Volume 39, Issue 9, September  2004

Waiting Out the Dry Spells (and the Wet Seasons)
The Ups and Downs in the Western Glass Industry
by Megan Headley

Tentative answers and a range of replies could be heard along the West Coast when members of the glass industry were asked about the state of their respective businesses. Darla Corbell, of the contract glazing company Moules California Glass Co., in Redding, Calif., responded quickly when questioned on how business had been over the last year: “Booming,” she said. 

But, to the same question, Gale Francis, owner of National Glass Co. in Salem, Ore., answered, “Very slow.”

Despite this discrepancy, it actually appeared that people in the Western glass industry seemed to be faring the same overall, but with different perspectives on their situation. Some glaziers and shop owners looked at the increased sales during the summer months, while others focused on slow starts to the year as influencing business. While a number of industry professionals agreed that business has been better in the last year, too many years of low commercial construction, high unemployment and a slow economy have left their mark on the glass industry. 

Rise and Fall of Regional Construction 
If one thing stands out about the state of the Western glass industry, it’s the mix of responses given by industry professionals as they try to understand why better business has been so long in coming to their area. 

“I’m not sure it’s gotten any better,” said Tom Metz, president of Model Glass Co. in Anaheim, Calif. “The industry’s not bad … There seems to be a lot of backlog and a lot of bidding.” 

Metz doesn’t see any particular reason for what he views as a lack of strong growth in the last year. 

“It makes no sense because interest rates are so low. But we also have a lot of empty space in office buildings.” Until that changes, Metz said, there will be few office buildings going up.

While commercial construction contributes significantly to providing business to the area, and its lack is felt deeply, many professionals are focusing on the rise in construction in residential areas and on government-funded facilities. Schools and hospitals have been the mainstay for Model Glass Co., although Metz said the new trend in Southern California for many contractors is condominiums. 

“Residential is just everywhere,” added Corbell. 

Donn Harter, president of the California Glass Association, agreed with Corbell’s claim. 

“Construction has been very good,” Harter said, adding that the Western glass industry has shown relative improvement overall. “There’s been an enormous upheaval because of the change of government, although construction has increased since then.”

Increased residential construction is also helping keep glass shops busy further north, such as in Salem, Ore. 
“Actually, [both] residential and commercial have not been too bad,” said Francis. “Here in Salem things got off to a slow start.” Francis explained that a big winter storm in February kept business slow for a while, but since then there has been a large amount of building, particularly residential. 

Other Oregon businesses are not surprised because they are used to the cyclical rise and fall of sales caused by rainy seasons and general bad weather, both of which drastically slow business. Those individuals are accustomed to temporary upswings in sales and are waiting to see if the bouts of good business prove to be more longstanding this time. 

“Business is seasonal here in Oregon,” said Marion Scheel, owner of Sunshine Glass & Window Co., in Oakland, Ore. “When rains start, in late November and December, things get very slow. This [the summer months] is our busy time of the year.” 

Overall, however, Scheel admitted that her business isn’t as strong as it used to be. “I can’t say whether it will get better. I just hope it doesn’t get to be like it was six months ago—but that was in our slow time of year.”
Casey Bond, office manager of Sunset Glass Co. in Bellevue, Wash., has faced the same recurring rise and fall in sales this year. 

“The first part was slow, [it started] picking up in April and we’ve been quite busy lately.” The present growth has helped Bond remain hopeful about the future. Her optimism, however, may be partially based on the knowledge that the glazing union of which her husband is a member has renegotiated a five-year contract based on the premise that a great deal of building is planned. 

People Problems
Harter echoed the thoughts voiced by some retailers and glaziers that any increase in construction in California is a result of growth in the state’s real estate. According to Harter, the amount of people moving into the state remains high and is one factor contributing to the increased construction. 

“Real estate is very high,” Harter said. “I think that will burst, although I don’t know what will cause it.” 
However, the influx of people relates to another problem with widespread effects. According to some glass industry professionals, high unemployment remains one problem hurting the industry throughout the Western United States. Oregon, with one of the worst unemployment rates in the country, has 6.9 percent of the labor force unemployed, according to a June 2004 survey by the U.S. Department of Labor. Washington and California hardly fare any better, with 6.1 percent and 6.2 percent unemployment, respectively, according to the same survey. 

Harter agreed that the problem was one harming the California glass industry, but added that it was still hard to find qualified workers to take on industry jobs. 

“It’s hard to get good people,” Harter said. “Despite the increasing jobless rate, skilled workers are at a premium.”

In addition to unemployment, glass shops and businesses are facing competition from an influx of products and new technology from overseas markets, and many businesses have been forced into new markets as a result of foreign competition. The Sunshine Glass & Window Co., for instance, got its start focusing on decorative door panels and windows, but in the last six years more than 50 percent of its business has come from window tinting. Scheel said that evolving foreign products were one big reason that her shop searched for new markets.
While the high-tech shower door market is one area that Harter said has grown, competition from overseas has kept it from providing relief to Western states. “The Asian market is dominating the frameless shower door market,” said Harter. “There can also be a safety control problem, since the foreign producers are outside our standards,” he added.

Bond faces similar problems. 

“Imported stuff does make a difference,” she said. “We have people moving in from Europe asking for 5/16-inch glass and I just can’t make that.” Rather than cheaper products, it’s newer technologies that customers see exhibited at trade shows and those popular in Europe that help her decide which direction to take her business. 

Pulling Through 
Bordered by periods of little growth in recent years and worries about how government changes may impact small businesses after the upcoming presidential election, Francis sees little to be optimistic about in the present state of industry improvement. 

“I’m personally more worried that it’s not going to get better,” he said. 

“I’d say the economy is probably 75 percent of what it should be,” added Scheel.

Thomas Neilson, president of Evergreen House, in Kirkland, Wash., put it more matter-of-factly. 

“Business is slow and certainly not as good as it was years ago.” 

Neilson isn’t overly concerned, because he sees improvement on the rise. 

Many businesses, in fact, claim to see improvement in the future, while others have simply learned to cope with the dry spells. 

“It seems like it’s getting better,” said Colleen Cronkhite, president of Empire Glass, who said she has seen improvement over the last year at her shop in Spokane, Wash. She attributes the good business less to specific economic or geographic factors and more to the diversification in which the company specializes. 

“We’re just not real specific in our repairs,” she said. “We do automotive, commercial and residential. A little diversification has helped us.”

Diversification seems to have helped a number of businesses make it through periods of low business. Dan Luttrell, owner of Willemse Glass, in Scappoose, Ore., feels that at least part of his steady business is due to the fact that he is not limited to one area, since he services both residential and commercial markets. 

“We’ve been very busy the last two years,” Luttrell said. 

Reports such as these, however, show that despite the challenges many area businesses have continued to prosper. 

“The shops that have always been good are staying very busy,” said Harter. “We’ve had some of our best contract glaziers turning down business.”

While a year ago this time the glass industry in the Western United States was facing a lull in business that no one could quite pinpoint how to fix, much like Oregon’s rainy months, that season shows signs of passing. Over the last year, many members of the glass industry have found themselves awash with new business. For those who have yet to see an upswing, perhaps the predictions of many area glaziers, distributors and retailers offer reassurance for the future. 


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