Ebeid: 'Guardian's entering the energy field rather than being a tired old glassmaker'

Sahely Mukerji, Glass Magazine
April 18, 2011
COMMERCIAL, RETAIL, AUTO, FABRICATION

Russ Ebeid, president of Auburn Hills, Mich.-based Guardian Industries' Flat Glass Group, will retire Sept. 1, after 41 years with the company. Scott Thomsen will succeed Ebeid. In an interview with Sahely Mukerji, Ebeid discussed his career and life after glass. Below are excerpts.

What is your greatest contribution to the glass industry?
(Laughs) You’re asking me to brag? I’m not Donald Trump. I’m not running for any office.
I don’t like to talk about myself. I’d rather leave my reputation, and have others do the praising. I come from an immigrant family, and you know how that feels like.

That said, I think Guardian has given customers a choice in countries that had limited options. We’ve promoted independent customers. Previously, customers were muscled with limited glass choices. We’ve been the George Washington of the glass industry around the world. We’ve assembled a team of people -- leading managers, sales and manufacturing -- that understand business. Collectively, we have 600 years of experience in Guardian alone. We have 28 plants, about 40 managers, with average 15 years of experience each. These people are not new to the glass industry and have been around for a long time. That shows stability – and it’s a team that I helped put together. I’ve been the coach for a long time.

What are you most proud of in your long career?
I have to go back. Guardian was the first company to enter the float glass industry 50 years ago. We had no technology/licensing agreements when we entered the business. We put together a group of people that could make glass. Then we linked  business with manufacturing by not having any remote sales offices. That allowed customers to have direct communication with the factory and quick response time. It also made for decision making at a lower level than what organizations did during that time. Our people could make decisions on the spot. I came from GM, and from there I learned what not to do at Guardian. Bill Davidson gave me the freedom to do that. He gave me the latitude to exercise that judgment. Forty-one years later, we’re building our 29th float plant in Russia.

When you’re focusing on your task, you’re proud of the moment. However, looking at my career now, after 28 plants, my thrill is watching my managers grow. It’s like watching your children: you’re more proud of them than you are proud of yourself.

What was the lowest point of your career?
As you know from your time in this industry, there was always something going on with Guardian. It’s like going to Disney World: you go from one ride to another, and it keeps getting better. So, there’s no low point. You’re not a loser in boxing until you can’t get up. And at Guardian I kept getting up.

The two hardest blows of my career were when Bill Davidson died in March 2009, and when David Ford [European plant manager] died in a plane crash in the early ’90s. Ford was on a humanitarian mission to Bosnia with U.S. Commerce Secretary Ron Brown and other business executives, when the plane went down in a storm in April 1996.  There were no survivors.

What has Guardian contributed to the building environment?
What you’re seeing now. When Guardian got into business we rapidly expanded to the five continents, even in the Communist era. That was the first phase. Now when the Chinese or other new glass players have got into the business, we’re bringing innovation to the industry with patented products.

You could almost call us an energy company, not a glass company anymore. Our products save energy in the form of water/heating/cooling/solar, and we’re also in the electronics area. We’re entering the energy field rather than being a tired old glassmaker. In the end, we’re bringing products that are consumer friendly.

Where does Guardian go from here?
Scott Thomsen will take my place and continue setting a pace on a global basis. A separating from the pack will happen in terms of some companies being a commodity producer. We’re going to push innovation and be a pretty green company.

If we asked somebody in the glass industry what your legacy is, what would they say?
I hope they will say I’m a straight-shooter. I told them what they didn’t like to hear all the time, but I told them no lies. I’ve always tried to build their business, which helped build our business.

What will you do after retirement?
I will be the director of ProMedica Health System, [Toledo, Ohio,] with 268 facilities in Southern Michigan and Ohio, rated # 2 in diversity in health care. In honor of my mother, who had Alzheimer’s, I dedicated and paid for a hospice center with ProMedica. And now I’m looking at sponsoring a children’s hospital in Toledo.

I also will be the director of Lourdes University [Sylvania, Ohio]. I sponsored a student center at the university, and my grandkids went there. I am looking at possibly sponsoring a basketball center.

I bought a private club, Fairlane Club, [Dearborn, Mich.,] that has about 1,300 members. The club is a diversion. It used to be owned by the Ford Motor Co., and they sold it to some private people who did not do a good job of running it. So, I bought it to try and restore it to its glory days during Ford’s time. Kind of like the glass industry: I will try to rebuild it.

Alongside, I will do charity work and lecture in half a dozen universities. I’ve been involved in charities with four colleges.  Now I’ll be back to learning, I’ve always wanted to go back to school. I’ll be back to learning, instead of mentoring.

Mukerji is the senior editor at Glass Magazine. Write her at smukerji@glass.org.