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Originally published Sunday, April 5, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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Worldwide recession renders Seattle's Kusak Cut Glass fragile

Kusak Cut Glass operates in Seattle's Rainier Valley neighborhood, in a two-story building with more than a dozen crystal chandeliers hanging from the ceiling. The family-owned business is figuring out different ways of doing things in hopes of surviving the current economic mess. Whether it succeeds depends on how long the recession lasts and whether new glass makers emerge to ensure his shelves stay stocked with compelling merchandise.

Seattle Times business reporter

Kusak Cut Glass Works

Founded: 1914 in Seattle by Anton Charles Kusak Sr., who learned to engrave glass at age 13 in what is now the Czech Republic.

Description: A third-generation, family-owned business that sells a wide array of crystal and colorful art-glass products, including chandeliers, flower vases, goblets, decorative bowls and candy dishes. Corporate awards and sports trophies make up two-thirds of its $1.5 million in annual sales. It also has about 100 wholesale accounts, mostly small jewelry and gift shops.

Location: Seattle's Rainier Valley neighborhood, 1911 22nd Ave. S.

Prices: $900 to $3,500 for chandeliers, $50 to $750 for tabletop accessories

Current challenges: Persuading shoppers to splurge on a new vase or bowl, despite the recession, and replacing large glass factories that recently closed in the Czech Republic.

Source:

Kusak Cut Glass Works

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Anton "Chuck" Kusak had just received some bad news last fall when he paid his 91-year-old mother, Neva, a visit at her home on Mercer Island.

The largest glassmaker in the Czech Republic had shut down two factories and would soon close a third, he told her, threatening to leave their third-generation family business without a broad range of merchandise to sell, all while the U.S. economy drove the world into a deep and prolonged recession.

Neva reminded him that Kusak Cut Glass Works had survived two world wars, the Great Depression and a Communist takeover of Eastern Europe.

"Go back to work," she encouraged him. "You'll be fine."

Sitting alone in his car later, the 61-year-old president and CEO of Kusak Cut Glass Works vowed to keep the business afloat, even if it meant making a few gut-wrenching decisions.

He went on to give himself a pay cut, curtail vacation benefits for 10 full-time staff members, and to let two employees go.

He also reconnected with a small Czech glassmaker capable of producing the same types of Champagne flutes, flower vases and candy dishes as the three defunct factories, albeit at higher prices.

Although Kusak takes comfort in knowing his family made it through other tumultuous periods, he confesses to the occasional moment of doubt. "The reality is, this is really big, and it's going to be really painful," he said.

Like many small-business owners, Kusak is figuring out different ways of doing things in hopes of surviving the current economic mess.

Whether he succeeds depends on how long the recession lasts and whether new glassmakers emerge to ensure his shelves stay stocked with compelling merchandise.

"I strategize 24/7," Kusak said. "My Czechoslovakian brain is trying to do the best it can, and it's not easy."

Kusak Cut Glass operates in Seattle's Rainier Valley neighborhood, in a two-story building with more than a dozen crystal chandeliers hanging from the ceiling.

A large room off the sales floor holds four lathes where several longtime employees engrave decorations on tabletop accessories ranging in price from $50 to $750.

According to Kusak, sales plummeted last November after the turmoil on Wall Street and might have partly recovered if not for the December snowstorms, which prevented many local shoppers from getting out and making "spontaneous" holiday purchases.

As a wants-driven business in a needs-based economy, Kusak Cut Glass is hit especially hard by the downturn in consumer spending, said Howard Davidowitz, chairman of Davidowitz & Associates, a retail consultancy and investment-banking firm in New York.

"Many people don't feel as rich as they once did because their stocks are down, they're in debt and their investment homes are way down," Davidowitz said. "They're not going to go out and buy that extra piece of jewelry or chandelier."

Davidowitz said a business like Kusak's can survive if he gets "supercreative" and offers personalized service.

"He can go to someone's home and see what products he has to enhance that home, or he can go to a country club and put on a show of all his special products for the ladies who lunch," Davidowitz said. "No way do you put up the white flag."

Kusak Cut Glass was founded in 1914 by Chuck's grandfather, Anton Kusak Sr., who was 13 when he began engraving glass at a factory in what is now the Czech Republic. He came to the United States at age 20 and made a name for himself in Seattle selling engraved crystal stemware to the old Frederick & Nelson department store.

Kusak Cut Glass has since survived the Great Depression, widespread supply shortages during World War II, hefty U.S. duties on imported Czech glass while Eastern Europe was under Communist rule — even the 1970s, when large, mall-based chain stores began replacing smaller shops with whom the family had long done business.

Chuck, who took over from Anton's son Tony in 1986, responded to the changing retail landscape by introducing a new line of sports trophies and corporate awards that could be sold directly to country clubs, charities and businesses nationwide. That now accounts for about two-thirds of Kusak's $1.5 million in annual sales.

Last April, the U.S. Small Business Administration's Seattle office named Kusak Cut Glass the Northwest's family-owned small business of the year, citing its willingness to change and overcome adversity.

At his Rainier Valley store, Kusak picked up a $225 crystal bowl with a diamond-necklace design. He noted that it came from one of the Czech factories that closed last fall.

"This is the really big concern I have — where will a product as innovative as this come from?" he said, slowly tracing his fingers over the rim.

"Of course, my grandfather and father lost contact with suppliers during World War II, but that was a different situation," he added. "All wars end."

Skyrocketing oil prices in the first half of last year, followed by widespread economic turmoil, forced the factories out of business, Kusak said, leaving more than 1,500 workers without jobs and threatening the Czech Republic's reputation as one of the world's top crystal glass producers.

Kusak said he holds out hope that the Czech government will step in and revive some of the lost production, or that new, private glassmakers will emerge as affordable, innovative alternatives. He figures he has enough merchandise to get through the fall.

Meanwhile, he said, he's encouraged that turnout for the store's late-March clearance sale was on par with previous years. "Maybe," he speculated, "everybody is getting a little tired of all the negative.

"A number of people said they were so pleased to see that we're still OK."

Amy Martinez: 206-464-2923 or amartinez@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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