Story by Barry Wise Smith and photos by Catherine Mayo
Griffin Mayo and Robert Ferguson, co-owners and brothers-in-law, didn’t know what they were getting into when they bought Bessemer Glass & Industries in January 2013.
The 50+-year-old business had been owned and operated by members of the Pack family since opening its doors in 1959 and had built an almost exclusively industrial glass and glazing business with the area’s steel mills – particularly U.S. Steel – as its main customers. In fact, U.S. Steel accounted for more than 60 percent of the company’s annual revenue. “It was very specialized,” Mayo says.
Mayo and Ferguson came to Bessemer Glass from decidedly UNglass backgrounds. Mayo spent years in pharmaceutical and medical sales, and Ferguson was a financial futures trader in Chicago. “I had gone through a layoff with one pharmaceutical company, and I didn’t want to be stuck in middle management with no job stability,” Mayo recalls. “I wanted to start a business, but I didn’t know what kind. I looked into restaurants and retail.”
And then a broker mentioned Bessemer Glass. After buying the business in 2013, “Our goal was to keep our employees happy and try and find more work,” Mayo says. The eight staff members who were there when Mayo and Ferguson bought the business stayed on because, “They knew how to do the work. Between them, they had over 200 years of glass experience,” Mayo says. In the first year the brothers-in-law owned Bessemer Glass, business grew by 20 percent.
Then in 2015, two years after buying the business, U.S. Steel shuttered its Birmingham operations, taking a large portion of Bessemer Glass’ revenue with it. “2015 was a hard year,” Ferguson says. “We had to rethink the entire business.” Mayo agrees. “We had to learn the competition. We had to learn a new market. We had to learn how to manufacture, because we weren’t really doing that before. We bought a business and within a couple of years had to start another new business.”
So Mayo and Ferguson did a major pivot, establishing relationships with Birmingham’s high-end architects and custom homebuilders to take the business from industrial to the residential and commercial markets. “In August 2015, we got our first residential projects,” Ferguson says. “The developer said, ‘If y’all can figure out how to make this work, you will always have sales.’ There was an extremely steep learning curve. We knew we had to produce an unbelievable product. We learned a lot of lessons.”
Today, the balance of Bessemer Glass’ business has flipped, with 90 percent of the work in the residential and commercial markets and just 10 percent industrial. They’ve done a number of high-end residential projects and commercial installations at Richard Tubb Interiors and the new Billy Reid store, both at Pepper Place, and Cahaba Brewing Company in Avondale. In addition, Bessemer Glass still does framing for DeShazo Crane.
Bessemer Glass’ work isn’t just in Alabama – they’ve shipped products to Nashville, Los Angeles, and even the Dominican Republic. In addition to Mayo and Ferguson, Bessemer Glass employs five others who do much of the steel framing and glasswork. “We are fortunate to be able to pick and choose our jobs,” Mayo says. “We know a lot more about everything now, but the biggest challenge is how to scale it.”
When asked if they could have predicted this career path for themselves, Ferguson answers,“Not in my wildest dreams would I have imagined this is what I would be doing. My dad farmed, and I grew up watching and helping him, so I knew about hard work.” Mayo chimes in: “Kind of naively, we figured ‘people always need glass, you can’t really buy it on the Internet, and most people don’t know what to do with it,’ so there would always be a need for a company that dealt in glass. But no matter how hard it is – and sometimes it’s really hard – at the end of the day, when a customer is blown away, it’s all worth it.“