Huffer advises to keep 'blocking and tackling' until industry turns the corner

Sahely Mukerji, Glass Magazine
April 11, 2011
COMMERCIAL, RETAIL, FABRICATION

Russ Huffer, chairman and CEO, Apogee Enterprises Inc., Minneapolis, and acting president, Viracon, Owatonna, Minn., spoke to Glass Magazine's Sahely Mukerji in the wake of Greg Silvestri leaving Viracon. In the interview, he talked about organizational changes at Viracon, the economy and trends in the commercial glass industry. Below are excerpts.

Greg Silvestri left Viracon Feb. 25. When do you expect to replace him?
We will not replace Greg until a new Apogee CEO is named. I will be leading Viracon until that time. We have a great staff at Viracon, and they are very capable of executing the business plans with a focus on continuous improvement.

Has there been any other reorganization as a consequence of Silvestri leaving?
Within Viracon, I have fewer direct reports than did Greg, but that is necessary as I continue in the Apogee CEO role. However, having run the business before and having remained close to it and the industry, the others have great access to me and all of Viracon/Apogee management.

You recently announced that you were going to retire once your successor was named. So, Viracon needs a new president and Apogee needs a new CEO. How does the company plan to handle this going forward?
The board has selected a search firm and will concentrate on the selection of a new CEO looking both at outside and inside candidates. The successful candidate will and should have the responsibility and ability to select the new president of Apogee’s largest business. I will continue to assist the new CEO and support the transition as needed.

When do you expect to find your successor?
CEO jobs do not come along every day. We already have seen interest and expect to find many qualified candidates. The evaluation process will be thorough, so, I would expect the transition to take place by this fall.

Given the leadership turnover, what are you hearing from your employees and customers?
I have spoken with many employees and customers and find them very welcoming to my day-to-day involvement in Viracon. It has been energizing to me to reconnect with many of them.

Sun Capital Partners recently bought Arch assets, and now Vitro has entered into an asset purchase agreement with a private equity firm. What's your take on non-glass companies competing against Viracon?
Troubled economic times make for change. It would be presumptuous of me to say that a new view or new ideas cannot be successful. Not being familiar with [the buying companies], I cannot comment, but usually people with money have great business sense and that is what I expect. 

What are the top three most important issues affecting our industry currently?
Speaking for the commercial/nonresidential side of our industry, we need to continue to look for innovation that addresses energy efficiency in the 15 feet adjacent to the window wall system, use of large area glass systems and move perceptions about our products away from residential paradigms. The assumption that commercial and residential buildings use energy in the same manner leads to poor energy solutions.

What are you doing to handle those?
Innovate and communicate with the industry and government agencies.

What are the products that will do well in the next couple of years?
Bigger glass -- it is more energy efficient and lower cost -- and more energy management by the wall systems that match with building energy needs.

When do you see nonresidential construction turning the corner?
Late this year, early next year.

What are the three most important things a company should do now to reach the turning point?
“Blocking and tackling” – keep a focus on fundamentals, innovate and always watch your cash balance.

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