Volume 50, Issue 9 - September 2015

Lessons from the Manufacture des Glaces
Saint-Gobain Celebrates 350 Years in Business
By Megan Headley


This drawing represents the table casting of glass with Pierre Delaunay-Deslandes, director of the mirror factory at the Manufacture Saint-Gobain around 1780.


Consider how long ago 50 years is. The float process was just taking off in the United States. There were no insulating glass units. Mirror ruled. A lot can change in 50 years. Can you guess what trends glass makers were setting 350 years ago?

In 2015, Saint-Gobain is marking its 350th anniversary. The French company traces its roots to the reign of Louis XIV when the king founded the Manufacture des Glaces de Miroirs in Paris to produce mirrors for the Palace of Versailles. “To this day Saint-Gobain has strong relations with the Palace and recently refurbished the original mirrors,” shares Dr. Alan McLenaghan, CEO of SAGE Electrochromics Inc., a wholly owned subsidiary of Saint-Gobain.

Today, glass is only one part of the international company, but a significant one.

“The North American construction materials market is very key for Saint-Gobain, as it constitutes around 15 percent of sales revenue for all of Saint-Gobain — but the portion of this which is glass is quite low,” McLenaghan notes.

For a company with more than 190,000 employees across the globe and annual sales of more than $52 billion USD, that 15 percent is still fairly sizeable.

North American Innovation

Saint-Gobain’s path into North America came through a number of channels. Saint-Gobain Glass Exprover was created in 1962 as the export business of Saint-Gobain Glass. In 1995, Saint-Gobain acquired a Swiss company that was founded as “the first company in the world to develop clear fire-resistant glass with integrated safety characteristics,” and five years later its products rolled into the U.S. when Vetrotech Saint-Gobain North America Inc. was founded in Auburn, Wash. Then in 2010, Saint-Gobain made an initial $80 million strategic investment in SAGE Electrochromics — the switchable-glass producer founded in 1989 — and purchased the rest of the company in May 2012.

For Saint-Gobain, the North American market is about innovating, which makes these acquisitions of value-added product manufacturers key to its expansion.

“We’re focused on providing exceptional glass for projects in North America, many of which are very high-profile,” says Roger Watson, vice president of sales and marketing for Saint-Gobain Glass. “A large portion of the glass we create isn’t readily available in the North American glass market. Saint-Gobain’s glass brings a European flare to the North American market, complementing the style of many European architects.”

McLenaghan notes that setting up a manufacturing base in North America is unlikely to entice the global group. “North America has many strong and respected glassmakers, and the use of our capital dollars within glass will likely be utilized on new, innovative products such as SageGlass,” he says.

“With a product like SageGlass, we see the future of glazing. It is innovative, rapidly evolving and has a ‘wow’ factor. This is the kind of growth, capital spending and acquisitions in North America that are likely to attract our capital dollars,” McLenaghan says.

In 2000 Saint-Gobain brought Vetrotech Saint-Gobain to the U.S. as a producer of clear fire-resistant glass.

A More Creative Approach

In many ways, rapid-fire innovation is the hallmark of design today.

According to Lori Jerome, Web publisher for Vetrotech, in just the last decade, “We have seen the evolution and expansion of the use of fire-rated glass and systems by architects into areas that traditionally were not even considered. Entire exterior fire-rated curtainwall systems are now being developed to address complex code requirements regarding property lines. Entire atriums are now clear-vision areas in lieu of solid fire-rated construction previously.”

Watson offers another take on that creativity: “Ten years ago, architects took a more practical approach. Most construction materials, including glass, came in standardized sizes that allowed for consistent methods of transportation and installation. As technology and the exchange of information became more advanced, so did the expectations of architects. Now, they expect glass in all shapes and sizes — practical limits no longer exist. Many architects assume that if one glass company is able to do a unique piece of glass, then it must be possible for every other glass company as well.”

In addition to innovation, Saint-Gobain pushes the production of more sustainable materials. “The actual process of producing glass is very inefficient, as it requires a tremendous amount of energy usage to create a thin piece of glass,” Watson says. “We’re focused on producing the most efficient, sustainable product from the manufacturing process. We’re able to justify the amount of energy usage and carbon emissions during the manufacturing process, because when Saint-Gobain’s products are used correctly, they can save many times the emissions and energy downstream.”

Watson notes that the company invests a significant amount of money in research and development as it constantly explores ways to increase sustainability and cleanliness and reduce energy usage and water consumption. “Creating a sustainable habitat is our goal. We have a lot of technical resources that we can share between different segments of our company. It’s a very collaborative effort,” Watson says.

