Whilst most of the business world has endured arduous times during the recent economic slump, Poland has remained relatively buoyant. One of the bright beacons in Poland’s growing economy has been Biaglass, a name that has stamped Polish quality on glass lighting around the world.
The company situated in the city of Białystok in north east Poland, has built an outstanding reputation for high quality glass production using hard to acquire blowing techniques in this niche market.
“We are producing mouth blown glass lighting,” the company affirms. “Most of the glass is opal (triplex) and its production is highly specialized,” she continues.
Indeed, the level of craft required at Biaglass has led to an international head-hunting exercise, to acquire workers with the experience needed to meet the company’s high standards of quality.
Close to the seven hectare factory site (built in 1964) is a hotel where the company’s workers from Belarus, Italy and the Ukraine are accommodated – and the company says that the extra expense is worth every Zloty: “It is very hard to be a blower and takes five to six years of learning and even then there is no guarantee that the worker reaches our standards. We therefore look for blowers from around the world and for the first year they will simply help and watch the experienced staff blow. After this time period they will then progress to blowing something small and easy and hopefully in time they can work on our larger products.”
In total Biaglass employs around 250 staff although that number reduces in the summer months, with the core of blowers kept on as laying these skilled professionals off would act to the detriment of the company. “It is hard to keep them because their work is very hard and they are working in temperatures over 40 degrees,” the company admits, “they therefore receive special payment and we have also put measures in place to protect their health; such as a special drink for when they blow and protective clothing.”
Biaglass started out in 1929 but only began producing lighting glass in the 1960s although it had previously made table glasses. The focus on lighting really began in the 1980s, since when the company has made its name internationally.
“Around 13 per cent of our produce is for the domestic market,” states the company, “and roughly half of our exports are to Italy, where there is an exacting demand for quality. We also sell to the German market, across the rest of Europe and as far afield as the United States.
“Almost all of our business comes from repeat customers although we do not mass produce, indeed most of our work is made as a one-off, where the customer comes to us with drawings and we customize the glass accordingly.”
Quality plays an important role in Biaglass’s success and has been especially significant in helping the company win lucrative Italian business as the business explains, “In Italy they look for the best quality glasses and this market is key to us as Italy is also home to the biggest glass company so there is huge demand. We have learnt that the Italians don’t currently buy from China as the glass there is perceived to be of lower quality and the skills are not so specialist.
“We have quality checking at every step of our production; after the blowing has taken place a person checks the glass looking for lines or air bubbles and again, once the glass has been cut and drilled it is checked to ensure it is the correct height and dimensions before it is finally packaged and shipped.”
While creating opal glass is not the most environmentally friendly activity, Biaglass has not shirked from its responsibilities and uses special equipment to reduce gas from the chain and also utilizes a filter system that cleans waste water. Additionally the company confirms that around 20 per cent of glass is reused if it has failed to reach the required quality in production.
The labour-intensive nature of production means that automation and efficiency are not key drivers for Biaglass and the business accepts that production costs are very high, but at the same time suggests that customers are happy to pay for the best quality.
“Our supply chain is difficult to manage, we do store sand on site as it is the key ingredient for making glass and we buy other materials when we need – usually from Poland, although there are some metals that are more resistant to high temperatures and can only be bought in Germany.”
The company has built strong relationships with its customers over the years and it is not uncommon for architects designing hotels or museums, to visit the factory with drawings and ideas. The internet has been an important tool not only in finding new customers, but in keeping up to date with what is happening in the industry.
The company says that Poland’s membership of the European Union has also brought many benefits to Biaglass, “It is much easier for us now, particularly for shipments which require less paperwork (than before). It is easier for prospective customers to come to Poland and visit our factory without the need for visas,” she suggests.
It adds that whilst Poland retains the Zloty as its currency, it remains a little cheaper which is good for export. Which brings us to the issue of the global economic downturn; an issue the company says has had some impact on Biaglass: “Certainly last summer we did see a drop in business and people are watching prices all the time, but since November we have seen orders pick up again.
“Internationally there have been fewer new houses and buildings which meant less need for glass lighting, however in Poland we have not really seen the crisis because our economy is still growing and there was less borrowing from the outset.”
Looking to the future, the business is clear on what challenges lie ahead, “Competition from China will intensify due to their cheap prices and increasing experience, which will improve their quality. The last few years we have seen three large glass companies close and it is difficult to sell glass, particularly when we don’t have a ready product (because we are bespoke).
“But glass will remain in fashion and our focus will continue to be on high quality glass products; the price may remain high but so too will the quality.”