable for moving toward excellence; he seeks to be challenged; and he seeks to continually improve his company by allowing the objective perspective of other leaders who are successful in business,” Adams says. In addition, Jim Trenta, P.E., vice president of WSE’s building structures division, says that Wheaton remains open about the direction of the company with the people with whom he works. “He is very candid with everyone about the firm’s situations, whether good or bad, and this helps build our confidence in his leadership and in the direction that the company is moving,” Trenta says.Richard Sprague, vice president of design and detailing, chief accounting officer, says that Wheaton’s integrity provides him no other option than to deal openly with his employees. “It is unmistakable that he would rather operate honestly and fairly with clients and employees than to experience financial gain. I can think of many times when John followed his convictions and made a sacrifice when it would have been easy to do otherwise,” Sprague says.In addition to his involvement with the company, Wheaton has shared his leadership ability with his community. Most recently, he was part of a mission trip to Haiti through his church, Northampton United Methodist Church.“There’s a school in the midst of a town called Ouanaminthe, which is on the border between Dominican and Haiti, that has about 1,500 kids and it’s trying to break the poverty cycle,” Wheaton says.To help the school in its goal of providing a solid education for the children, Wheaton helped to teach English during the school’s summer program. “My role in terms of encouraging the kids and working with the Haitians was actually teaching them English through music,” says Wheaton, who is also a singer and guitarist. He adds, “Then we hung out and played soccer and had relationships and really just tried to encourage the kids. It’s quite a significant work that these people are doing.”Adams says that whether it’s in his personal life or in his role as CEO, Wheaton shows a commitment that deserves recognition. “An extraordinary man of passion, John doesn’t do anything half-heartedly,” Adam says. “His energy, drive and passion are infectious. The people who work for him understand clearly that they are here to work for the clients who keep this company in business. They do so with a similar fervor and passion because they see it modeled by John.”
© Copyright 2007 Key Communications Inc. All rights reserved.
No reproduction of any type without expressed written permission.