Jerome notes that Vetrotech recently released the first environmental product declaration (EPD) “in the world on our fire-rated glass ceramic,” and now the rest of the company’s products are in the process of being evaluated with life-cycle assessments, EPDs and health product declarations. “It’s Saint-Gobain policy to consider the environmental impact of our business at every stage, from product design, through manufacturing, to the point of sale, and product disposal at the end of life,” Jerome says.

Given its lengthy history, it’s no surprise that the company is focused on the life cycle of its products.

How Do You Celebrate a Sesquarcentennial?
A Talk with Saint- Gobainís Leadership
by Debra Levy

Imagine the type of leadership it takes to become a 350-year-old company. Well, the leaders at Saint-Gobain don’t have to use their imagination. The current leaders of the French company are long in the line of thoughtful and skilled managers who have helped the company get all the way to its Sesquarcentennial anniversary.

The global powerhouse is led by Pierre-Andre de Chalendar, who serves as chairman and CEO; John T. Crowe is president and CEO of Saint-Gobain Corp. in North America.

Both men bring impressive credentials to their jobs. de Chalendar served as the vice president of the abrasives business in Europe from 1992-1996 and president of the worldwide abrasives business from 1996-2000. He was general delegate for the U.K. and the Republic of Ireland from 2000-2006 and was appointed senior vice president in charge of the building distribution sector in 2003. He was appointed chief operating officer in 2005, was elected to the company’s board of directors in 2006, became CEO in 2007 and added chairman to his title in 2010. In 2011 Crowe was appointed president and CEO of both Saint-Gobain Corp. and CertainTeed Corp., Saint-Gobain’s largest North American subsidiary. In 2013 he was promoted to senior vice president of Compagnie de Saint-Gobain and a member of the company’s world management committee.

USGlass magazine publisher Deb Levy caught up with the duo this summer, in Philadelphia. Here’s her conversation with de Chalendar, with an occasional assist from Crowe:

Q: Saint-Gobain continues to undergo rapid growth. Is that growth rate as you expected?

A: It is going as we expected. Innovation is a great part of our company, and the exhibition here highlights [that]. We go all the way back 350 years ago in France, and we are very proud of our achievements. It’s a complex product line, and we are happy to make it.

Q: How have you chosen to commemorate this anniversary?

A: We have created this exhibition and interactive event around innovation, and we are traveling the globe with it. We are visiting four cities: Shanghai, Sao Paolo, Philadelphia and we end in Paris …

Q: Ah, the best for last?

A: There is never a bad time to be in Paris.

Q: What are the special challenges in running a company this old?

A: You are not only running a company, you are protecting a history, a legacy. Saint-Gobain did all the glass in Versailles in 1665, and much of that glass is still there. So this is a stewardship, and we take it very seriously. Saint-Gobain was an innovator in glass even before there was a float process. We were an innovator in sheet glass as well.

Q: We’ve seen a movement in the last ten years away from glass as a commodity. What’s your philosophy on commodity vs. value-added products?

A: We are not in the float glass business; we are in the value-added business. The commodity model holds no interest for us. And we really practice this.

For example, we chose not to make a rather large value acquisition in recent months because the company was focused too much on glass as a commodity rather than glass as a value-added product.

We have developed a very nice niche, especially in value-added coatings. Our major innovation in this area comes from SageGlass. But Saint-Gobain is bigger even than glass. We have acquisitions in fiber glass, doors, building products and more.

Q: What are some of the biggest challenges unique to the United States?

A: The regulatory environment in the United States is challenging and difficult logistically. And the size of the country can be challenging in terms of delivery. Of course, the competition is strong here and that’s challenging too, but there are also a number of good differentiators. The difference between the best and worst companies in the U.S. is enormous. And we are on the “best” side.

Saint-Gobain has been an astute investor and also develops and shares best practices across all groups. My predecessor did a good job of keeping the team together. John [Crowe] has done a great job in North America. He listens, learns and knows what goes on.

Q: How has the transportation situation affected you? Is it more difficult for a global company?

A: I don’t particularly like the word global because 90 percent of what we make is produced in a decentralized manner. Nonetheless, transportation is a big challenge, more and more.

Q: I would be remiss if I did not ask you about Saint-Gobain’s attempts to purchase SIKA. Do you have predictions for the outcome?

A: The deal is going to happen. The major shareholders want it. We want it, and I am confident that the deal will be completed. We need only to have patience.

the author
Ellen Rogers is the editor of USGlass magazine. Follow her on Twitter @USGlass and like USGlass on Facebook to receive updates.

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