Since high school, Steve Chen has been on the manufacturing floor of one of the last remaining factories in New York City.
Despite being the son of Crystal Window and Door System’s founder, Thomas Chen, the junior Chen has been tasked with everything from sweeping the factory floors, delivering and servicing windows, to cutting glass and glazing vinyl windows.
As a family business, the Crystal factory at 31-10 Whitestone Expressway was where Chen spent his weekends and breaks from school.
Today, he still walks the manufacturing floor as president and prides himself in his hands-on approach to working in what has become one of the top window manufacturers in north America.
“In a factory, there’s always something to do,” Chen said. “I think the best analogy is, if your family owned a restaurant, you’ll be washing the dishes, helping by being a busboy or waiter.”
Once he graduated college, Chen left his family’s firm to learn corporate organizational structure at larger companies in Philadelphia.
He returned to Crystal officially in 2002 and became a project manager in 2003. His skillset expanded from production, to working with the sales and marketing team, before eventually taking on a more managerial role. But Chen said he was grateful that his father forced him to work his way up the business ladder.
“If [my father] would’ve put me in a higher position when I was in my 20s, I wouldn’t have the work ethic, knowledge or respect from my team that I have now,” Chen explained.
In grinding his way up, Chen became Crystal’s executive vice president in 2006, the chief operating officer in January 2014, and recently has taken the reins of his father’s company as the new president. Taking over for his father, who created the Crystal Windows back in 1990 after emigrating to the city from rural Taiwan, was no sure thing though.
“Most people would think that because it is a family business, that it’s a guaranteed slot,” Chen said. “If you meet my father, it’s not a guaranteed slot.
“He really wanted to emphasize that even though you’re a family member, you’re still an employee of the company and you’re expected to perform and produce results.”
The results of Chen’s influence are evident with the company’s continuing growth. Crystal’s corporate sales and largely minority workforce has grown to over 700 since his return in 2002, with production space growing from 250,000 to 900,00 s/f at facilities in Union, MO, Riverside, CA, and most recently in Scranton, PA.
Crystal’s work spans from the weekly orders from colleges, hospitals and hotels, to rebuilding a part of Ground Zero at 99 Washington Street, the world’s tallest Holiday Inn. From installed high-end windows and terrace doors in the one-time penthouse of Frank Sinatra on East 72nd Street to replacing 40,000 windows at LeFrak City in Queens, Crystal has become one of the most prolific fenestration companies in the nation, shipping products to 35 states.
The company now offers more than 20 types of vinyl and aluminum windows and doors, producing more than 400,000 units a year, and distributing to more than 40 states across the country.
Chen attributed the company’s success to his team’s work ethic and camaraderie learned from his father’s managing style, but also the entrepreneurial spirit that flowed throughout the company.
“I really don’t think what I do here is rocket science, I really just make a window,” Chen said. “But if our competitors are going to work eight hours, we’re going to work 10. If they’re going to work 10, we’re going to work 12. It’s through sheer willpower, too, that we’ve been able to push things through.”
Crystal’s spirit was evident during the financial crisis of 2008 when many competitors closed their doors. Crystal stayed open thanks in large part to workers who stayed later and earned less in return for a promise of no layoffs.
Building on that loyalty, Chen focused more on communication and teamwork. “I prefer to get feedback from my team,” he said. “Coming from a larger company, it helped me learn that it’s okay to empower people and let your managers make decisions and be communicative with your team, too.”
When the company was smaller, the employees could directly reach Chen’s father for each and every task. But with a far bigger operation today, Chen focuses on making sure all the teams can function properly.
“My dad was hands on in a way that’s factory related, but I think I’m much more hands on with employee relationships,” Chen said. “I would know if someone had a baby, someone’s getting married, someone’s elder passed away, just to make that team member feel important and that they are important and a critical part of the team here.”
Watching his father lead the company, taught Chen “the risk-taking and just-go-for-it type of culture,” he said, pointing to the advances he’s made with new technology, such as 3-D printing, incorporating online orders and customer service, and also looking towards the next facility expansion.
He has big plans for continuing the pioneering legacy set by his father and is looking to expand Crystal’s product line with more energy efficient and sound reduction techniques.
The new president also has his eyes set on a Texas facility to spread Crystal’s manufacturing capabilities to the South.