Under the Glass
My story in the flat glass industry –1960 to 1973
October 16, 2014 By Jim Parker
It was spring, 1960, in the city of the Golden Boy, the longitudinal centre of North America.
It was spring, 1960, in the city of the Golden Boy, the longitudinal centre of North America. I was hired by Pilkington Glass on Market Avenue as draftsman at $200 a month – a liveable salary for the days when I was still living at home, a coffee cost $0.25, a gallon of gas was $0.35 and I was driving a ‘54 Chevy that I had bought for $600 with $30 monthly payments. After one year they offered a $15 a month raise, which I questioned because I was now doing drafting and estimating, but manager Jacques Bernard insisted that was all he could offer. Yes, sure, right.
|The bronze doors at the Manitoba legislature were so heavy that Parker and Border Glass got the job installing one of the first automatic entry systems in the province. One hitch: the Manitoba winters were too cold for the system.|
I quickly looked for another job and was offered an interesting one at Eaton as a draftsman. I resigned at Pilkington. Jacques was somehow able to find the money and increased the raise to $75 per month. As it was interesting work, and I liked the people, I stayed on.
There was no coffee in the offices in those days, so we went across the street to the Cosy Corner restaurant for morning and afternoon breaks. The coffee was good but the girls who worked in the neighbourhood were better. In particular there were several young ladies working next door at Stanley Brock, including Helen Sitarz.
Things were going well at work but I was no longer a draftsman. I was designated to do inventory and parts ordering in the aluminum and automatic door departments. It seemed no one else wanted the job and I was the junior guy. I learned on the job, as there was zero training, from the great employees working in those areas.
In 1962, the top folks at Pilkington Brothers in England made a tour of Canada to meet customers and promote their new float glass system that was taking off in world markets. I had a chance to meet one of the brothers as well as key customers like Cornie Loewen. In December they gave every employee a bonus of three per cent of their annual wage as a reward for the float glass success. I quickly cashed the cheque and went to Peoples Credit jewelers and put a down payment on an engagement ring. I then drove out to Pine Ridge and got permission from Nellie Sitarz to marry her daughter, Helen. She was shocked and impressed that I would ask her. After receiving permission, I proposed to Helen and thankfully she accepted. We were engaged on Dec. 7. Love that float glass!
I worked my way up to estimator and contract salesman. Part of my job was calling on architects and promoting Kawneer aluminum systems and Stanley automatic doors. Both companies had training courses available, but there was no budget to send me as the courses were in Michigan and New England. In 1967, Helen and I drove east with our Esso credit card and some cash (no Visa in those days) and we saw Expo ‘67 in Montreal and toured the float plant in Toronto. That was my Pilkington training.
Successful strategies for getting contracts in those days combined creativity and street sense:
- Combine bids from different sections. For grocery stores such as Safeway, we would put in a lower price, adding the storefront to the cost of the automatic door equipment.
- Offer bids on alternate products. For the Manitoba Institute of Technology there were two sections: aluminum windows in the classroom buildings and heavy oak wood windows in the office tower. Thinking the wood windows would be over budget, we offered an alternate to substitute the tower with aluminum and put in a combined bid that won us the contract. That worked out extra well as there was a fire in the classrooms that melted all the windows and we got the replacement business.
- Know who your friends are. Some contractors were close to our competitors. We would quote them a higher price a few hours before bid closing knowing that those high numbers would be fed back to our competitor.
- Get architects to request our products exclusively. Hard work sometimes paid off as architects would specify our products and only accept others as alternates. Local manufacturer Dominion Bronze did a superb job of getting its products specified exclusively. We worked hard to get alternate products in to compete. For instance, for the YWCA building we used our thermal-broken aluminum frame and had Storm-Tite install its tracks and sash on the slider windows. Needless to say, the Dominion Bronze folks were not impressed.
Price fixing in the commercial glass industry was a reality. I was not involved, but it seemed to be common knowledge that flat glass prices and commercial bids were sometimes rigged. Some of the stories I heard were about the Winnipeg city hall and Winnipeg airport where managers got together and decided who would get the jobs. Incredibly, at times one supplier would sell product to the competitor, allowing both to be involved on the job. I was directly involved on one project for the Atomic Energy building in Pinawa, Man. I was able to get a “tight spec” on a window that combined aluminum over a wood thermal break. My boss met with others in the trade and decided to let Westmacott Glass get the job. Pilkington would sell the windows to Westmacott and the other companies would back off. I first found out about the deal when I received a call from the specification writer at the architect, Moody Moore. He was really upset wondering how Westmacott was able to bid with our product. I checked with my boss and he told me, “Not to worry, you will still be getting credit for the sale.” I decided that I did not want to continue working in that environment, so I told the specification writer and the general contractor the truth. I thought there would be lots of repercussions but nothing happened that I know of. I decided to look for other work and turned in my resignation. I received a call from the vice-president in Toronto who offered me a chance to move there. I asked him if it was any different there and he said no. That ended my 10-year career with Pilkington Glass.
