Specified Systems Inc.
- Written by: Jeanee Dudley
- Produced by: John Carioti
- Estimated reading time: 5 mins
Bill Wilson has been involved in the construction industry for 42 years. Growing up in Eighty Four, Pa., he first started working for the town’s renowned 84 Lumber Company in high school. “I worked there through college,” he recounts. “When I left school, I went to work for the company full-time.” His position with 84 launched Wilson’s career.
After working for several companies in the building supply sector, he was prepared to strike out on his own. In 1992, Wilson established Specified Systems Inc. (SSI), a window distribution and installation company based in Canonsburg, Pa.
“Basically, we are glass and glazing contractors,” Wilson elaborates. “We fabricate and erect storefront entrances and curtain wall and we distribute and erect commercial and architectural windows. We set ourselves apart as one of the few companies that can perform turnkey services in two disciplines. Most companies can do one or the other, but we offer both. We have our own fabrication facility and staff, engineering staff and we erect these projects with our own labor force.”
Over the years, SSI has carved out a niche in low- to mid-rise building applications, as well as retrofitting projects. The company’s clients include architects, developers and quality general contractors in the commercial and industrial sectors. The team of 29 full-time staffers – and as many as 50 tradespeople in the field – work out of two locations in Southwestern Pennsylvania. SSI is willing to travel within a three-hour radius of headquarters to complete these unique architectural projects.
Wilson and his team have been involved in a number of high-visibility projects over the years. Recently, the crew has been busy with a series of projects at Bakery Square in Pittsburgh’s Bakery Square Development in the East Liberty section of the city.
“Anything you see that is glass and metal is what we worked on,” Wilson notes. “We completed several entrances, storefronts and windows for the project. Our work there has been ongoing for the last five or six years and we have more work coming up as the project progresses.”
The business will continue to work on Bakery Square in the coming months as the redevelopment project enters phase two. “This is a really nice project,” Wilson adds. “The next phase is a high-rise office that will connect to the original Bakery Square. This was an old Nabisco baking facility that sat abandoned and vacant for 30 years. It was converted to office and tech space by Walnut Capital. They recently bought the property across the street from the local school district and will be connecting the spaces with a bridge over the highway.”
One of the most aesthetically memorable projects for Wilson has been the Nordenberg Hall residence building at University of Pittsburgh. “This is part of the school’s freshman housing, right next to Soldiers and Sailors Hall on the campus,” he recounts. “It is a really unique project. This is an 11-story building with a very unusual design that incorporates meticulous detail. It is absolutely beautiful. Our work there took one year and residents were able to move into it last fall.”
SSI has been involved with a high volume of school work in recent years. The team works on a lot of college campuses. According to Wilson, he finds gratification in performing these diverse projects, completing each on time and stepping back to take in the architecture.
Other local school projects include the Baldwin High School renovation, which featured a unique curtain wall façade with blue glazing effect. A more contemporary example is the company’s work on Moon Area High School. The project incorporated a lot of colors in the product design for the windows, storefronts and curtain wall. SSI performed all of the lobby graphics printed on glass and fire-rated glazing, as well.
The company performs nearly everything in-house. However, SSI will occasionally subcontract specialty items, such as automatic door operators and other necessary components. “Being able to do the work ourselves provides us with a lot of opportunities we would not have otherwise,” Wilson explains. “Our clients like the confidence factor; knowing that we take complete responsibility for what we do and that we cannot pin a mistake on a subcontractor. We have a vested stake in the quality of our brand. The best way we can maintain quality and hit schedules is by being in full control of our workforce and fabrication.”
This strict control over quality of work gives SSI an advantage in a tough market. While construction is bouncing back gradually, Wilson has seen diminishing margins even throughout the economic recovery. “We are doing well, but that is not the case for everyone in our industry,” he elaborates. “Competition is high and a lot of contractors are underbidding to get the job. That forces lower market prices, which creates a good market for buyers, but makes it increasingly difficult for us to maintain margins as our costs increase.”
To counter that, the team is seeking out new ways to manage overhead. With fuel and transportation costs on the rise, SSI has to reduce expenses in other areas to balance out. Wilson and his crew are constantly working out ways to discount raw materials and merchandise in order to bring about a tighter turnaround on return of investment.
Wilson is also selective about projects. While many contractors have chosen to cast a broader net in tough times, SSI is maintaining standards of quality and revenue to ensure better profitability and to maintain a leading brand reputation. With a strong crew of experienced, long-term employees, he has found success as a market leader with his high-profile glass and glazing operation.
Looking to the future
“When I first started out, I figured my own personal, financial and business growth would be the key to my success and that it would be gratifying,” Wilson recounts. “You realize somewhere down the line when you own a company that the most gratifying aspect of owning a business is to see the people who work for you are able to buy houses and send their kids to college. Many of our employees have been with us for more than 15 years, which is a long time. I’m at the point where I feel I’m more of a steward than an entrepreneur. This business needs to be here to support these dedicated people as they take care of their families.”
In the next few years, Wilson is looking to gradually phase out of the business. While the team has no major plans for growth, as time goes on, Wilson doesn’t see himself steering the company. “In the next three years, I have a good chance to turn 90 percent of the operation over to a new management team,” he explains. “I am more than OK with that. We are always looking at new products and applications, but we have no plans to expand our service area. We want to turn over a stable and profitable business and expansion can be an unnecessary risk. We are happy to maintain our quality, market presence and profitability without getting huge. We have no desire to feed the beast.”
As the company prepares to turn over a new leaf, Wilson has confidence in the future of Specified Systems Inc. to maintain high standards and promote organic growth.
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