In its 45 years of operation in the industrial neighborhood just west of Seattle’s Fishermen’s Terminal, Northwestern Industries has made sliding glass patio doors for suburban homes, etched glass for King County Metro bus shelters and “architectural” glass for some of the most iconic structures in the Pacific Northwest. Among them: the vaulted ceiling of the Washington State Convention Center and the Spheres at Amazon’s downtown headquarters.
But in a sign of changes in both the global glass business and the local real-estate market, Northwestern’s run in Seattle — and the jobs that have come with it — may soon come to an abrupt end.
Northwestern Industries told its employees Monday that the glass fabricator had been sold and that its Seattle facility — which the company describes as the largest of its kind on the West Coast — would likely shut down in February.
Although company President Joe Hawley said there was “a slight chance” the massive factory could remain open, he said that the new owner — California-based Glasswerks Los Angeles — planned to move the Seattle operation to Northwestern Industries’ second manufacturing plant, in Yuma, Arizona, which was also part of the sale. The 133 Seattle-area workers have been offered jobs in the Yuma facility, Hawley said.
“It was a pretty big shock,” said one worker who was at the Monday meeting and asked not to be named. “We always seemed pretty busy.”
Indeed, the changes at Northwestern Industries, which recorded sales of around $40 million in 2019, illustrate the paradoxical challenges that even successful manufacturers face in fast-growing Seattle.
Northwestern Industries’ current owner and co-founder, Tokyo-based Central Glass, is selling the Seattle glassmaker, in part, because industry forecasters expect the nearly decade-long global construction boom to begin to cool in 2020, Hawley said.
That expected slowdown is likely to translate into flat or even slightly falling demand for architectural glass worldwide, including in the Western U.S. markets that Northwestern Industries depends on, Hawley said.
Central Glass “said there’s not enough upside to this right now,” he said during an interview in his offices Thursday morning. “It doesn’t look like it’s going to take off.”
Another, more familiar factor is also at play: the soaring cost of Seattle real estate.
Northwestern Industries’ roughly 7-acre property on West Jameson Street has grown so valuable — a recent assessment put it “north of $30 million,” Hawley said — that it “doesn’t make sense” for Glasswerks to buy the property along with the business.
Instead, Hawley said, Glasswerks plans to move much of the Seattle equipment to the Yuma plant, which the California company did buy.
Glasswerks, a 39-year-old company headquartered near Los Angeles with annual revenue of $100 million to $150 million, has made several recent acquisitions amid an expansion, a Glasswerks spokesperson said.
The changes at Northwestern Industries will likely mark the end of a local manufacturing operation that has played a low-key but important role in the region’s growth.
The company was founded in 1974 as a 50-50 joint venture between Central Glass and local glass temperer Norman Heutmaker, Hawley said.
Northwestern Industries, which started on a corner of the current property, initially concentrated on glass for patio doors, which it fabricated from bulk glass sheets purchased from glass manufacturers and wholesaled to regional residential window companies. (Glass business insiders distinguish between glassmakers, such as Northwestern Industries, which cut and treat glass, from window makers who put those pieces of glass into frames.)
Gradually, Northwestern Industries’ market expanded into window products for larger commercial projects.
By 1982, the business had grown enough to justify a bigger factory. The company had also adopted new equipment and production methods to deliver a growing range of products, including laminated safety glass and insulated glass.
Today, the company sells more than 24 million square feet of glass a year to customers that have included the Anchorage International Airport, King County Metro and Amazon. The panes for Amazon’s Spheres, most of them triangular, took more than six months to make at a cost of $4.5 million, Hawley said.
But changes in Seattle have been making it harder for Northwestern Industries to continue to operate.
Hawley estimated that hourly labor costs at the Yuma plant are “several dollars less” than at the Seattle plant.
At the same time, ever-longer commute times have made it harder to attract and keep employees, many of whom live outside Seattle. “Just getting into this location has been very difficult and cumbersome,” said Pat Zollars, Northwestern Industries’ sales manager.
In addition, Seattle’s booming real-estate market has boosted property taxes 26% to $272,000 from 2017 to 2019.
In 2004, the company briefly considered moving to a much more affordable spot in Kent, but decided instead to open a new plant in Yuma that year.
If Glasswerks follows through with plans to move the Seattle equipment to Yuma, it’s unclear how many Seattle workers might follow. Despite the offer to relocate workers to Arizona, Hawley said, “so far, nobody has come in and said they wanted to do that.”