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Jan. 15, 2021

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Peninsula Glass celebrated, wins top award for small businesses

Business plans move to new facility

By , Columbian business reporter
4 Photos
Oscar Paniagua of Peninsula Glass, right, helps prepare an order for a customer while working with colleagues. Peninsula Glass was named 2020 Small Business of the Year by the Greater Vancouver Chamber of Commerce.
Oscar Paniagua of Peninsula Glass, right, helps prepare an order for a customer while working with colleagues. Peninsula Glass was named 2020 Small Business of the Year by the Greater Vancouver Chamber of Commerce. (Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

The path to success is clear for Peninsula Glass Company: “You could almost define what we do by what other people don’t do,” owner Tom Kemp said.

Kemp has spent the past two decades focusing on small custom orders, usually for specialized products. The result is a company that is indeed small — just 43 employees and a single office and manufacturing center on Northwest 121st Avenue — but with enough manufacturing capacity to establish a national footprint. It was honored with the Greater Vancouver Chamber of Commerce’s 2020 Small Business of the Year Award.

The Peninsula Glass facility is a labyrinth of storage racks and car-sized machinery used for turning raw glass sheets and metal beams into fully assembled windows and glass products.

There’s one table for hand-cutting, another with an automatic cutting head that zips back and forth across giant glass sheets, and a third where a water jet bores precision holes. There’s also a furnace for tempering glass, and an edging machine to smooth the sheets.

“When I bought the business, we cut everything by hand,” Kemp said. “It was a different world than it is today.”

The back half of the shop is devoted to windows, with two big machine tables for bending metal into frames and nine assembly stations for putting windows together. A significant portion of the floor space is reserved for shipping operations, which naturally demand an abundance of secure packaging.

Racks of completed orders line the walls, bound for destinations all over the country. Peninsula Glass fulfills around 200 orders in a given day, according Kemp, and typically more than a thousand per week.

Kemp bought the business in 1998, and later moved it from Portland to Vancouver. He’d spend most of his career in the paper mill industry, he said, and was looking both for a change of pace and a job that would allow him to stay in the Portland area permanently. Peninsula Glass had about nine employees at the time, he said, and focused on making dual-pane replacements for single-pane RV windows.

He began to gradually widen the range of products, starting with the purchase of Sanders Reproduction Glass, which built parts for classic cars.

Subsequent acquisitions and expansions added products such as marine vehicle windows, emergency vehicle windows and high-temperature ceramic panels for wood stoves.

Kemp sought to avoid expanding into product categories with larger competitors, like windshields or storefront glass. “You have to recognize who you are, and more importantly you have to really understand who you aren’t,” he said.

Kemp declined to disclose the company’s revenue, but he said sales have grown by a consistent 15 percent to 20 percent per year and now stand at about 20 times what they were when he took over.

The majority of the company’s clients are one-time customers who need a specific piece or pieces of glass.

Kemp still operates Sanders as a division of Peninsula Glass with its own branding and marketing, along with three other divisions: One Day Glass, Motion Windows and Stock Glass. The business is broadly divided into purely glass products and framed window products, but Kemp said the separate divisions help illustrate the firm’s wide range of products.

“Peninsula Glass conjures up a mom-and-pop glass shop, which we are not,” he said.

Kemp said he realized in his first few years at the company that it would need to rapidly fabricate and ship glass all over the country, and that the internet would play a major role. He remembers buying multiple window-related domain names before search engines were widely used, trying to anticipate web addresses that potential customers might investigate.

A family business

Kemp didn’t buy Peninsula with the intention of creating a family business, but that’s how it worked out. His two adult sons, Jeff Kemp and Joe Kemp, serve in management roles. Both have been involved since the beginning of Tom Kemp’s tenure — Joe Kemp started working in the factory in high school.

Jeff Kemp said he’s proud to have seen the business grow into a national brand while keeping manufacturing and shipping in-house.

“There’s a big sense of pride in the thousands of conversion vans all over the United States that now carry windows with our logo,” he said.

Tom Kemp said he also takes pride in the company’s relatively nonhierarchical structure. Tom, Jeff and Joe all manage the company, but they don’t have specific titles on their business cards. There aren’t any supervisors on the factory floor — just employees working at their own specialized stations. The structure results in very low turnover, Tom Kemp said — some employees have with the company since before he bought it.

The COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t had a significant impact on the company’s operations. In fact, 2020 is on track to set a new sales record. The company was similarly able to dodge the worst of the 2008 recession.

Jeff Kemp attributed the consistent growth in part to the company’s diverse product lineup. Custom replacement windows or glass panels tend to be essential purchases that can’t be delayed during a recession. The other contributing factor is a conservative management approach, he said, emphasizing slow growth and reinvestment.

New facility coming

The company recently broke ground on a new facility on Northeast 147th Avenue that will offer nearly triple the company’s existing 13,000-square-foot space.

When completed next summer, it will provide plenty of room for growth, but all three Kemps insisted that the primary goal is to accommodate existing operations.

Peninsula Glass had to start renting nearby storage several years ago, Tom Kemp said, and the packaging and shipping operation has spilled into a shed and tent.

“The business is at a size (where) we don’t necessarily need or want to grow,” Joe Kemp said. “We simply need space.”

Tom Kemp, 70, said he has no immediate plans to retire, but he wants the business to be well-positioned for a smooth transition. Moving to the new facility is part of that preparation work, he said.

“I’m going to do the best I can for as long as I can,” he said.