Glassautomatic | Rolf Glass
From Europe to Westmoreland County, Rolf Poeting has engraved a niche for himself in the glass industry. Along the way, he has proven that although his products are shipped in boxes stamped “fragile,” his business is resilient enough to withstand unexpected setbacks and flexible enough to embrace online marketplaces.
As president of Glassautomatic Inc., Poeting oversees a company of 52 employees who specialize in tabletop giftware and personalized gifts. Featuring engraved or etched designs such as palm trees, peacock feathers or an “icy pine” holiday design, it’s the type of glassware you might find in a department store, a boutique gift shop or, nowadays, online. The Glassautomatic facility in the Mt. Pleasant Glass Centre produces about 3 million pieces per year, and Poeting says the company stands on three legs — service work for larger companies, custom orders and selling its own line of consumer glassware, which is marketed under the Rolf Glass brand.
“When I started the business, it was purely service,” Poeting says. “I’d go to Libbey Glass and Arc (International, the world’s leading glassware manufacturer) and say, ‘This is what we can do. You can’t do it. Do you want us to do it for you?’ For them, it’s not worth it to do themselves. It’s too much detail work, not enough volume, too specialized.”
The service component still is the largest of the three, but his experiences in having to unexpectedly replace large customers has led the German-born Poeting and his team to diversify their operations by accepting customer orders and building relationships with some 800 boutique retailers who feature Rolf Glass merchandise in their shops. And these days, online sales are the fastest-growing segment of the business.
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Poeting came to the U.S. to sell machines that his family’s third-generation business made for both hot and cold glass work. (“Hot glass” refers to working with and shaping molten glass; “cold glass” refers to working the glass after it has cooled.) He arrived in America in 1981 and founded Glassautomatic in New Jersey with the idea of selling the machines to Lenox and other glass companies, but with the U.S. glass-manufacturing industry in decline, that was easier said than done. “I did not have enough to do,” he recalls of those days. So in 1983 the company became a glassworks company, itself, to specialize in the cold-glass work of cutting, engraving and etching.
A few years later, Glassautomatic landed its largest customer to date in Jeannette-based St. George Crystal, which was supplying lead crystal items to Toscany Co. Poeting relocated his business to Jeannette in 1989 and rented his equipment to St. George Crystal. St. George workers ran Glassautomatic’s machines 24/7, cutting lead crystal glass and putting the finishing touches on items destined to become wedding gifts, special-occasion stemware or elegant accent pieces for homes and offices.
Things were going great, and then in 1990 — just a year after Glassautomatic moved to Jeannette — Toscany went out of business. The machines that had run nonstop for St. George Crystal now sat idle. In need of customer, Poeting developed a relationship with Princess House, a direct-sales company in the cookware and home-accessories space with a Tupperware-style business model. Although the Toscany bankruptcy showed Poeting the downside of relying heavily on one customer, Glassautomatic found itself in an even better position than before — Poeting says the Princess House orders for lead crystal “more than replaced” the business that had been lost.
Then the lead crystal industry shattered.
In 1991, scientists sounded the alarm that lead crystal glass posed a health risk. Researchers found that the lead in the glassware would leech into liquids that were exposed to it. Though short-term exposure of liquids to the crystal carried a small risk, the danger grew the longer a liquid was in contact with the crystal. At the time, the dangers of lead-based paint were making headlines, with officials estimating that children in as many as 3.8 million homes were at risk of lead. The Food and Drug Administration warned consumers; the Environmental Protection Agency issued similar warnings, and officials in Europe followed suit.
Suddenly, lead was bad for business. Proof of that arrived in the form of a letter from the legal department of Princess House’s parent company. Its message was crystal-clear: All purchase ordered are canceled immediately.
“We basically lost all our work overnight,” Poeting says.
This wasn’t just a Glassautomatic problem; it was a crisis for all glassmakers. “The whole industry was shaken,” Poeting says. Leading companies recognized that in order to regain customers, the consumers would have to have their faith restored in the entire industry. A technical advisory board was formed so the industry’s big players could share information on how to change the hot-glass manufacturing process so that companies big and small could transition to the harder and more-challenging-to-engrave nonlead glass. It was a period of transition for both the industry and Glassautomatic, which moved to a small facility in Latrobe and began the hard work of replacing the volume of work that Princess House with smaller orders from several other companies. But it would be a long process, one that would require some 30 to 50 new relationships to make up for the lost Princess House orders.
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Along the way, Glassautomatic began making connections with boutique retailers and signing agreements to place Rolf Glass items in their shops.
Most of those shops are in coastal regions — picture upscale shops in cozy harbor towns — so the Rolf Glass brand initially focused on nautical-themed designs. These days, it offers 23 design collections in the nautical/coastal category, and it has added collections for those who don’t feel the lure of the beach. It offers a variety of designs in that draw inspiration from nature (think ginkgo leaves, dragonflies and fly fishing lures), and its lifestyle collections draw inspiration from sources as varied as New Orleans and the midcentury modern design aesthetic. Its novelty collections sport designs ranging from grinning skulls to tuxedoes and gowns, and — in a nod to its lead crystal glass origins — Rolf Glass also offers luxury designs that recalls the grandeur of lead crystal glass in safe, modern glassware.
In short, the glassware is the type of keepsake that kindles fond memories of vacations. And because different regions are “in season” at different times of year, the boutique-shop orders ebb and flow with regularity.
