On the Road with USGlass

What I Learned from Mr. Ebeid

Russ Ebeid was a force of nature in the glass industry. In fact, he was the embodiment of the industry in which he spent his whole adult life—and the industry he shaped. I respected him so much that I could never call him Russ, despite his admonitions to do so.

There will be many recitations of his life over the next few weeks, including some in our own publications and platforms. It was a large life with deep roots and huge branches that embraced thousands in his philanthropy and good works. In fact, if I tried to capture all the worthy causes he supported, the list would be hundreds long. It would include everything from helping to build a nursing school, to sustaining a food pantry and too many more to mention.

Russ Ebeid and me at the Guardian dinner during glasstec 2010.

So instead I will just share some of the lessons I learned from him over the years:

Never forget where you came from. Russ Ebeid could relate to so many people because he knew what it was like to grow up in a family of modest means. He believed in the American dream because he was a product of it. He once told me that he could know everything he needed to about a person just by getting answers to three questions, two of which were “where did you grow up?” and “what did your dad do for a living?”

Never be satisfied with the status quo. Together with his mentor Bill Davidson, Ebeid challenged the way plants were built and glass was sold. When they wanted to be in a particular part of the market, they went in with the intention of winning it –and they usually did. They opened plants in countries when they were told they couldn’t and, by the time they were done, they had transformed Guardian from a domestic windshield fabricator into a leading worldwide manufacturer of glass and building products. 

Disruption can be a good thing. Russ Ebeid recognized that there was opportunity in disruption and often made the most of that opportunity.  “People call us renegades,” he told me once, “but a lot of renegades are very successful because they seize opportunity even if it’s uncomfortable.”

Play hardball when you have to. And when Ebeid felt he had to, he did. He stared down governments and suppliers when necessary, often with the desired results. “The problem with this is that you must be willing to live up to your word,” he said.

You don’t need a desk. I asked him once why he didn’t have a desk in his office–he actually had a large table. “Why would I want to sit across from someone with a desk between us?” he asked. “The table is so much more collaborative.”

There’s value in ceremony. Russ Ebeid loved a good display of pomp and pageantry. I asked him why he seemed to enjoy them so much. He said that maybe it was in part due to his youth spent in Catholic schools, in part all the work he has done in other countries, but that there is value in honoring people with ritual and ceremony. Likewise, some of the most treasured items in his office were gifts from other countries and the honors he had received from them.

Build for generations. I happened to be visiting when the plans for a beautiful beach house he was building in Michigan arrived. The house was impressive, of course, but even more so was how he planned it around his children, the grand-kids he loved so much, and even great grandchildren. It was obvious that he was thinking of that house as a home across generations. That’s how he built Guardian too –as a company to span many generations.

You can learn from everyone. Russ Ebeid was incredibly kind to me personally over the years. He let me interview him a number of times and did the keynote speech at our Glass Expo Midwest in Cleveland many years ago. He invited me to speak before his senior management group a few years ago to offer my insights about the glass industry.  I confess I was a bit nervous about that one, and felt a wave of incredible relief pour through me at the end when he said I’d hit it spot on. After it was over he said to me, “See, I can learn things from you, too.”  I treasured that comment.

Know when it’s time to go. A couple of months after he retired, our associate publisher, Lisa Naugle, and I went to visit him at the country club in suburban Detroit that he had purchased and was now going to run. It was a move that had left me scratching my head a bit, so I asked him about it. “Everyone wants me to consult, to write a book, to teach–all about the glass industry. I have no interest in doing that; I’ve done that. I need to be able to learn new things. I need a challenge and this will be enough of a challenge for me. It’s just time to move on.”

Godspeed, Mr. Ebeid.

For more on Russ Ebeid:

Guardian’s Evolution

The Great Philosopher

Remembering Russ Ebeid: An Exclusive Interview