An Interview with Grant M. Wirth, Kopp Glass President & CEO
Kopp Glass President & CEO, Grant M. Wirth, shares his insights on the future of the company in the face of constant technological advancements in the segments in which the company operates. He explains what it is that makes the company one of Pittsburgh’s iconic and most successful private companies for nearly nine decades.
Q: DESCRIBE KOPP GLASS IN ONE WORD….EXPLAIN
If I had to describe Kopp Glass in one word today, it would be “determined.” We are determined. By that I mean that we are a company that is determined to anticipate instead of react to the accelerating pace of technological changes in our markets. We are also determined to continue to be the best in the world at making small quantities of hand molded, specially formulated technical glasses and filter glasses for unusual or unique applications. On one hand, this implies proficiency in many competencies in the segment of the glass industry in which we compete. But for us, being the best in the world boils down to doing a handful of very important things flawlessly, and living our core values every day.
The greatest companies in the world were started and nurtured by determined, passionate people with aspirations and values that were unshakable. We understand our reality: That we can only be the best in the world in markets that are responsive to and value the many unique combinations of competencies that we can bring to bear on their problems. I believe that the people who are Kopp Glass today deeply understand the challenge of maintaining our leadership position in the face of advancements in lighting technology, material sciences and other sciences, and yet our aspirations and the things we stand for are unshakable. This is determination. Our antennas are always tuned in to the unmet needs of our markets, and we are constantly evaluating where we can play and win.
Q: HOW IS KOPP GLASS DIFFERENT FROM OTHER GLASS MANUFACTURERS?
First, Kopp operates in a highly specialized niche of the glass industry that sets us apart from bottle and jar makers, consumer type goods as well as the large float glass and other continuous melt bulk production glass companies. Kopp Glass’ focus is, and has always been on, customized glass solutions that embody the precise hand molding of relatively small quantities of highly engineered glasses for demanding, specialty applications by skilled craftsmen, glassworkers and mold makers. This implies deep competencies in many areas that aren’t readily apparent to most people. One of those competencies is our expertise in melting highly engineered filter glasses. It isn’t just that we make glass that nobody else can make as well as we do, it is that we can bring so many different combinations of activities and competencies to bear on their most difficult challenges.
Some of those activities simply relate to executing basic best practices in business, such as consistently delivering shipments to our customers “on-time, in-spec.” Other competencies relate to our experience in precision glass engineering, optics, mold making, and physically gathering and pressing glass into unusual shapes to precise tolerances. You can’t begin to address these challenges by cobbling together a few people and pieces of equipment that operate without any type of real depth or quality management system. When you consider the fact that we do what we do much differently than anyone else in the world, it’s no wonder that we have led this industry for so long. Having said that, we realize that we must earn our reputation every day with every customer. When I look at the dimensions that surround our core competencies, we have markedly better people, business processes and customer relationships than others who attempt to compete with us, and we work very hard to continuously improve them. These are the things that make us different.
Q: OF THE THREE DIMENSIONS SURROUNDING KOPP GLASS’ CORE COMPETENCIES YOU JUST DESCRIBED, WHICH IS THE MOST IMPORTANT CONTRIBUTING FACTOR TO KOPP GLASS’ SUCCESS?
Our people are the most important factor. Our people processes are the starting point for what makes our value proposition to customers different than our competitors. Ultimately, only the capabilities of people, their dedication to your values and the quality of the ideas they generate can save you from worldwide competition. The more self-motivated, creative, better trained and capable they are, the better your company will be. If you have great people, you will have a great, world class competitive company. If not, you will eventually die a slow (and sometimes not so slow) death. So the difference in our value proposition starts with hiring, training and keeping the very best people in the industry and growing them to achieve their highest potential.
Q: WHAT COMPANY VALUES WOULD YOU SAY ARE MOST DEEPLY HELD BY KOPP GLASS EMPLOYEES?
We have very high performance standards for our people and we continuously raise the performance expectation over time. We have worked hard to develop our meritocracy. Integrity and self-motivation are two of our most deeply held core values. Kopp Glass is not and can’t be a cozy place to work because we push everyone to stretch. Everyone understands that by frequently working outside their comfort zone they will learn faster. I encourage people to look for opportunities to take calculated risks and to experiment with doing new things. I also encourage people to stretch individually, and I want our company to stretch as a whole. We need people to become comfortable with a certain level of ambiguity and uncertainty when it comes to taking risks.
