Growing Panes

Posted on Apr 1, 2010 :: Cover Story
Sean P. Johnson
Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

Family-owned business opens a window to recent success

It is an overused sports cliché that when the going gets tough, the tough get going. But in a contrast of times worthy of a Dickens tale, there is perhaps no better way to describe how Tri City Glass & Door propelled itself into its 50th year.

Like countless small businesses nationwide, Tri City faced lean times as the recession loomed in 2008, particularly when the bottom fell out of the construction industry. The family-owned business finished that year with a loss.

Last year did not get much better. It was not until the final adjustments were made at the end of its fiscal year – Sept. 30, 2009 – that the company knew it would finish in the black. But the lean times also created a strategic opportunity to bolster its future.

“I guess you could say we got the timing right,” says Charles (“Chuck”) Bender, president and the oldest of four siblings who co-own and run the Appleton-based business.

Just five days after announcing to employees it would finish in the black and be able to pay bonuses they went without the year before, Tri City Glass & Door announced it had purchased one of its Green Bay competitors, Old Castle Glass. Despite the lean times, the addition of Old Castle also grew the company financially, with projected annual sales volume growing to more than $15 million from more than $10 million – not a bad way for the company to celebrate its golden anniversary.

This month, the company will celebrate 50 years in business. In that half century, it has grown from a simple mom-and-pop shop to a multi-location business providing automotive, residential and commercial glass service to customers throughout the New North region.
Along with Chuck, co-owners are Donna Dorn, who is a vice-president and secretary of the board; Larry Bender, vice-president; and JoAnn Bender, vice president and treasurer of the board. All are actively involved in the company’s day-to-day operations, often specializing in specific segments of the business.

With the acquisition of Old Castle, Tri City also increased from three to four retail locations, added another commercial service department and expanded its role in the glass wholesale market. The company added 22 employees to bring its ranks to nearly 100 and added 11 more service vehicles to its fleet.

Executing the acquisition after two tough years surprised many, including some employees. But it was made possible by the company’s ongoing policy of reducing and eliminating its debts, including its latest efforts to be debt free by year 50.
“It’s pretty exciting anytime that you can expand like that,” says JoAnn. “In the past few years, we saw the downturn coming and we had been tightening our belts.”
Indeed, seeing the slowdown in the construction industry only heightened management’s commitment to clear its ledgers of red ink.

“We are a small enough company that we are all hands on. We saw how things were going and we pulled together and made some cutbacks,” Larry says. “We reduced and eliminated our debt before we made the move.”

With no debt load and bankers willing to finance the move, the company was able to extend its reach. While they have many competitors in various market segments, such as Auto Glass Specialists in the auto glass market and Omni Glass in the commercial markets, there are no immediate competitors involved in such a wide a spectrum of market segments as Tri City Glass & Door.

“The acquisition allows us to not only better compete in the marketplace, but it also allows us to serve our customers with even more products,” says Tri City General Manager Curt Konetzke. “It is hard to imagine where we would be if we were a specialized seller. If we only worked in one segment of the market, we would probably be out of business.”
Yet, the company owes its creation to market specialization.

When Donna recalls the early days of her family’s business, she remembers the big boxes. “We used to take the boxes that the glass was delivered in – these huge boxes – and we would slide them down the steps and use them for all kinds of things,” says Donna. “Sometimes our knees would get cut up because we were playing where we shouldn’t, but it was a big part of our life.”
In many ways, Tri City Glass & Door grew up together with Donna and her six siblings.
The business was founded by their parents, Richard and Shirley Bender, out of the family home and a small adjacent warehouse. While there are still plenty of big boxes around, the company has long since outgrown that space.

Donna, who was born the same week the company was founded, looks back fondly on those early years.

“I gave a speech shortly after we took over the company and I talked about how maybe I had it easier, even though the company had grown. I’m not running a day care or a restaurant like my mother did,” Donna says. “She helped take care of employee’s children and cooked meals and did whatever she could.”

Konetzke says the sibling owners clearly have their hands in every aspect of the business.
“It has all the challenges of any business, plus you sometimes get the varying opinions of the siblings and have to manage that dynamic,” says Konetzke. Donna says the siblings have learned to work together over the years.

“There are always going to be disagreements, but it helps to have different resources involved,” Donna says. “We all have different roles to play.”

In one of the Tri City warehouses, row upon row of glass pieces stand in cases of various shapes and sizes. Then there is the hardware – rows and boxes and display cases full of all the hardware that makes glass windows, doors and windshields possible.

It all looks awfully complicated. The idea that got them here was not.

Richard Bender had a simple idea when he started Tri City in 1960: mobile auto glass repair. At the time he started the company, auto glass repair in the Fox Valley meant taking your car to a repair shop.

