Friday, Apr 20, 2018
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Despite changes, area still deserves 'Glass Capital' title

Toledo once was, and perhaps still is, Glass Capital of the United States, if not the world.

Its home-based glass-container, fiberglass, and glass-tableware companies are global and are dominant or at least huge in their industries.

Even if Owens-Illinois Inc. moves its headquarters to Perrysburg, we still could claim that metro Toledo (or the Toledo area) is the glass capital. But it wouldn't have the same ring.

And there's an irony: The big glass company that got away keeps coming back time after time and soon could be the second-largest glass-industry employer in northwest Ohio.

We are talking, of course, about Randolph Barnard's former Glass Fibers Inc., now the centerpiece of Denver-based Johns Manville.

Exactly half a century ago, in early 1955, Madison Avenue in downtown Toledo was home to four large glass companies - actually five, if you include Libbey Glass, a major O-I division later spun off as a separate public company now known as Libbey Inc.

O-I and its divisions were housed in the former O-I Building (now the National City Bank Building).

The National Bank Building at Madison Avenue and Huron Street (now the Fifth Third Center) housed the headquarters for Owens Corning and the former Libbey-Owens-Ford Co., now headquartered a bit farther out Madison and now a part of British glass giant Pilkington PLC. And at 1810 Madison was Glass Fibers.

Unlike other glass pioneers whose names survive in the firms they started - Michael J. Owens and Edward Drummond Libbey - the late Mr. Barnard never lent his name to a company. But he made his mark in the industry.

Mr. Barnard was one of the executives responsible for O-I's development of fiberglass - in a joint venture with the Corning Glass Works in the 1930s - that led to the formation of Owens Corning in 1938.

He became an executive vice president of O-I but took early retirement in 1944 to found Glass Fibers, based on his own patented process for producing the fine glass filaments.

Before long, Mr. Barnard's firm was a force to be reckoned with. By 1955, he merged it with two L-O-F divisions to form L-O-F Glass Fibers Co., which he headed.

Then, four years later, what was then known as Johns-Manville Corp. acquired the local firm to get into the fiberglass industry.

In time, fiberglass became very important to Johns Manville, especially after the company filed a Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 1982 to settle its multibillion-dollar asbestos-liability claims.

It emerged from bankruptcy six years later. In late 2000, Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway Inc. acquired Johns Manville.

Over the years, Johns Manville has been good to the Toledo area, continually adding or upgrading buildings. Now, the firm employs 650 at its two factories and research facility in Waterville and more than 600 at its two factories in Defiance, where it is constructing a $100 million addition.

In the 1950s, Toledo's glass industry employed about 10,000 in the area. At its peak, in the 1970s, it had 15,000 or more workers.

Even now, about 5,500 work in the area, including 1,400 at Libbey's downtown headquarters and North Toledo plant, 1,250 at Owens Corning's riverfront headquarters, fewer than 1,000 at O-I's Levis Development Park in Perrysburg and the downtown headquarters at One SeaGate, and about 600 at Pilkington's facilities in downtown Toledo and in Rossford and Northwood.

So, although the glass industry has changed tremendously in the last half century, the amazing thing is how much is left in this area.

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