Where do we go from here? There is a young family to look after. I talked with several people in the industry, including people I had met at the house-builders meetings and window companies. I also met with the owner of Border Glass. We were in agreement about fighting the big competitors. I met his people and was impressed with their knowledge and enthusiasm. I joined his company and got right back to work.
I was able to bring the Stanley automatic door business over to Border from Pilkington. We bought their inventory, hired Gerry the service man and got right to work. With this team, we were able to get the glass- and door-maintenance business from the airport, Safeway, Loblaws and Westfair Foods. Having this storefront work allowed us to get a dealership with Kawneer, which opened even more prospects for us. We also saw the opportunity to compete on window projects, bringing in proven products from Zedler in Edmonton and Sentenal in Toronto. We were able to do many projects in Manitoba, including hospitals in Flin Flon and The Pas, apartments in Fort Garry and Thompson, and office buildings. We also started assembling sliding windows from Zimcor to do residential apartments.
Fighting the big guys sure is motivating
We took great pleasure in fighting the big companies’ price games. Because we had access to competing aluminum products, they never knew when we would bid against them. We didn’t get many of the bid projects but we saved money for the building owners.
| Jim Parker circa 1969. Parker went on to become a founder of the Windoor trade show and recognized as a Pioneer by Fenestration Canada.|
At the Winnipeg art gallery, the bids were closing at the bid depository at noon and I was there to do a take-off and drop in our bid. A Pilkington salesman came in and started talking to me. I told him I was just doing a take-off. About 11:50, I finished my take-off and went and dropped in our bid on the gallery. The Pilkington guy phoned his boss, who was waiting in contractor V.K. Mason’s office close by, and told him we were bidding the job. Just before noon, a car drove up to the
front door, slammed on the brakes and rushed in to drop off a bid. Pilkington got the order, but left a lot of money on the table. We were the second-lowest bid.
An opportunity came up at the University of Manitoba student union building. The project was specified Kawneer. We decided to bid and asked Kawneer for a price. They said that we would have to send them the architectural plans in order for them to give us a quote. They were caught in the middle between their Canada-wide customer, Pilkington, and us small guys. I went ahead and did our own estimate on the project and prepared our quote. The bids closed at noon in the student union executive offices. When we got there to deliver our bids, there was a Pilkington person at each entranceway. When they saw us we knew that we wouldn’t get the job. The Pilkington manager was waiting outside the offices with what we assumed were two bids: one if we showed up, and a higher one if we didn’t. When the bids were opened the Pilkington bid was about 10 per cent lower than ours with the other companies considerably higher. We went for lunch and laughed at how mad the Pilkington guy was. I heard later that the he phoned his Toronto boss and told him that their bid just beat ours by only a little bit.
Automatic entry doors! In the early ‘60s there were very few automated entry doors. Safeway had some Kawneer electric operators mounted in the transoms and Loblaws had Stanley pneumatic floor operators. During my time in the industry we were the leaders in a fascinating and quickly growing industry. We did some great projects. The Winnipeg post office’s air-conditioned computer room was a room with a huge computer that needed to be kept cool. The Winnipeg airport had 48 swing doors, originally tempered glass that we changed to aluminum as people kept breaking the glass with luggage trolleys. The doors were later changed to sliding automatic doors. At the Manitoba legislature building, the front entry doors made of bronze were so heavy people had trouble opening them. They wanted to keep the original appearance so we proposed installing operators in the floor. It was a big job as we had to cut into the thick concrete. The operators were set to open slowly because of the heavy weight of the doors.
Today, after a slow beginning, automatic sliding doors are located everywhere. Western Canada’s first sliding doors were installed in the Tom Boy store in Neepawa, Man. They didn’t have room for conventional swing doors in the small building, so the bi-parting sliding doors did the job. The front entry to the MTS building near Polo Park had to handle large numbers of employees coming and going and regular doors couldn’t handle the traffic. They also had a limited area to work with, so sliding doors were the right answer. I remember when the pneumatic operators froze up. I called the Stanley engineer in New England and when he heard it was -40 F, he told me the operators were not designed for that temperature and that we were on our own to solve the problem. Working with the MTS building staff, we came up with electric heating strips installed along the air lines and that solved the problem. You’ve got to work with the cards you are dealt!
After 13 years in the glass business it was time to move on. After three years, I was out the door at Border Glass. But life goes on and opportunity knocked. I met with my insurance agent about a career in life insurance, Willmar Windows about opening up a storefront business and Hunt/Pella about the window business. I chose Hunt as it was in an industry that gave me a fresh cast of characters, new hope and, ultimately, a change of scenery when I was transferred to Calgary. I enjoyed my years in the Winnipeg glass industry and learned a lot. The best part? The good people that I met worked with and taught me to use creativity and street sense.
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