Owens Corning celebrates 75 yearsWritten by Sarah Ottney | Managing Editor | firstname.lastname@example.org
From the shingles on your roof and the cellphone in your hand to the wind turbines and Corvettes you pass on the highway, products containing glass fiber made by Owens Corning (OC) are everywhere.
The Toledo-based Fortune 500 company will celebrate its 75th year in business Oct. 31.
“Throughout its 75 years, Owens Corning and its people have proven to be resourceful, resilient and relentless amid some of history’s most trying and triumphant times,” said Chairman and CEO Mike Thaman in a statement. “The people who built this company had a revolutionary vision to create fibers from glass. That was the beginning of Owens Corning’s legacy of innovation, and now it’s our time to carry that vision into the next 75 years.”
The company is currently in negotiations with the City of Toledo to remain in its Downtown headquarters for “the foreseeable future,” said senior corporate communications leader Matt Schroder. The company’s current lease runs through 2015.
In a statement, Schroder called the proposed agreement a tremendous example of a public and private partnership to benefit the entire region, adding that OC looks forward to maintaining jobs and growing employment when appropriate. Toledo City Council still needs to approve the deal.
The company, which employs 15,000 people in 27 countries on five continents, operates in two segments: residential and commercial building materials (primarily roofing and insulation) and composites — glass-fiber reinforcements and engineered materials for thousands of end-use applications in a number of markets.
Most people associate Owens Corning with building materials, not realizing how many other products contain Owens Corning materials, said Byron Hulls, director of market intelligence for composites.
“They don’t have an ‘Owens Corning Inside’ label — although we’ve talked about it a lot,” Hulls said.
Glass fiber reinforcement composites is a $7 billion global market, with more than 40,000 applications markets like transportation, industrial products, consumer products, construction and renewable energy, Hulls said.
He estimated the average North American household contains 100 kilograms of glass fibers, which can be found in insulation, showers, washing machines, cushion vinyl flooring, ceiling tiles, window frames and more.
“A composite just means a combination of two materials where the resulting properties are better than the properties of each individual component,” Hulls said.
Materials made with glass fibers are both lighter and stronger than traditional materials like wood, steel or aluminum, smaking cars and boats more fuel-efficient, Hulls said. Fiberglass-reinforced composites also don’t rust, making them good for underground pipes and storage tanks.
Renewable energy is a fast-growing field and fiberglass is a key component in wind turbine blades.
“That’s come to the forefront as a big market,” Hulls said. “Ten years ago, it was almost zero percent and now it’s almost 10 percent — 8 percent in 2012 — of that $7 billion glass fiber market globally.”
OC is continuously working with clients to develop new applications and improve current ones.
“One of the things with this company is there’s always been the ability to find and deliver on future market opportunities,” Hulls said. “Our culture creates ways we can identify and communicate those and people are willing to take those risks. That’s a great statement about the leadership.”
The industry changes so rapidly it’s not possible to predict where the company might be in the next five years, much less the next 75.
“It’s a really dynamic marketplace. It’s actually a lot of fun,” Hulls said.
With Prohibition and the Great Depression reducing the demand for glass bottles in the early 1930s, the glass industry, including Toledo-based Owens-Illinois (O-I), found itself searching for new markets, said Bill Hamilton, an OC retiree who now serves as the unofficial company historian.
While glass is typically thought of as rigid and brittle, in fiber form it is soft and pliable. A marble approximately one inch in diameter can make more than 1,000 miles of fine glass fibers, yet pound for pound those fibers are stronger than steel, Hamilton said.
O-I didn’t invent glass fiber, but it was the first company to develop a method of making it in commercial quantities and create markets for the product, Hamilton said.
The discovery was made by accident. James Slayter, a consultant hired by O-I to develop architectural glass block, had noticed some glass fibers hanging from the roof joists at an Illinois factory. He realized they might make good insulation material, but didn’t know an efficient way to make them.
Meanwhile, Dale Kleist, a young employee at a plant in Columbus, was frustrated by attempts to weld two halves of a glass block together.
The tool he was using was producing only fine glass fibers rather than the stream of molten glass he was looking for.
His boss, John H. ‘“Jack” Thomas, happened to walk by and asked him how it was going.
“Dale said, ‘Not very good. All it’s making is these fibers,’” Hamilton said. “Jack got kind of wide-eyed, grabbed some and ran out of there like a child with a new toy.”
Thomas immediately recognized the fibers as the insulation-quality material Slayter had been looking for.
“That was the discovery that launched the fiberglass business within Owens-Illinois. Later New York-based Corning Glass Works joined them and they worked together,” Hamilton said.
On Oct. 31, 1938, the companies founded Owens Corning to focus exclusively on what they called Fiberglas.
One of the first big breakthroughs for the new company was making insulation for warships during World War II. It also started making airplane parts.
“Lots of materials like aluminum, steel and rubber were scarce during the war years so engineers and designers were more open to using new materials,” Hamilton said. “That willingness to try fiberglass as a substitute for other materials was a big boost for Owens Corning in its early days.”
After the war, the company moved into home insulation and later the transportation industry, including frames for boats and cars, Hamilton said. It also provided materials used in NASA spacecraft and astronaut suits.
Owens Corning also revolutionized the roofing industry, Hamilton said. When at first the industry balked at OC’s new Fiberglas-reinforced shingles, OC set about to change the industry from the inside out.
“Shingles used to be made with an organic felt — it was like very porous thick paper saturated with asphalt. If you didn’t totally saturate it, it could absorb moisture and curl up on the roof, which didn’t look good and didn’t work well,” Hamilton said.
“Owens Corning acquired a nationwide company that made shingles and asphalt and started converting them to make shingles with fiberglass reinforcement. Soon the whole industry changed. I don’t know what the percentage of fiberglass-to-organic is today, but I have to say it’s over 90 percent fiberglass and Owens Corning is the leading manufacturer of roofing shingles today.”
The company’s flexibility and resiliency has allowed it to “survive and thrive” through ups and downs, including a declaration of bankruptcy in 2000 following a series of asbestos lawsuits. It emerged from bankruptcy on the anniversary of its founding, Oct. 31, 2006.
“A lot of things that might have taken down other companies they managed to overcome and reinvent themselves, but always around the core businesses of glass fibers,” Hamilton said. “To still be there making glass fibers 75 years later is pretty impressive.”
OC has several special events planned to mark its 75th anniversary.
On Oct. 28, Thaman and Owens Corning’s senior leadership team, along with the Pink Panther mascot, will be at the New York Stock Exchange to ring the closing bell. On Oct. 30, the company will award $10,000 to a retiree volunteer of the year to present to the charity of his or her choice. Also on Oct. 30, OC will host an evening cocktail event for community leaders, nonprofit partners and more. On Oct. 31, Thaman will host a “town hall” event for employees.
Owens Corning reported total sales of nearly $5.2 billion last year. This year’s third-quarter earnings report, released Oct. 23, showed net sales of $1.32 billion compared with $1.28 billion during the same period last year, and adjusted earnings of $63 million, an increase of $23 million from the same period last year.
“Today’s Owens Corning embodies the same confident vision our founders had in 1938: to create a better tomorrow and to inspire our people to perform at their best every day,” Thaman said in a statement. “Owens Corning has many bright years ahead. Our success will continue as we anticipate the needs of our customers and grow our people into tomorrow’s leaders. We will meet the needs of the present without compromising the world we leave to the future.”
For more information, visit www.owenscorning.com.