Volume 45, Issue 10 - October 2010


Committing to Customer
Service Keeps One Company Tuned in to Moving Forward

By Ellen Rogers

1983 -

a lot has changed in the 27 years since Ronald Reagan was president. Back then the cost of a new home was around $90,000 and the median household income was around $21,000. A gallon of gas was $1.24 and a dozen eggs just 86 cents. The Washington Redskins won the Super Bowl, the Baltimore Orioles the World Series and the New York Islanders took home the Stanley Cup.

Pop culture aside, 1983 was also the year that Warren Willoughby decided the time might be right to start his own glass company.

“I had worked for another glass company for nine years and that company was not succeeding, so I offered to buy it or said I would start my own. And that’s what I did—I started my own company,” says Willoughby of Sound Glass Sales, in Tacoma, Wash. “That company is no longer in business today; it lasted one more year. Back then I had a partner who had also worked at the same company and we both had young children at the time and knew we had to make a move, one way or the other.”

That was January 13, 1983, in a small shop about a mile from where the company today operates. Then Sound Glass focused on residential projects and produced insulating glass, which it sold to other glass companies.

“In the late 1980s we got involved in the commercial market and now our business is about 50-50,” says Willoughby, who today owns 95 percent of the company; Gvido Bars, vice president, has a 5-percent ownership.

In addition to its 22,000-square-foot offices and showroom in Tacoma, the company also has a 10,000-square-foot fabrication facility located about a mile away, which is where commercial products are fabricated. Sound Glass also has facilities in Kent and Bremerton, Wash.

Aside from fabricating and installing commercial glazing systems, Sound Glass also installs residential windows, mirrors, shower doors and other products for both commercial and residential projects. In 2009 the company reported nearly $8 million in sales and currently has 67 employees, a number Willoughby says is down somewhat due to the slow economy.

From residential to commercial, Sound Glass has seen steady growth since its start 27 years ago. And those at the company credit their dedication to servicing customers as the key to success.

A Good Mix
Depending upon the year, about half of the work that Sound Glass does is residential and half commercial. Willoughby says that having a hand in both markets has been beneficial.

“It helps us because when one part of the economy is down, the other typically is not so there’s balance and we can shift focus,” says Willoughby. “We have about 43 glaziers, some commercial and some residential, as well as some production shop workers. We always strive to keep the best guys working no matter what by moving people around.”

Willoughby credits the team of people he’s brought together as the main reason for the company’s success in moving into the commercial realm. He says he hired people who had experience in the commercial sector, many of whom still work there.

“It’s enabled us to keep growing and succeeding,” Willoughby says. “I am proud that we’ve been able to retain loyal, dedicated employees who have grown the company to what exists today. Some employees have been here since the beginning and many have been employees for 10-15 years.”

But transitioning into the commercial market also represented both a learning opportunity and experience.

“With residential we work directly with the consumer and in commercial we’re working with architects and general contractors and not really the final owner of the project,” says Bars. “Typically the residential side needs a lot more customer service than the commercial side does because you’re dealing directly with the end-user.”

Sign of the Times
Working in both commercial and residential construction, Sound Glass has established a number of strong relationships with industry suppliers over the years. These include United States Aluminum, Hartung, Milgard Windows and National Glass Industries.

Two years ago in honor of Sound Glass’ 25th anniversary Owen Lubin, vice president of National Glass Industries, donated $500 to the Washington Glass Association Scholarship Fund. Having worked with Sound Glass for more than 20 years, Lubin says he’s seen how the company has grown from just a small shop to what it is today.

“They’ve evolved tremendously. I’ve been calling on them since they were just a small front office with a little shop in the back. It’s amazing the growth that’s happened,” says Lubin. “Warren is a super guy, he’s mellow and a great businessman. He has those qualities that attract good people—he has a team of good people who are honest and trustworthy.”

The Sound Glass team has seen a lot change in the industry over the past 20-plus years. Thanks to digital technology and the Internet, these evolutions include increased product awareness by not just architects and builders, but also consumers.

“A lot of customers who come in already have an idea of what they want; they know about the technology and products out there,” says Tom Wright, who manages the Tacoma location.

He continues, “Back [in the early days] we’d do a lot of home shows where we’d feature our wares … now [in the two years] we’ve been in this location we already have some displays in our showroom that are out of date. It’s simply the technology of all the products changes at such a rapid rate it’s tough to keep our staff up to snuff on it.”
Part of this, Wright explains, has to do with the fact that suppliers are launching new products quicker than they used to.

“We [in the Pacific Northwest] were also
slower to enter the recession. When people were dying back East we were still busy.
So we kind of lag the economy by a quarter or two.”
—Warren Willoughby

“Twenty-five years ago glass was glass,” adds Willoughby.

Changing times have also brought along new challenges.

“I think government regulations have played a big part in taking up time,” says Bars. “Every jurisdiction wants to have a piece of the pie. They want you to have a license in every little town, even if you just go there once. Everyone has their fees and paperwork and it’s a lot now that 25 years ago we did not have. Sometimes it seems there’s more paper than there is job.”

Willoughby also notes that as a result of the economic impact on the construction market the design processes they use and types of commercial projects they are installing have also changed. To stay busy the company chose to switch gears and focus on different markets, military work in particular.

“We used to do primarily design-build work on the commercial side. Now, as the economy has changed we’re doing more public works projects, particularly military bases,” he says.

“It’s been an eight-month process and we’re just starting to see some of that work,” says Bars.
Wright adds, “Wherever there is stimulus money there has been some hope. And that’s true, too, on the residential side.”

