Unique tile company has Italian touch
American Glass Mosaics got vital financing from Muskegon Angels.
Bottles that held beer no one ever drank are part of the process at a unique new company in Norton Shores.
American Glass Mosaic began producing decorative glass tiles for the construction industry this spring, with financial assistance from Muskegon Angels.
“We are the only large scale manufacturer in the U.S. Every other piece of glass mosaic is imported,” said Jameson Goorman, CEO of AGM. Some imports come from India, some from Mexico, but he estimates that perhaps 85 percent of all imported glass tiles are from China.
Glass tiles are used in residential and commercial construction for kitchen backsplashes, shower interiors, or to decorate a swimming pool. They can be used in sections of single colors, combinations of colors, or even artist-arranged images.
Goorman said the first AMG marketing binder “has 32 colors and three options for each color.”
That’s a lot of variety for old bottles that might otherwise have ended up in a landfill.
“It starts with melting recycled bottles and pouring them into a forming machine,” Goorman reported. “From there, we can blend colors to create different varieties. It really is an artisan trade.”
The main ingredient for an artisan trade is, of course, artisans who can blend the glass to get just the right color — and know how to reproduce that color later.
“We have two gentlemen from the Italian companies Bisazza and Sicis, widely considered the best glass companies in the world,” said Goorman.
In order to seize the opportunity to become the only mosaic glass manufacturer in the country, Goorman would need some help, which is where the Muskegon Angels come in.
“We are a group that comes together to invest in businesses that can grow Greater Muskegon,” said Mike Olthoff, one of the Muskegon Angels’ founders and principals. “We are focused mainly on manufacturing businesses. Hopefully, we can grow more job opportunities here.”
The Muskegon Angels have been officially active for nearly two years, their main objective being to invest in stage two and start-up companies. While they are mainly focused on the manufacturing sector, they are always open to an intriguing business plan.
“We want to grow job opportunities,” Olthoff stated. “We mainly focus our efforts in West Michigan, but we are open to considering investments statewide.”
The Muskegon Angels provided American Glass Mosaics with some of the funding needed to get the operation going.
Goorman said one of the Muskegon Angels is in building construction and when he saw what AGM was doing, “he immediately grasped the value of it.”
“Truthfully, having a group who is actively seeking out those who want to locate manufacturing here is going to be extremely helpful to West Michigan,” said Goorman of the Muskegon Angels. “It is extremely difficult to find seed money.”
AGM has already secured distribution in 49 states and has distributors fighting over them in the 50th.
AGM fired up its first glass melting oven in April; a second has been delivered and will be in operation by February. About 13 people work at AGM, on average, at this point. It is located at 7103 Enterprise Road, near the Norton Shores Industrial Park.
“One thing that goes unrecognized is that this area has all the supporting suppliers and resources that small manufacturers need to get started,” said Goorman. That includes tool-and-die shops, custom mold makers, hydraulics shops, and lots of skilled manufacturing engineers and technicians.
“We have five to 10 custom mold shops within 20 minutes, and we use them. If we didn’t have those, development would be much more difficult.”
“The [Muskegon] Angels recognize that this area has these assets for future growth,” added Goorman.
Goorman, 43, is a native of Norton Shores. He earned a degree in accounting from Calvin College and got his first experience in manufacturing at Tower Automotive. Later he and his wife, a nurse practitioner, worked at a medical mission in the Mississippi Delta, where there was an attempt to start a decorative concrete tile plant to provide jobs. Goorman was asked to help and ended up spending much more time there than he had anticipated.
Several years ago, he and some partners moved that business to Norton Shores, where there was an available factory and all the manufacturing suppliers and support he couldn’t find in the Mississippi Delta. The brand name for the thin concrete decorative tile is Betona; its composition includes recycled fluorescent light bulbs. Goorman and his partners invested in high-tech equipment that can print waterproof photo-quality images on the tiles. One of the Disney theme-park hotels installed Betona tiles in 1,700 rooms in the showers; the tiles bear images from the Little Mermaid movie.
Then one of the Betona partners, Gary Moore, heard about two Old-World style glass tile artisans in Italy who wanted to start a glass mosaic tile factory in the U.S. They had figured out a way to use 100 percent recycled glass.
“I said, ‘Why don’t we make it here in Muskegon?’” said Goorman.
Today, those two artisans, Carlo Pozzobon and Federico Morassutti, are living in the Muskegon area and are partners, investors and key managers at AGM.
Pozzobon had been technical director at Bisazza SPA, regarded in the industry worldwide as probably the best glass mosaic tiles producer, with an “extraordinarily expensive” product line. Morassutti was with Bisazza for more than 25 years as a director, then moved to another well-known Italian mosaic tile firm, Sicis. He is regarded as one of the most expert mosaic glass technicians in the world.
The men and their families are adjusting nicely to life in West Michigan, according to Goorman.
He said the process at AGM can use just about any glass, but the first choice is clear glass, and they get that from a company in Grand Rapids that receives bottles of unsold beer from a major brewery and turns the beer into ethanol. The empty bottles are crushed and end up in the AGM oven to be melted down.
However, he notes they can take “just about any glass” and there are a variety of suppliers. AGM has even used glass from old computer screens.
In addition to clear, they use amber, green and blue glass, which provides a basis for the color they want to end up in the glass tiles.
Any scrap glass left from the production at AGM goes right back into the oven to be re-melted and used.
“We still have thrown nothing away,” noted Goorman.
The art is turning recycled glass into beautifully colored mosaic tiles that people want in their homes, and that’s where the two Italian partners come in, he said.
While the process seems fairly simple, there is an intricate skill required in making glass tiles. If the glass is not annealed correctly, it may be weak or brittle and the tile may spontaneously crack or shatter on the wall, due to temperature fluctuations.
In America, far less glass is recycled than metals and plastics; scrap glass value is at the bottom of the heap.
“There seems to be plenty of glass out there. It’s getting them to realize that we actually do want it,” said Goorman.
The Muskegon Angels are also helping form a second angel investors group and are currently talking with accredited investors about it.