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Jeannette Specialty Glass Pivoted While Other Nearby Manufacturers Closed

Before Pittsburgh became the Steel City, the region was known for glass manufacturing.

Just 30 miles southeast of Pittsburgh, Jeannette was once home to several glass plants and was known as “Glass City.”

Jeannette Specialty Glass has remained in business since 1904.

“This little town used to be a big bustling town. It used to have seven glass factories here,” said CEO Kathleen Sarniak-Tanzola. “I’m the only one left.”

For decades, a bulk of revenue came from producing lighting products. The company sends glass lenses, and other parts, to companies that assemble lights.

In the loud factory just feet from where molten glass flows into molds, Sarniak-Tanzola recently inspected a finished refractor made from the company’s own borosilicate glass formula. She said the hard glass withstands heat better than the more prevalent soda-lime glass her competitors use. Soda-lime is often used to make bake ware, notably the Pyrex brand.

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Credit Sarah Schneider / 90.5 WESA
Kathleen Sarniak-Tanzola holds a refractor used in street lighting in the factory of Jeannette Specialty Glass.

The belief in the borosilicate glass is what helped the company stay afloat as other manufacturers closed shop. In the early 2000s, factories opened en masse in China that made similar lighting parts from the same type of glass. Sarniak-Tanzola said labor in those factories is cheaper, and American companies took a hit.

“We saw over 30 percent of the business go away,” she said. “We had to survive.”

That’s when Sarniak-Tanzola joined the company to launch an idea that came from her late husband.

“We called him the mad scientist because he just for hours would put things together. He was just a really cool, cool person,” she said.

Shifting priorities

Ted Sarniak’s plan to increase profits was to make glass sinks.

A few styles made with a different type of glass were already on the market. But he thought his borosilicate glass could better withstand hot water and that the crystal-clear glass was more attractive than the competition's. They began making sinks that sat on top of and within vanities.

“Next thing you know we're doing business and doing serious business. We did close to $2 million within three years,” she said.

The company’s line of kitchen and bath sinks and glass tiles, JSG Oceana, now makes up 20 percent of its revenue. They’re in 2,000 showrooms and sold in 500 Lowes stores.

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Credit Sarah Schneider / 90.5 WESA
Glass sinks and spa pedicure basins are displayed in he showroom at Jeannette Specialty Glass.

While other companies hung their hats on one or two products, Ted Sarniak stretched his 50-person company and pivoted. So did his wife. She left a career in cosmetics marketing to help her husband.

“When I first started here, I put tennis shoes on ... and went in the factory and learned every single job. From production to finishing to shipping to all of it, so that I would understand the business,” she said.  

Ted died suddenly from a heart attack in 2012 and Kathleen stayed on board as CEO. Since Sarniak’s death, the company had created seven more sink designs including its best seller, Cubix.

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Credit Sarah Schneider / 90.5 WESA
The Cubix sink design.

“I always say he would be so proud that he actually taught us how to do things and you know this is his legacy that we're carrying on,” she said.

She’s spotted her sinks in restaurants, salons and even reality TV shows.

“I remember once there was a Bachelor scene and he is standing at the mirror and he's primping himself for his date that evening. And there's our sink," she said. "It’s just fun."

The past three years have been the most profitable since Ted Sarniak bought the business out of bankruptcy in 1976. 

“Teddy could turn a penny into a dollar and a dollar and the five and five in the 10,” she said. “Who knows what makes someone entrepreneurial and someone else not. It's the spirit and Teddy always had it and he's taught it to me is taught to his son. And it's catchy.”

Eyeing the future

Her son, Ted Sarniak IV, who is the company’s general manager, came up with the latest products for two industries, Sarniak-Tanzola says, will never be in recession.

“Pets. Americans love their pets. And, we all have to die. So we make urns now. For both the pet industry and human industry,” she said.

And a line of glass pet food and water dishes launched last month. The pet and human urns are very new. Tom Kadar, the company’s manufacturing manager, picked up a large urn from a pallet. The pieces are now in production after six months of design.

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Credit Sarah Schneider / 90.5 WESA
Tom Kadar, Jeannette Specialty Glass manufacturing manager, displays a small urn the company now produces.

He’s proud of the company’s creativity. Even in a small factory, the staff adapts to new products.

“It’s forward thinking, in my opinion. You have to be ahead of the curve with what the industry is doing,” he said.

He’s also proud of the factory’s safety standards. Working with glass can be a dangerous job. Glass is made mostly from sand, which melts at 3,000 degrees and drops into the molds at 2,000 degrees. It takes about two hours to cool. His team, though, has gone 280 days without an injury, which he attributes to preparing workers for what they’re expected to do before each shift.

Besides staying ahead of the competition, Sarniak-Tanzola has faced plenty of other challenges. The factory’s furnace runs on gas and oxygen. Prices for those utilities fluctuate constantly. She’s also had to figure out a new apprenticeship model as her workforce ages.

For the last five years, she’s put a trainee alongside someone who will soon retire.

She calls herself a “disruptor” as she finds ways to remain profitable.

“I will come in and take folks that are used to doing something a particular way and give them the opportunity to come up with new and innovative ways to do something. It doesn't have to be a boss telling them how to do it. If you know how to do something better less expensive, let’s talk about it,” she said.

But, she said she is confident the company will outlive her.

“There’s a lot of great people here, and it will always be here. It’s lasted 115 years, it will last another,” she said.