“Plus, the rebates have been a tremendous help there,” says Bars.

And while there have been economic indicators and forecasts predicting the market will soon begin a turnaround, those at Sound Glass, like so many others, say they have yet to see this.

“I think here in this corner of America we’re a little more behind the curve on economic times so I don’t think we’ve really noticed much improvement yet,” says Wright. “Perhaps a slight uptick.”

“We’ve read and heard a lot, but we’ve yet to see it,” agrees Bars.

Willoughby adds, “We were also slower to enter the recession. When people were dying back East we were still busy. So we kind of lag the economy by a quarter or two.”

Busy indeed; over the past few years Sound Glass has taken on a number of high-profile projects, including the glass installation of Tacoma’s Hotel Murano (see A Hotel for Glass, page 34) and the Washington Public Utilities District Associations, the first LEED platinum project in the state of Washington.

Another challenge with which the company is faced currently is maintaining revenue.

“We’ve cut back about as much as we could, anticipating revenue will be down by about 25 percent,” says Willoughby. “We’ve tried to become lean and be ready to react. We’ve got all our equipment and a core group of people.”

Still, the company has worked hard to stay competitive.

“We have dropped our margins, commercially and residentially,” says Wright. “There are just so many bids going on right now. So it’s more than just the value, we also have to be price conscious in what we bid.”

Bars agrees. “Plus, the competition is very intense. There used to be three bids on a job and now there are three dozen bids on a job.” He also points out that the biggest drop in work has been in private commercial projects.

“Ninety percent of our work used to be private work and last November it just dried up and there was nothing in the pipeline,” says Bars. “So even if we got that started back up today, it would be a year and half to two years before we’d see any of that work.”

Top Priority
Still, everything comes down to the importance of customer service.

“It’s been our mantra from the day I walked in the door that our number one thing is to take care of the customer. You do not ignore the customer. Not every project is going to go perfectly, but what Sound Glass does, whether commercial or residential, is respond,” says Wright. “Even if things are way past warranty—we have projects we did five years ago that have passed our labor warranty—we still take care of them. I think because of the customer-service-first attitude that’s really what makes the company what it is.”

Communication is also critical

“You have to keep in touch with everyone,” says Wright. “And in this got-to-have-it-now, got-to-know-now, got-to-have-the-answer-now world we live in if you’re not communicating with your customer, your vendor, your architect, you might as well close the doors.”

Bars agrees. “Even if you call them back and tell them that you don’t have the answer, but you’re working on it, just to give that communication is necessary.”

“And it’s the same with our suppliers,” says Willoughby. “We appreciate the ones who tell us what’s going on, so it goes both ways.”

Making a Mark
Over the years Sound Glass Sales has enjoyed consistent growth and has made the ranks of several publications’ top lists. These include the Inc. 5000 list of Fastest Growing Companies in 2007 and 2008; Qualified Remodeler’s list of Specialty 200 Remodelers in 2005-2008; as well as USGlass magazine’s list of the country’s top contract glaziers (see the March 2010 USGlass, page 24).

Achievements aside, Willoughby says his is a company that will never stop striving to be its best.

“It seems that each year Sound Glass adapts and diversifies to business challenges and we are never sitting back with our feet up saying ‘we made it,’” says Willoughby. “Though the humps may not be start up, the road to the future will always present some hills and valleys.”

A Hotel for Glass
Tacoma, Wash.’s Hotel Murano opened in the spring of 2008, and not only features the works of more than 45 glass artists from all over the world, but also a design style that takes full advantage of the beauty and aesthetics that glass can provide.

Even before entering the hotel’s doors, glass demands visitors’ attention. Outside, Orizon (Greek for Horizon), a 104-foot glass and steel sculpture created by Greek artist Costas Varotsos, greets guests and visitors as they arrive. The sculpture was created to convey a relationship to the horizon and water to the building’s interior where art glass is deeply integrated into form and design. Inside, three colored glass Viking ships created by Danish artist Vibeke Skov hang in the grand corridor of the hotel. The Hotel Murano houses not only an expansive collection of art glass, but its public spaces and 300+ guest rooms are dedicated to world-renowned glass artists. In fact, each of its 21 floors is dedicated to one glass artist. And each floor features glass walls intricately sandblasted with photographs, text and graphics.

Moon Shadow Etchers of Sandy, Ore., was charged with the task of sandblasting the glass. The process Moon Shadow Etchers used to create the etched glass walls involved screenprinting photographic images onto glass and then sandblasting them.

Sound Glass Sales, also located in Tacoma, did the glass installation work for the Hotel Murano, including the art glass walls, glass elevators, canopies and art displays.

As far as the future, Sound Glass is staying busy and looking forward to seeing the market return to better days.

“I would like to see us not lose our roots. I never want to get to the point where we are so large that we are not taking care of [the small customers] or that we lose our roots in customer service,” says Wright.

Looking ahead, Willoughby is also optimistic. “We hit our all time record in sales profitability a few years ago, so I would like to see us get back to that. But that being said, it was a record so we can hopefully go on and keep growing at a sustained pace.”

After a successful run of 27 years, Willoughby says he has given some thought to what his next steps may be. His two children also work for the company and he says he “would have no reservations with their dedicated involvement.

“I plan to work for five years or so and then phase down my involvement and weigh my options,” he says.

In the meantime, Sound Glass continues to be committed to taking care of its customers, no matter how big or small. Given the success and recognition the company has achieved, that’s sure to be the path it will continue to follow.

Ellen Rogers is a contributing editor for USGlass magazine.

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