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Fenton glassworks at Williamstown soon to re-open

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U.S. Glass hopes to begin hiring this spring at the soon-to-be-restarted Fenton Art Glass factory in Williamstown.

"We deferred until hopefully, now, April, when we will begin a process of opening the factory," said Gene Bem, founder and CEO of U.S. Glass, which bought the company last year. "We're going to hire a few people, start to turn some of the furnaces back on, hopefully by summer restart the factory."

Long prized by collectors for its vivid colors and variety of shapes, Fenton Art Glass was produced in Williamstown for more than a century before the factory closed its doors in 2012.

When U.S. Glass of New York announced in September 2012 that it had bought the company, it cited outmoded product design and distribution strategy for Fenton's decline. The company said it would address the changed market by modernizing the product lines and expanding the distribution channels.

U.S. Glass planned at the time to reopen the Williamstown factory in October, but was delayed by financing, according to Bem.

"It was due to the investment process, not due to viability of the project or the enthusiasm for the Williamstown plant," he said. "Just making sure we had enough money to do it."

With the resolution of those investment issues, the existing management team will open its head office in Williamstown soon, and hiring of production workers will follow.

Hiring with market success

"There are over 100 people that are qualified to come back to work out of the (United Steelworkers) list," Bem said.

"We will eventually get to all hundred of them, but we're looking at onesies-twosies for the first 30, 60, 90 days — those will be master glassmakers. And then once we get our catalog established, we will hire in the tens."

He expects the factory to employ 30 to 50 by the end of the year.

Hiring during the longer term will respond to product success in the market.

"Say we do a line of tumblers, and there are different colors that apply to the different seasons," Bem said by way of example. "Kohl's will sell $300 million worth of tumblers per year. If Kohl's takes our product, most of the tumblers they sell are clear but 10 percent are colored — that's $3 million. That's just one product line out of maybe 40 or 50 items and it would be very desirable (to have that account), but we can't control that."

The company will hire conservatively into jobs with long-term viability.

"Since acceptance for housewares is about a 9-month process, we'll hire against a low-end forecast, work people overtime, and as things show they have legs to them we'll add people based on that," Bem said. "We won't hire aggressively against demand because we don't want to bring people in and then lay them off again."

Slow product acceptance could put the number of jobs at just 30 by the end of 2014, he said. Successful accounts with retailers such as Crate & Barrel and Macy's could bring it up to 100 or even 150.

Different ovens, more product lines

While the Williamstown factory will start with the native Fenton product lines, its hiring opportunities will be greatest if it can make other brands as well, Bem said.

The general demise of the American art glass industry poses an opportunity for that, but it depends on acquiring brand licensing.

And it depends on ovens.

Glassmaking ovens are specific to the glass they produce, Bem explained. Fenton's ovens, for example, are designed to make a broad scope of colors and a variety of shapes — glasses, bottles, bowls.

The ovens of the Steuben Glass Works in Corning, New York,  were designed for leaded crystal with a particular look, he said — a look that, like Fenton's, also was long sought by collectors.

Steuben closed in 2011, and its brand may be available for licensing.

"We could buy one of the ovens in Corning and take it Williamstown and do a mini-Steuben line," Bem said. "Not the massive line they tried to do for the last 20 years that didn't make money. But a few of their products that sold."

Cheap gas, affordable glass

Natural gas is a significant part of a glassmaker's cost.

In one way of looking at it, for an item with a lot of hand labor in it, gas might be 5 percent of the cost, Bem said. For a highly automated item, it's 10 to 25 percent.

But that really understates it, he said, because it assumes the ovens are used 24 hours per day, 365 days per week. Once the ovens are fired, they will run whether they're loaded or not. Lower use of the ovens raises the fixed fuel cost per item.

So cheap gas is a big advantage — and forecasts say the new technologies that have made shale gas accessible mean the U.S., and this region, will have that for decades to come.

A glass plant in eastern Europe pays nearly 10 times for gas what Bem expects to pay in West Virginia.

"There's gas here," he said, "and there's not gas in Verona, Italy, in Shenzhen, China or in Mexico City, Mexico. Competitors in those places don't have the structural advantage of having supply literally under their feet — that's why Williamstown, W.Va. turns out to be a great place to employ a lot of people."

Leading the resurgence

U.S. Glass may be at the front of that shale gas–induced manufacturing resurgence that West Virginia economic development officials keep saying is right around the corner.

It's just a matter of time before Marcellus expansion really turns into success for manufacturers in the state, West Virginia Manufacturers Association President Karen Price told The State Journal recently — a statement that reflects widely held hopes and expectations.

"I think the shale gas play across the country is going to allow for manufacturing resurgence in the U.S.," said West Virginia Oil and Natural Gas Association Executive Director Nicholas "Corky" DeMarco. "We're probably going to bring back a lot of the manufacturing that left here when gas prices were a lot higher."

Bem agrees, pointing to a recent interview with CNBC in which billionaire investor T. Boone Pickens said manufacturing in the U.S. could take off "right now" on the back of the cheapest energy in the world.

"Most people have yet to realize the complete advantage that's here because of the supply," Bem said. You can lock the pricing in or you can assume the supply is so great we'll never use it all. It's a question of locking in strategic use of it."