“He had the idea that he would go to the customer,” Chuck says. “He was working for another glass company at the time and he came home and said this is what he wanted to do. He was the first one in this area.”

Sales that first year were about $7,000, he says, but the company was off and running.
After 16 years of operating Tri City out of the family home, the founders relocated their company to its location at 100 W. Northland Ave. More locations would follow, including the Green Bay location at 318 N. Military Ave. in 1985 and the purchase of Northland Glass in Clintonville in 1995. The Clintonville location would eventually be consolidated with expanded operations in Appleton in 2005.

As the company expanded its presence in the Fox Valley area, it also expanded its product lines.

Residential services ranging from shower doors to window replacements were added, and in 1991 the company bought competitor Valley Door Sales of Appleton to further expand its reach into the commercial sector. When you walk through the doors at Shopko, for instance, you are walking through the handiwork of Tri City Glass & Door.

The expansion of the commercial division resulted in the opening of the company’s facility at 2801 N. Roemer Road, in Appleton’s northeast industrial park.

The family dynamic changed over the years as well. In 1983, the founders divorced and Shirley Bender took over sole ownership of the company. In 1992, ownership was transferred to the four siblings who were interested in the business.

While Shirley is no longer active in the day-to-day operations of Tri City, she is still on the board, along with the sibling owners, Konetzke and three non-family members. In her retirement, Shirley Bender Gehrt has become active in real estate and apartment buildings in the Oshkosh area. Richard Bender is retired and lives in the Shawano area.

Name changes in 2004 brought all of the locations under the banner of Tri City Glass & Door.
Until the recession hit, the company had seen several years of positive growth, especially during the housing boom in the middle part of the decade. Now, a lot of the work has changed.
JoAnn, who prefers working on the shop floor, says she is seeing a lot more replacement work since the economic downturn started.

“People are repairing what they have instead of replacing it,” JoAnn says. “Or, they will wait until they have the cash in hand. We try to help them out however we can.”

The waiting has also become a constant for the commercial jobs. While the number of jobs the company is bidding on has shown some upswing, the margins are tight and delays for financial reasons are often the norm, says Larry.

“Things are really competitive right now,” he says. “There seem to be a lot of projects in the planning stages, or we are waiting for them to get financing. It is probably going to take us a few years to get back to the volume we were doing.”

The company’s reputation has earned it a loyal customer base.

Ellis Stone Construction buys a lot of its hardware from Tri City, and recently used the company as the commercial glass supplier for the $12 million AIG building in Stevens Point, completed in June 2009.

Ellis Stone co-owner Jim Anderson says Tri City’s ability to deliver both competitive bids and products to complete projects are one of the principle reasons he likes to work with the company.

“They are just always good to work with,” Anderson says. “If we would have had any problems with them, we would not use them at all.”

The stress of the slowdown would be enough to set many business owners on edge. In the case of Tri City, some might think that siblings in business would make for a volatile mix. Not so, they say, at least most of the time.

“You are always going to have differences with your business partners, no matter who they are,” says Larry. “We do work to keep the family part separate from the business part.”
Naturally, they have shared more than professional challenges together. Five years ago their sister Judy, who was a nurse, died.

“Her death really brought us closer together and helped us to see that this is just a business. There is a much bigger picture we need to keep in mind,” says Charles.

Konetzke points out that several long-term employees of the company are also related to each other. The multiple family connections are part of the culture that makes the company unique, he says.

Those multiple family connections have also helped to spur the company’s involvement in many community activities and organizations. The walls of the lounge area of the Northland Avenue store are covered with team photos, plaques, certificates and letters from area schools.

“The community is what supports us; what allows us to employ all these people,” Chuck says.
Also helping to ease the tensions around the family dynamic is Konetzke – a familiar face to those who follow Appleton city government; Konetzke serves as president of the common council.

The general manager joined the company originally in 1988, then left for a while to work in the auto industry. He returned to the company in 2001 and takes care of much of the back office operations, freeing the siblings to pursue their passions for the various segments of the business and to plan for the future.

Part of that planning includes eventual succession of the business. Their children did not grow up with the business as closely as they did, and many are looking to do other things. While several other family members are working for the company, none are ready to take a leadership position, the siblings say. They meet quarterly to discuss plans to keep the company moving forward – not that any of them are looking to step aside anytime soon.

As Donna points out, not even all of the Bender siblings went into the business. What’s important to the family is to make sure the business will continue to thrive, whether there is a Bender on board or not.

“I’m OK with that,” says JoAnn. “Many of our children are still quite young, so things could change in the next several years.”