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Business Observer Friday, Apr. 8, 2016 6 years ago

Sharp Edges

It started in a garage in 1992. Now Key Glass is one of the largest independent glass contractors in the region, with expansion in the works.
by: Steven Benna Staff Writer

Greg and Sheril Burkhart started Key Glass out of their garage in 1992. And for the past 24 years, growth has gone “as the turtle would go,” Sheril Burkhart says.

But now Key Glass is ready for a big expansion. To accommodate its recent growth and to make room to continue at its current pace, the company is adding 18,000 square feet of space by the end of this year. The Manatee County-based company, which does window and other glass installment, currently operates in 9,420 square feet of space. It has 42 employees.

“The future really is limitless, but we can't look at it that way,” Greg Burkhart says. “We only want projects that fit into our skill set.”

That skill set largely comes down to having a wide breadth of experience. And at Key Glass, that means taking on projects that aren't small and cookie-cutter, such as 7-Eleven or Wawa, Greg Burkhart says. It's more interested in larger, more unique projects like The Mall at University Town Center in Sarasota or the University of Tampa Innovation & Collaboration Building.

“There's a trend worldwide of pushing the envelope with architecture,” Greg Burkhart says. “Now they want to do that here. We've gotten good at understanding how to help them.”

One example is a 10-story air traffic control tower at Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport that requires separate glass panels on each side. Key Glass is working with an engineer out of New York City and a glass manufacturer out of Canada to tackle that project.

The company hopes it will have the capacity to do more work like that with its expansion. “It's humbling and exciting to drive around town and see the work that you've done,” Sheril Burkhart says.

Sales fell at Key Glass when the recession hit, more than 40% one year. Yet Greg Burkhart took the hit without taking from employees. Because of that, the firm was able to maintain its payroll and keep perks such as health insurance and a 100% 401(k) match up to 4%.

That approach cost Key Glass some profits during the down years. But retaining employees and keeping them satisfied has helped the contractor rebound post-recession. The company had $10.5 million in revenues in 2015, up 15.4% from 2014. Sales increased 12.3% from 2013 to 2014.

Finding qualified help is one of the biggest obstacles at Key Glass. The company recently added two employees and seeks to add three more, but it needs significant infrastructure to continue adding new workers.

That's where the space expansion comes into play. It will consolidate two offices into one, which will improve efficiency and help with growth, Greg Burkhart says.

Improved efficiency will help companywide, but it will also help the Burkharts communicate with their son and co-owner, Justin Burkhart, who works in an office across the street. Justin Burkhart is already heavily involved with the business, primarily on the production side, and has worked with the company since high school. “I used to tell the guys to give him the dirtiest job you can find,” Greg Burkhart jokes about shaping his then-teenage son into the next leader at Key Glass.

After college and some finance work, Justin Burkhart was ready to join Key Glass. The only problem: There wasn't room for him. So the family launched a separate hurricane shelter business, which has since become a significant part of Key Glass.

“It gave him a real sense of running a business,” Sheril Burkhart says. With that experience, she adds it should be a “gradual fade-out process” for him to takeover.

Follow Steven Benna on Twitter @steve_benna

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