Quality and excellence are also deeply embedded core values of our culture. We were the first, and to my knowledge, remain the only company in our segment of the glass industry that has an ISO 9001 Certified Quality Management System. Everyone at Kopp Glass knows that there are two systems that I monitor very closely, and they are our quality management system and our performance management system. The integrity of both systems is critical to our success. We have time tested processes in place that we follow from the time we receive an inquiry from a potential customer until the time a product ships that ensure that customers get what they want when they want it. There’s a lot of complexity involved in making that happen because we make so many different products and we have so many different business processes for the size of our company.
We are true believers that strong processes generate strong outcomes. Through our quality management system, we are continuously improving processes and learning how to improve our value proposition. We are constantly training and retraining people in both old and new processes and in how to better execute existing processes.
Another core value that is deeply embedded in our culture is creativity. Our most sophisticated customers recognize this, and understand that another important reason they do business with us is because of our ability to consult with them to help envision important ways to differentiate the products that they sell to their customers in ways that create value.
Q: HOW DOES KOPP GLASS ENABLE CUSTOMERS TO DEVELOP DIFFERENTIATED NEW PRODUCTS?
Forward thinking customers bring us into their product design process as consultants early on because we understand how molded technical glass can be formulated and shaped to achieve some truly unique ways to differentiate products. They realize that we are experts in this material, the same way that there are experts in every type of natural or man-made material. We can formulate and mold glasses that are softer or harder, and that meet unusual spectral or thermal properties because we have done it longer than anyone else. These customers understand that it’s risky to incorporate glass designs and related performance standards into their products without understanding all their options and related costs. None of our customers have all the expertise in molded technical glass that we do, nor should they.
As design consultants in technical glass, we help our customers assess and reduce risk in their efforts to develop new and improved products and get them to market faster. That translates into bigger profits. It’s that simple.
Q: IN TODAY’S WORLD WHERE PATENTS AND INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY (IP) ARE HIGHLY PROTECTED ASSETS, ARE YOU SEEING CUSTOMERS BEGINNING TO AVOID THE COLLABORATIVE DEVELOPMENT APPROACH YOU JUST DESCRIBED?
Just the opposite – in fact we are seeing a trend where more companies are engaging in collaborative development with us as consultants because of the importance of getting their own innovative and differentiated products to market sooner. That said, I think that a lot of manufacturers are still missing a huge opportunity to discover important innovative features for their products by not including experts like us earlier in their design plans. We understand and demonstrate our respect for our customer’s intellectual property concerns every day through strict adherence to mutual non-disclosure agreements. They understand the choice. The choice is between potentially developing some truly unique products a little faster with us, or risking the development of a “me too” type product by keeping all development internal. When sales and profits begin to stall at the OEM level, it could be a signal that their products are not satisfying unmet customer needs and that they need to have much stronger appeal in the marketplace.
With entrepreneurial companies, the trend over the last decade is more obvious. They understand the need to get working prototypes into the hands of customers faster. Again, the trade-off is between a faster and more efficient product development effort, or potentially developing a product that misses the mark. With established companies who need to get a stronger stream of new products into development, we have seen a growing appetite to collaborate and contractually mitigate IP risk.
Q: WHY IS PRODUCT DIFFERENTIATION SO IMPORTANT TO YOUR CUSTOMERS?
Who wants to have what amounts to a “me too” value proposition? We don’t, and that’s why we’ve worked very hard to create a unique value proposition for many different markets and types of customers. If your products are undifferentiated and your value proposition is nearly identical to your competitors, you can easily get locked into a race to the bottom by competing on the basis of price. That’s what I’m talking about when I refer to stagnant sales and profits.
I am old enough to remember reading “The Marketing Imagination” written by the late Theodore Levitt decades ago. The ideas that he discussed in that book have stuck with me because they were so fundamentally sound. When I read business periodicals today it almost seems that some people are discovering something that they think is completely new… that imagination drives ideas and that ideas drive innovative and differentiated new products and better profit margins. In the information age that we are now in, to be perceived as having a different and better product, you need to actually have a different and better product. At Kopp Glass, we can help to make that happen for our customers with ideas.
Q: SO TO WRAP-UP, CAN YOU SUMMARIZE WHERE YOU SEE THE FUTURE FOR KOPP GLASS?
Yes. First, I think that we will continue to improve and reinvigorate all the things that we already do very well and that our markets will respond positively. Second, we are currently monitoring many different technologies that impact our company. I cannot say with certainty whether we will be able to play and win in all, some or none of the space in which those technologies will be applied. But what I do know is that we have great, capable, nimble, creative and highly motivated people who deeply embrace our values who are determined to anticipate change and position Kopp Glass to play and win in the markets in which we are best able to compete.