Glass factory's future not crystal-clear

L.E. Smith Glass Co., a glass-making icon that survived nearly 100 years of competition, economic ups and downs, the move toward automation -- even the ownership of Michael Carlow and business from Martha Stewart -- is for sale and could be close to shutting down.

President Martin Noonan said that the operation has been for sale for some time but that the factory is not closing. "The company's been having tough financial times," Noonan said. "We do have a potential buyer. It's early in the process."

However, negotiations between Smith Glass owner NBI Inc., of Denver, Smith's lender Sky Bank and an unnamed individual believed to be a former Corning Glass employee in State College fell through at the last minute when the buyer's lender suddenly pulled away from the table.

Officials with United Steel Workers of America locals 537 and 102T, which represent the glass workers, and NBI head Jay Lustig could not be reached to comment.

"We were aware as early as last year that Smith had real cash flow and competitive problems," said John Sciavo, president and chief executive of the Economic Growth Connection of Westmoreland. "They were looking to reduce their costs."

Smith Glass has in recent years has struggled financially. More than two years ago, the combination of a down economy and skyrocketing natural gas prices put Smith Glass behind in loan payments to Sky Bank. The Bowling Green, Ohio-based financial institution loaned $2.9 million to the 97-year-old glass maker to acquire a new natural gas-fired furnace, and had extended Smith Glass a line of credit the firm had exceeded by some $500,000.

After intense negotiations, both sides agreed to double the original five-year bank term loan and reduce Smith Glass' monthly payments to roughly $20,000 from $50,000. Parent NBI also agreed to put into the mix a $500,000 security of property agreement as collateral for its glassmaker.

Employment at the Mt. Pleasant facility already has fallen to roughly 40 hourly workers, down from 70 when layoffs began in November. Plant workers were given Thursday and Friday off because of a lack of oxygen used to fire the furnaces.

Smith Glass is a throwback to glassmaking a century ago because all of its products are hand-made. It produces some of the most sought-after glass in the country.

Founded in 1907 by Lewis E. Smith, the company actually got its start in another glass-making mecca, Jeannette. In 1909, Smith acquired the closed Anchor Glass Co. plant in then Mt. Pleasant Township. He reopened the facility in early 1910, and soon installed a mustard-producing section in a storage room. Glass containers for his mustard were made in his new plant.

Smith Glass remained independent and privately held until 1975, when it was acquired by Toledo, Ohio-based glass container maker Owens-Illinois Inc. In 1986, the company was sold to a group of local investors, but five years later, it again was sold, this time to Uniontown businessman Michael Carlow. Regarded as a savior to a number of area businesses, including Pittsburgh Brewing Co., Smith Glass and D.L. Clark Candy Co., Carlow's empire collapsed under the weight of a check-kiting scheme and operating losses in 1995.

In July 1995, Belle Vernon money manager Lustig bought Smith Glass out of U.S. Bankruptcy Court for $5.7 million. Within the last decade, a number of high-profile individuals and companies have promoted and sold Smith Glass products, including Martha Stewart, Neiman-Marcus, Williams Sonoma, Spiegel and Bloomingdale's.

600450 Glass factory's future not crystal-clear
Date: 21 June 2004

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