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Monday, Mar 4, 2024

A Glass Act

Don’t look for a plain piece of glass in the showroom at UltraGlas, a designer and manufacturer of architectural glass whose decorative qualities add practical elegance or alternative to counter tops, walls, partitions and lighting fixtures. Plain glass would be dull. Instead UltraGlas adds in textures (ultracrinkle, arroyo and strata) and designs (falling squares, vanishing checkerboard), color; can cut the glass into circles, small squares, rectangles and as large as nearly 7-feet tall; the glass becomes corporate signs, awards and backdrops for water features. In the office of CEO Jane Skeeter, a plain piece of glass is atop her desk but the white headless mannequin by the back wall attracts the eye as it displays an outfit made of glass lined with felt that Skeeter wore in New Orleans in 2005. “It’s a great example of how versatile glass can be and how desirable it can be,” Skeeter said. “It can be used in building in lieu of a lot of other products.” More glass outfits aren’t in Skeeter’s future as she guides her company through a growth phase of getting glass products into the hands of designers of private homes, hotels, restaurants and casinos. Part of that phase is a new product to be made from 100 percent recycled glass; and considering a move to larger space. The company is also at the point of paying off loans incurred following the burst of the tech bubble and slowdown in hospitality industry spending following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Outside of her daily duties at UltraGlas, Skeeter is president-elect of the Los Angeles chapter of the National Association of Women Business Owners. That Skeeter was chosen by the association’s board to be president is a sign of her commitment to the organization and an understanding of the strategic level work done at the board level. She also brings to the group her business expertise and a personable style, said Bonnie Njist, a past president of the association. “She connects well with members,” Njist said of Skeeter. Young entrepreneur Skeeter admits to not knowing where she got the entrepreneurial spirit that has guided her for nearly 40 years. She didn’t get it from her mother a teacher or her father, who worked in an office. When growing up in Canoga Park while other girls her age made spending money by babysitting, Skeeter set up a small business to iron clothes. All the ventures that Skeeter went into involved working with her hands. First it was dress-making and clothing design; then came repairing antiques. She was also a partner in a firm that restored Porsche sports cars. Skeeter did the interiors. Antiques gave Skeeter her first exposure to the world of glass and she taught herself how to make stained glass in order to open her own studio. She later took her skills to the Reseda Adult School where she taught a program until the late 1970s. Of all those ventures the glass making turned out as the most successful. She founded UltraGlas in 1987, the proceeds coming from the sale of a Porsche convertible, and received glazing and general contracting licenses that allowed the company to do more work. After incorporating, Skeeter and her five employees moved from her garage and went to space in Northridge. In 1991, came a second move, this time to Chatsworth, and 10 years later made a third move to its current Chatsworth location on Gazette Avenue. During this time period, Skeeter switched methods for producing her glass designs from the labor intensive process of stained glass in which each individual piece of glass was cut and held together with lead to that of heat sculpting, or slumping, in which glass melted in a kiln flows into a mold. The use of color, however, is a unique aspect to UltraGlas product. A coating or paint is not used but instead the color gets fired on glass tile in a permanent way in a technique that Skeeter researched for several years and that borrows from methods used in other industries. “I call it interactive glass because people can’t help but touch it,” Skeeter said. “I also say it is sensuous. It has neat tactile qualities.” Worldwide business UltraGlas ships to customers around the world. In Los Angeles, the company made the glass in the 28 square panels in the main lobby at Children’s Hospital. Other uses include a two-story mural for Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines, and the casino ceiling at the Palazzo tower at the Venetian in Las Vegas. That 1,700-square foot installation took seven weeks to complete. Don Carstens, an Arizona-based designer, used UltraGlas in five Mastro’s Steakhouse locations in Arizona and California. In Beverly Hills and Thousand Oaks, the entire front of the restaurant came from Skeeter’s company. Skeeter and her staff have always been good about working on custom jobs, Carstens said. That the firm can produce large pieces of glass is also a plus. For one of the Mastro’s locations Carstens and Skeeter designed pieces that added up to 66 feet in length. “She got personally involved and made it better,” Carstens said. “The end result was something we thought was successful.” The hospitality industry has been good to UltraGlas but that hadn’t always been the case. After Sept. 11, the slump in the industry led to a drop in revenues from $2.7 million in 2001 to $1.8 million the following year. All the financial planning Skeeter had done was out the window. With a larger building to pay on, she rented out a portion to another company. She also accessed all the credit that she could. Skeeter weathered the downturn and when customer orders returned was ready to meet their needs. Now she’s excited about a new product line made from 100 percent recycled glass, the leftovers from her shop and what can be purchased from other heavy users of glass. By making changes to the manufacturing process to keep excess glass from being tossed out Skeeter should be a role model to other businesses, said Kenn Phillips, director of Education and Workforce Investment for the Economic Alliance of the San Fernando Valley. “It is looking at stuff that can go to the dump and instead make it into products that are viable to sell,” Phillips said. SPOTLIGHT – UltraGlas Inc. Year Founded: 1987 Revenues in 2006/07: $3.2 million Revenues in 2007/08: $4 million Employees in 2007: 32 Employees in 2008: 36

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