Bus' glass is half full: Ex-New Yorker turns glass factory around

  • 1999-12-09
  • By J. Michael Lyons
LIVANI - Soon after workers at the Livanu Stikls glass factory pass
through the rickety security turnstiles - remnants of less
profitable days - a sidewalk leads them through a manicured lawn
dotted with curving sculptures that stand in stark contrast to the
rust-streaked factory.

The sculptures, the lawn and most of the workers would not be there
if not for a brewer's grandson named Imants Bus.

Bus, who has turned the dim hopes of the foundering post-Soviet
company into marketing plans and export partners, likes the
rhinoceros sculpture best.

"People walk through here on their way to work, I wanted to make it
nice," he said, strolling through the yard wearing probably Livani's
only pair of suede cowboy boots. "It's something small, but it makes
a difference."

While many medium-sized privatized companies are still struggling to
find markets in Western Europe and losing gobs of money in the
process, Livanu Stikls has managed to get its vases, fish bowls and
candleholders into shops throughout Germany, Belgium and the

After hobbling through the early years of independence, the company
has retooled, found reliable buyers and last year, for the first
time, it made money.

That alone is a success story for factories in Latvia's regions like
Latgale, where plants that bustled building everything from power
tools to beer bottles for the Soviet Union now often sit rusting.

But Bus refuses to pat himself on the back for too long.

His way of running this business is not much different than the
techniques he learned during a Dale Carnegie course on business
management in 1968 and used at his first gas station in the Queens
section of New York City.

"It's basic things," he said.

A customer recently asked his company to box its order of
candleholders all facing the same way so it could more easily inject
colored decorative jelly before putting them on the shelf.

Normally they would be packed staggered, one standing up, the next
upside down. That's the way it had always been done.

When Bus relayed the request to the packing department, he was met at
first with blank stares.

"I got this reaction like, 'What are you, crazy?" he said.

The customer, he explained, is always right and is no longer always Russian.

Like many of the factories in Livani, a town squeezed long and narrow
by the Daugava River on one side and train tracks leading to Moscow
and beyond on the other, the glass plant was a key Soviet supplier.

As the nearby brick factory helped build the high rises that line the
town's main street, the glass factory churned out the vessels that
held their tenants' beer.

It took Bus and the Livanu Stikls factory about 50 years to meet.

Born in Riga in 1944, Bus fled Latvia with his parents the next year,
first to Prague, then finally to Chile.

His father a civil engineer and his mother a lawyer, the family
assimilated quickly into Chilean life, settling in the capital

At 17, after attending a British boarding school, Bus enrolled at
Queens College in New York City and trudged through three years more
interested in cars than geometry.

He dropped out to work for a couple of trucking companies then in
1968 opened a gas station in Queens, his first crack at running a

There he sweated his way through bookkeeping, property taxes and the
ever-present New York City mob.

A marriage and two daughters later, Bus decided to escape New York
and raise his daughters in suburban Maine. He opened a gas station
there with a convenience store and body shop.

In Latvia, Livanu Stikls was producing glassware for the Soviet Union
in a sprawling factory compound replete with a machine shop,
cafeteria, laundry facilities and chemical labs that employed nearly
2,000 people in the mid 1980s and made bottles with crooked necks and
discolored glass.

After independence the company struggled with a shrinking market, and
a top management worried more about who might be stealing from them
than turning the business profitable, according to Bus.

Hundreds of workers were laid off and the factory was closed down
section by section.

But unlike other companies that sold equipment off piece by piece to
pay the electric bill, Livanu Stikls' management kept the factory

By 1994, the Latvian government was shopping the company around to
potential investors.

Bus had heard stories of the company from his grandfather, who owned
a liquor distillery and brewery during Latvia's last period of
independence in the 1920s and 1930s.

Bus and Livanu Stikls crossed paths in 1994, after Bus had moved to
Latvia and helped reclaim some of his family's property. He also kept
an eye open for investment.

"I realized that if Latvia were to survive the changes, Latvia needed
to have an infrastructure in manufacturing," he said.

He looked at several companies but was interested most in the glass
company because it was still mostly intact.

In May that year he was asked to help privatize a company he would
eventually run.

With few markets, Livanu Stikls limped though the mid 1990s. It
closed for the first two months of 1997 after the German company that
accounted for 80 percent of its production folded.

Later that year Bus agreed to help manage the company, and by 1998
he, along with a former high-ranking member of government and a
diplomat from Iceland, had put together a majority share of the

Within months Bus assembled a new management team with himself vice
president in charge of manufacturing. The company stopped making
drinking glasses and instead dove into the decorative glass market,
producing hand blown vases, candleholders and bowls.

He fired the former company director but after taking over as company
president last December hired him back as head of manufacturing.

"He's a great glassman," said Bus, with a New York tough guy voice
that maintains an edge whether he's speaking German, Spanish or

Also in 1998, Bus took the Livanu Stikls name abroad, traveling to a
glassware trade show in Frankfurt that led to four steady customers
and pointed the company west.

About 90 percent of Livanu Stikls' market is now in Western Europe,
where it sells to wholesalers that distribute from Norway to Germany.

Livanu Stikls grossed 570,000 lats ($983,000) in 1997. In just a year
that figured jumped to more than 1 million lats, according to Bus.

A walk through Livanu Stikls, however, is a glimpse of glassmaking's
past, with blowers in short-sleeved shirts and sandals turning blobs
of orange melted glass into vases that are gobbled up by the Belgian
and Dutch floral markets.

"We've reached a fairly high level of quality where Europe says,
'Ahh, prima,'" said Bus, kissing his fingertips.

Earlier this year, the company, which now employees about 450
workers, bought a Czech-designed oven to replace an aging Russian

"It makes beautiful clear glass," said Bus, adding that the
40-year-old Russian model often produced a greenish or pinkish glass.

Last week the oven provided the heat to make fish bowls bigger than
basketballs for a company in Germany.

Further down the production line, workers would cut the vases to the
right height by "cold cracking", a method long abandoned in modern
factories where the edges of a vase are cracked and the top cut off.

The process leaves several more steps. But through a barter deal with
a German company, Bus acquired a computerized machine that will turn
out several times the units in a fraction of the time.

"To them it's 20 years old," said Bus. "To us it might as well be brand new."

Livanu Stikls can't afford to pay German trainers, so he translates
the manuals into Latvia to train machine operators.

Soon after the last acquisition, a woman came to him with the next
obvious question.

"She asked if this machine was going to take her job," he said. "I
explained that if the volume increased there's more work for

Livanu Stikls hired 60 more employees this month, paying them an
average of 116 lats a month. Top glass blowers make more than 300,
incredible pay in rural Latvia.

With a deal here, a customer there Bus hopes to expand Livani Stikls
into what's still a rarity in eastern Latvia - a success.

"A few years ago that company was in a different situation, there was
no progress," said Juris Dreimanis, head of the export program for
the Latvian Development Agency. "All these changes are a consequence
of Mr. Bus' appearance."

But Livanu Stikls has not fully emerged from the past yet.

Only 25 percent of the factory is used. In two years Bus hopes to
expand the company's product line enough to use half of it. In five
years, he hopes, 70 percent will be operational.

"What's my dream?," he asked. "My dream is to go public."

He has had inquiries, he said, from big Western firms like Coca-Cola
and the Swedish furniture manufacturer Ikea to produce bottles and
frosted glass lamp shades.

But, Bus has reminded himself, things can change too fast.

"If they need a site in the Baltics I think we're a good candidate,"
he said. "As soon as the factory is ready, I'll be ready."