“Because they’re all over the county, they have all the seasons, and they seem to balance themselves out,” Poeting says. “So in May-June comes the Northeast (orders), and then Maine comes in July-August. And then that dies off and then we have San Diego or the Texas coast. And then Florida, of course, is in the wintertime; January-February is when those stores really buy a lot. As the seasons change, our stream of orders change with them. It creates a nice balancing act.”
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Glassautomatic steadily grew over the years, and as the company reached the 10-year mark in its 10,000 square-foot facility Latrobe, Poeting was looking for a new location.
About the same time, the Lenox crystal stemware factory in Mt. Pleasant was in the process of shutting down, and Westmoreland County officials were working hard to keep the facility operational. The Industrial Development Corporation partnered with the Economic Growth Connection of Westmoreland to buy the Lenox outlet and the adjoining manufacturing complex in 2002, and Glassautomatic became the first tenant of the newly christened Mt. Pleasant Glass Centre.
“I know people complain about government, but they were on the ball,” Poeting says. “Everything they did worked. They were very swift.”
As he leads a visitor on a tour through Glassautomatic’s production area — past workers who program the cutting machines and box the finished product — Poeting recalls reviewing blueprints of the old Lenox factory during that period and discovering an area designated as the “Poeting Room,” so named because of the several large pieces of glass-decorating machinery that bore his family name. He had sold those machines to Lenox years earlier, and after deciding to move to Mt. Pleasant, he was able to strike a good deal to buy them for his own operation.
Things were going well for the company. So much so that Glassautomatic took a $250,000 loan to update one of the engraving machines he had bought.
Then came 2005. Poeting turned 50. His father died. His family’s business in Germany closed, as did the progressive elementary school that his wife ran in Pittsburgh. And to top it off, Glassautomatic’s three largest customers all dropped its products within a period of a few months.
One longtime customer brought in new management, and its new buyer wanted to go in a different direction. Another switched to a Chinese importer. And management at Macy’s decided to consolidate the various brands of Federated Department stores under its own name. It was a decision that left Glassautomatic — which had comfortably supplied glassware to the 90 Midwest stores under the Lazarus nameplate but wasn’t large enough to meet the needs of 900-some Macy’s stores across the country — out in the cold.
“We were a $2 million company. We lost like $900,000 worth of business,” Poeting says. “It was terrible.”
As it had done before, Glassautomatic went into survival mode.
“We started to do better marketing,” Poeting says, “and we just did it order by order, product by product. From that time, we grew.”
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If there was a silver lining to the rebuilding effort, it was that the company was so lean in those days that the 2008 recession barely affected it.
“We didn’t even know it happened. It was really, really, really weird. I guess we came from such a low level” – Poeting says with a hearty laugh — “we had been so down after 2005 that this major crisis didn’t affect us.” Still laughing, he adds, “And that’s not even funny.”
Growth continued, but Poeting delayed entering the online retail space until the brick-and-mortar vs. online retail battle playing out in society reached a point where his customers recognized it was inevitable.
“I was always very reluctant to do that because our retailers have been such a loyal customer base, and they’re very threatened by that. And they threatened us, in turn. They said, ‘If we see your product on Amazon, I’m not going to buy from you anymore.’ And I think they’ve given up that fight.”
In March of this year, Poeting “unleashed” a worker to put Rolf Glass on Amazon in March. Poeting has been delighted with the results.
“Every week is better than the week before. Every month is better than the month before. It’s exciting to see, finally, in my business, a graph that looks like this,” he says, his hand illustrating a rising slope. "It’s like, ‘Wow!’ I’m only used to inverted graphs.”
But the online orders come with their own challenge — timely delivery.
“A little store will order maybe 12 of this, 12 of this, 12 of this. Its owner might not scream if we say we’re out of this now, it’ll be there in two weeks. Because we have a buffer in between. But that buffer is falling to the wayside. The companies we are dealing with now, we have a lot of online platforms – like Wayfair, Amazon, Home Depot, Macy’s, Houzz. And you have to ship. You have a 24-hour window to ship their order.”
Complicating matters is the size of the Rolf Glass product catalog.
“We have 800 items. They have to be always available,” Poeting says. “Before, we’d process an order and it might be 144 pieces to one customer. Now,” Poeting says as he rapidly makes a chopping motion with his hand, “those 144 pieces now get chopped up into 50 individual orders.”
A much-shorter delivery window. More orders. The need to keep so many products in stock. Different-sized packaging. That explains why Poeting was meeting with UPS before sitting down for this interview.
“I think it’s a great opportunity,” he says. “We are now at the beginning of just to figure out how to do it.”
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During that period after the public health scare surrounding lead, when Glassautomatic was rebuilding its business, one of those small contracts was, surprisingly enough, Princess House, itself. The company had come back with a contract for Glassautomatic to produce one item. That one item led to others, which led to others, which led to others. Now, in 2019, Princess House once again is Glassautomatic’s biggest customer.
Though Princess House has been great to work with, Poeting has tried to outgrow it so that if the day comes when it cuts back its orders, the fallout won’t be as painful.
“As we look at where our work goes, we have this 30 percent in this one channel – if this one channel goes through a sneeze, we get the flu. We’ve tried to outgrow that dependency, but they’ve had the audacity to grow with us,” he says with a laugh. “The nerve of them.”
Noting the stress that comes with juggling those three avenues, Poeting comments that perhaps a business of Glassautomatic’s size would be better off if it just focused on one of those. Then he reconsiders.
“But on the other hand, I think we owe our survival to them, because they balance each other out. Our own line saves us when we don’t get any service orders in. Because it’s often feast or famine (with those). So I think that sets us apart from many other companies. There’s nobody else who does what we do, at least not in glass cutting.”