How one accident turned into a booming business for glass blower turned glass distributor Noah Ketzenberger of Glassex. The secret? Great product and old-school sales techniques.
It’s amazing what can happen when life throws you a curveball. One random accident — one minute of being in the wrong place at the wrong time — can change everything. For Noah Ketzenberger, though, everything changed for the better.
The fateful moment was almost 15 years ago. Ketzenberger had moved from Indiana to North Carolina with the intent of becoming a full-time professional glass blower. He started building relationships in the Asheville, N.C. area — a hotbed for the smoke-shop industry — and had shops ready to buy his work.
Problem was, he was injured in a snowboarding accident in 2004 and temporarily couldn’t blow glass. Not wanting to see an opportunity slip away, the ever-enterprising Ketzenberger called his glass-blowing friends back in Fort Wayne, Ind. He asked them to send some glass to sell. Soon enough, he had $5,000 worth of their work. And soon enough, he’d sold it all. In a few days actually.
So the process repeated. He got glass from Indiana and sold it in North Carolina. Quickly, he noticed that there was a business model here.. His five friends in Indiana could become even more people. And this handful of shops he was working with in North Carolina could just be the start.
“It grew into 70 glass blowers,” he says. And the snowboarding accident? “It was a blessing in disguise.”
Today, Ketzenberger — also known as Dr. Unkle No No — is the man behind Glassex, a glass distribution company that’s still based in Asheville but sells to stores all over the country. It also represents dozens and dozens of talented glass blowers, such as Tim Archer (aka @built2last828, Magnum Mangkang (aka @magism), Avatar McCravy (@avatarglass), Aric Bovie (@aricbovie), Justin Freeman (@mokshaglassworks), Keith Barnes (@funhouseglassworks) and JJ Whitehead (@forrestglass) just to name a few.
These days, his operation is bustling. Glassex has jumped from $1 million in sales in 2010 to $2.5 million in 2016. The company has sales reps all over the country. It has long-standing relationships with hundreds of stores. And Glassex represents a direct route for glass artists to get their work to shops beyond their local cities.
“We make it easier on the glass blower,” Ketzenberger says. “They should be on the torch, blowing glass, what they’re best at. Typically, if you’re a good glass blower, you can make more money by just selling it to me than having to go out and sell it yourself.”
It really is a win-win in that sense. Some artists just aren’t cut out for sales. Or they hate that part of the job, which is why a company like Glassex is so valuable.
“Glass blowers aren’t typically the best business people,” Ketzenberger says. “I’d tell ‘em what I was doing and I get more and more varieties. I was confident. If a store told me to come back in a month, I would make sure I was back in a month.”
It’s also good for shops, who can deal with one sales rep but know they’re getting glass from a variety of artists. In that sense, Glassex is still very old school in its approach. It’s a face-to-face, pound-the-pavement type of sales business. That hasn’t changed since Glassex was founded. Even though the Internet has changed so many things about business, for Glassex, actual human interaction is still the most important thing.
“You’re not just selling product,” Ketzenberger says. “You’re selling yourself. You want to have a relationship with the people you work with. The most important thing is your customers. We pride ourselves on customer satisfaction and excellence. We show up at your store every 2-3 months. We really don’t do Internet sales. We only deal with the stores. We want the stores to know that we’re out here to make their lives easier.”
These days, Glassex sells to more than 600 shops and its roster of artists is always evolving. That’s an important part of this. Long ago Ketzenberger decided that whenever he went into a new city, he wanted to know about that city’s best glass blowers.
The way he looked at it, by coming into the city, he might be costing those artists sales. So he wanted to add them to his roster and take their product to other cities. All that equaled growth.
“We grew so large,” Ketzenberger says, “because we strive for excellence. Store owners and glass blowers love our efforts.”
FOR MORE INFO ON GLASSEX:
Call 828-505-8446 or www.glassexnc.com
- South: JD And Leslie Tharington
- New England: Andy Davis
- Midwest: Joe Campbell
A STORY FROM GLASSEX’S NOAH KETZENBERGER
Four years ago, I was driving through Laurel, Mississippi and got pulled over with 10,000 pipes in my van. The police officer asked what I had in the van. When I told him, he couldn’t believe it. His mouth dropped open when he saw the high-end glass. When back-up arrived and asked if they could search, I said “Sure, under one condition: You break it, you buy it.”
That didn’t go over well. I was arrested instantly. I spent the night in jail — trust me, it’s not easy to sleep on a concrete floor. The next day I went to court and pled not guilty to drug paraphernalia charges. Eventually, I paid my fine and I was released. Afterward, I went to the impound lot where my van was and saw 99% of the glass still there. There was about $4,000 worth of damage, but that’s better than all of it vanishing.
When I got in my car to go home, I thought more about things and decided I was going to fight this. The way I see it, if I’m guilty of drug paraphernalia then they’re guilty of distributing it, right? When I went to my court date, the prosecutor said it would all go away if I pled guilty. Nope. I told them I wanted a public apology, my money back and I wanted to be paid for my broken glass and missing work. If they did that, I said, I wouldn’t press charges against them. They didn’t go for that and so began a legal fight I’m still involved in today. That’s why I’m telling the story and asking for help.
This is the kind of guy I am: When I was in court that first day, I was sitting next to a local guy who was getting the tough end of the stick from law enforcement. So I paid his $500 bail so he could get back to his family. Later on, a judge asked me why I did that. Well, I said, I knew how I was treated — disrespected and thrown in jail for nothing — and didn’t want that to happen to him too.
I’ve been in and out of court these past few years. The prosecutors kept asking for continuances and kept getting them. The judge never made a ruling and it didn’t seem like that was going to change. It was a waste of my time — and gas. It was 750 miles round-trip each time I had to go to court.
Finally, I’d had enough. In November, I called the mayor, a city council member and the city’s attorney and told them I was ready to sue for $1 million. The mayor called me back a few hours later, with the police chief on the line too. They dropped the charges and apologized. They were polite and understanding. It was a good chat. When we got to the end, I reminded them of one thing: They owed me money.
By my count, that included $4,000 worth of product, $600 in fines and 10 days of work. I told them to come up with a better offer and that I’d be in touch in a few weeks.
I’m willing to fight this fight myself, but I wanted to share it with our smoke shop community as a reminder that you should stand up for yourself. And if anybody wants to join me in this fight, if you have some experience with the law, please let me know. Or just send some good vibes my way.