Online Exclusive: Celebrating the Future

August 1, 2005
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Fenton Art Glass is celebrating its 100th anniversary by focusing on new goals and opportunities for the future.

This hand-painted crystal shade, decorated by Dave Fetty, won a SGCD 2005 Discovery Award in the "Lightingware, Glass" category, as well as the Vandenoever and Judges' Awards for "Best of Show."
On May 4, 2005, the small town of Williamstown, W.Va., marked an increasingly rare occasion in the U.S.-the 100th anniversary of a family-owned handmade glass company, Fenton Art Glass. What makes Fenton's story so remarkable isn't just that the company has survived in the face of numerous challenges, but that it continues to thrive as a modern-day example of the American glass tradition.

According to George Fenton, president and third-generation owner, the company's success can largely be attributed to its willingness to continuously invest in energy-efficient technologies and new product development-approximately 80% of the company's product line in any given year is new. But there is also another, less tangible factor at play.

"We don't just sell glass-we sell quality, history and a story. No company in this industry succeeds without an attractive, desirable product, but our product doesn't succeed well if we don't also tell our story. When consumers hear about the process, the people, the history, the tradition and the family, they become passionately interested in the story, and that passion is one of the keys to our success," Fenton says.

Of course, that passion is also fueled by the sheer beauty of the product. The company's artists are given free reign to exercise their creativity, and many of their designs have been recognized with prestigious awards over the years. This year was no exception. At the Society of Glass and Ceramic Decorators' 2005 Discovery Awards competition, Fenton won awards in the "Collectible, Glass" category for a favrene vase; the "Hand Decorated Glass" category for a ruby case vase; and the "Lightingware, Glass" category for a crystal lamp shade, which also won the Vandenoever and Judges' Awards for "Best of Show."

"Our combinations of glass colors, treatments and decorations make our products unique. We're also not working on the same crystal blank or ceramic mug that everyone else is-we have both special glass pieces and artists with outstanding talent," says Fenton.

This level of creativity comes with a price, and Fenton admits that product development costs are one of the company's biggest ongoing challenges. However, as Fenton Art Glass celebrates its centennial, the company is well aware that it must remain unique and agile to stay in business.

"Our goals are to continue to make unique and beautiful glassware, and to expose that glassware to more people," says Fenton. "We want to develop additional markets and expand into some of the markets that we're not currently involved in. We realize that we have to be willing to change in a variety of ways to meet the markets' needs and overcome the various challenges that face all companies these days. Being flexible has become part of the game.

"We look at our 100th anniversary not as a celebration of the past, but as the start of the future. We intend to remain successful for another century," he says.

For more information about Fenton Art Glass, visithttp://www.fentonartglass.com.

INTERVIEW WITH GEORGE FENTON

How has Fenton Art Glass remained successful when so many other glass companies in the U.S. have failed?

I think there are several reasons why we've remained successful. Over the last 20 or 30 years, we have reinvested back into the business so that we have relatively efficient energy use in our furnaces.

Another thing that we have invested in, and continue to do so today, is a high amount of new product development-including new items, treatments and colors. We try to do a variety of different things. Part of our philosophy is that we're going to succeed by doing things that other companies can't do.

Additionally, we represent the American glass tradition, and we've been able to tell the story about the tradition, the process, the people, the history and the family. No company in our industry can succeed without an attractive, desirable product. But our product doesn't succeed well if we don't also tell our story. We attend signing events, where we go out to stores and meet consumers and sign glassware. Sometimes we meet someone who's been buying Fenton for three years, and they might have 200 pieces because they have become passionately interested in the story. That passion is one of the things that has helped us succeed.

That passion has also helped us compete in an era where many consumers are so focused on price. Our products maintain their value. They are heirlooms for the future; you're going to use them, enjoy them, look at them, and pass them on to the next generation. Even if the value is just an emotional connection, that's an important thing.

What have been the company's biggest challenges in the past decade, and how have you overcome those challenges?

We face the same challenges everyone else does, and the biggest ones are energy and health insurance. I think the other major challenge for us, at least recently, is the impact of several things in our distribution system in the regular retail market. One is that the market is shrinking, largely through consolidation due to competition from Wal-Mart. Another is that since 2001, discretionary dollars for the things we make, which are not necessities, has decreased. The gift retailer has been under a lot of pressure over the last several years, and we've felt the same pressure.

Another challenge is how to expose our product to more people, and how to get more collectors and aficionados exposed to and interested in our product. In many places, our products are not readily available-at least, not in the wide range that we produce. One way we've tried to address that is to focus on some new opportunities in the retail market. We also have a pretty successful partnership with Lenox on some co-branded merchandise, and we are trying to develop a different presentation for the metropolitan market, from both the product style and presentation standpoint. So we are working on a number of things to expand our distribution.

Fenton Art Glass has won numerous SGCD Discovery Awards over the years. This year, the company won the Judges' Award and Vandenoever Award, as well as three other award categories. Why do you think Fenton's designs have so much appeal?

We really depend on the talent of our artists. They have great skills, and we give them a lot of freedom to exercise their creativity and try different things. Additionally, our combinations of glass colors, treatments and decorations make our products unique. We're also not working on the same crystal blank or ceramic mug that everyone else is-we have both special glass pieces and artists with outstanding talent.

Of course, this increases the cost of making our products. A high a percentage of our product line each year is new, and the cost of R&D, startup and closedown, and getting all of those pieces done is substantial. Product development is our biggest cost. We try to recover that through the price point at which we sell our products, but it is an ongoing challenge. Yet without a constantly evolving product line, we probably would no longer be in business.

What are the company's goals for the future?

Our goals are to continue to make unique and beautiful glassware-that's our core strength-and to expose our glassware to more people. We also want to develop additional markets and expand in some of the markets that we're not currently involved in. We realize that we have to be willing to change in a variety of ways to meet the markets' needs and overcome the various challenges that face all companies these days. Being flexible has become part of the game.

We look at our 100th anniversary not as a celebration of the past, but as the start of the future. We intend to remain successful for another century.

One of our themes for this year is to invite everybody to come visit us. We're rated one of the top 10 factory tours in the country, and we're eager to have people visit our small town and learn about our glass.

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