North American Mirror Industry Not at a ‘Stand Still’; Growth Strategies Change
International trade, offshore movement and economic import influence has forced many domestic industries to re-calibrate over the last couple decades. And that effect has certainly been reflected in the North American glass mirror sector.
In some cases, those factors have meant companies have had to diversify their product, while others have changed their target market.
Walker Glass, established in 1942, diversified. For 60 years, the company’s core business was mirror manufacturing—stock sheet mirror products, as well as decorative mirror in frames, which they sold at the retail level.
By the early 2000s, the company saw the market shifting to a heavy dose of import competition. “It was definitely already present in the ’90s, but our read in the early 2000s was that we were going to see more and more import business,” says business development manager Marc Deschamps.
It was then that the company took a hard look at what it was good at versus how that would translate in the changed market. And, while the company was proficient in the stock sheet mirror business, a change in focus was necessary.
“We had longtime customers and a well-oiled production facility,” he says. “Nevertheless, we felt it was not going to get better with prices, margins and imports coming in from Asia.” During that period, Walker decided to sell its framed mirror division and up its game in the etched-glass department.
That decision has worked well for Walker, which has grown into a North American market leader in decorative glazing.
“With mirror stock sheets being price driven, it’s tough for us to ship truckloads of mirrors to the west coast,” says Deschamps. “But textures has changed the game as well, and we’re able to go across the U.S. and Canada with that. We have fabricators everywhere that carry our line.”
Other North American companies, such as Lenoir Mirror, saw things evolve a little differently. Lenoir celebrated its 100-year anniversary last year as a result of a shift it made in its target customer.
Drew Mayberry, Lenoir’s president and CEO, says that in the early ’90s, well over 50 percent of the company’s
sales were to furniture manufacturers, and another 10 to 15 percent went to medicine cabinet manufacturers. Today, those combined markets make up less than 5 percent.
“Ours has been not so much diversifying product,” he says. “… A lot of what we’ve done is diversifying markets served.
“The impact on us has been more indirect, in that the manufacturers offering those products, they moved the manufacturing off shore. It wasn’t an issue of them buying mirrors and glass from [Asia] as much as it was migration of that manufacturing offshore.”
Lenoir, however, found its niche elsewhere. Mayberry says Lenoir’s mirrors still find their way into homes, but they’re now in different places—on the bathroom wall, for example, instead of on the medicine cabinet.
The company has also done more work with institutional customers that sell to hotels, and another market segment that has grown of late is what Mayberry refers to as the “after paid installer.”
“They go into a home that’s been built and they install mirrors, shelving in closets, shower doors, sliding and bi-folding doors, they blow in insulation, things like that,” he says. “That’s a market segment that hardly even existed 25-30 years ago.”
That’s not to say that Lenoir hasn’t experimented with other products. “In the last 25 years, we’ve tried a number of different things,” says Mayberry. “Some of it is trial and error—we didn’t just have a success with everything we tried.”
One of the successes, however, has been Lenoir’s partnership with AGC Glass Co. North America in the
backpainted line Krystal Kolours.
“You can’t stand still,” he says. “If you ever get to where you say, ‘I want it to stay this way,’ then you’re not going to last.”
That was Walker’s approach back in the early 2000s, when it began developing its research and development department.
“At that time, we thought, ‘If you start this line, you’ve got to look at the capabilities, the benefits that developing it could bring to market,’” he says. “...We had to set up R&D to look at other products and be proactive.”
In parallel with that approach, Walker also upped its marketing efforts, and a big part of that meant going to architects to educate them on their products and solutions.
“The fact we’re promoting to architects is a big thing, because import competition doesn’t do that,” says Deschamps.
An advantage Lenoir has as a domestic producer is that it provides faster turnaround and smaller amounts of product, as opposed to the import companies that ship in bulk and have much further to travel. The “local” option allows customers to carry a smaller inventory with less cash tied up.
—Nick St. Denis
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