Crystal Sets Sights On Giving Back
A Crystal Windows worker manufactures some of the company’s windows (inset) using a vinyl welding machine.
By Lee Landor
It is the “American Dream” to become a multi-millionaire by the age of 52, to move halfway around the world at the price of leaving behind family, friends and memories, and come to America where the streets are “paved with gold.”
The impending success – networking, wealth and leisure – are well worth the sacrifices: saying goodbye to home, culture and comfort, and arriving at a new place with no language, no connections and no familiarity.
But it isn’t often that the Dream is actualized, and those for whom it is are the most ambitious of their kind.
Aspiration, courage, determination and risk compel these individuals to strive for success and to bounce back from adversity. One such individual is 52-year-old Thomas Chen, a Taiwanese immigrant who landed in New York in 1982 only to rise to eminence and prosperity.
A Quick Rise
The self-made man arrived here speaking no English and with no formal education past high school, but he had drive and vision. Seeking a better life for himself and his family, Chen worked hard, studying English at night and working 14-hour days.
Chen decided to start his own small business in 1985 manufacturing and installing window guards and gates. Soon he began making windows as well and in 1990 formed what would become one of the leading minority-owned businesses in New York City, Crystal Window and Door Systems.
Crystal’s factory can be seen from the Van Wyck Expy.
Headquartered in College Point, the company has grown and expanded through the last two and a half decades – its annual sales now exceeding $60 million and its production rising to more than 450,000 window and door units each year.
Though Chen and his son and business partner Steven remain loyal to their borough, they’ve spread out throughout the country with franchises in Illinois, Maryland and Ohio, effectively increasing their customer base to several thousand.
Clients include window dealers, distributors, general contractors, building supply companies and window installation specialists throughout the East Coast, Mid-West and in the South, according to Carole Livingston of Livingston Marketing & Communication, Crystal’s marketing firm. Additionally, the products are suited for residential, commercial and institutional applications.
The Queens corporation manufactures vinyl and aluminum windows and curtain wall systems, which are considered high-end and have been architecturally rated. The products are of such quality that Window and Door Magazine listed Crystal as one of the “Top 100 Window Manufacturers in North America” for the past eight years.
Steve Chen is the company’s executive vice president.
More Than Money
But Chen’s products aren’t solely his recognized achievements – his leadership and business savvy have been acknowledged as well. Crain’s New York Business listed Chen as one of New York’s “100 Most Powerful Minority Business Leaders” in 2003, and Crystal among the “Top 25 New York City Area Minority-Owned Businesses,” from 1999 to 2006, based on sales revenues. It ranked the company third as employer and fourth “Fastest Growing Minority-Owned Business in New York City” for 2003.
Staying true to his community, Chen employs 375 workers, most of whom are residents of the Queens area, with “strong work ethic and intelligence,” Livingston said.
Their capabilities and motivation are assessed before their entry into the company, as “everyone must learn at least three jobs,” Chen said.
Chen’s son Steven learned three jobs, if not more, before becoming the company’s executive vice president. The Penn State University graduate received a degree in economics, attended an executive business program at Dartmouth’s Tucks Business School, joined First Union Asset Management as the leader of a team of investment account managers and was a project manager for Crystal in 2003.
The 28-year-old learned dedication and ambition from his father, as well as the importance of giving back to the community.
With more than $20 million in investments and 350,000 square feet of manufacturing space in three plants (in Queens, Missouri and New Jersey), this private business, like many other large corporations, has much to give.
But it is the company’s – and Chen’s – will to give that surpasses others of similar stature.
Thomas Chen took the first step toward founding Crystal Windows after just three years in the United States.
Steven Chen is actively involved with local and regional business and trade organizations, Livingston said, and serves on the Asian Advisory Board for Flushing Savings Bank. The Queens Library Foundation honored him in 2006 for supporting children’s educational programs in the community.
His father went a step further with his return to the Queens community, serving on the Queensborough Community College Fund Board of Directors and that of the Flushing Business Association, supporting local merchant groups and business chambers. He also committed $250,000 to QCC for the establishment a scholarship fund for the “Port of Entry” program, which enables several immigrant students to participate each year in intensive English and cultural programs, helping to introduce them to the American academic and business worlds, according to Livingston.
Chen created The Crystal Foundation in 2002 to aid in the advancement of Asian art and culture in America. The nonprofit sponsors art exhibits and events throughout New York and provides college scholarships for lower-income Asian Americans, Livingston said.
Crystal is also involved with several other educational and cultural organizations, such as the Queens Child Guidance Center, Queens Botanical Gardens and the Museum of Chinese in the Americas. More of Chen’s contributions can be found in other various Queens’ locations, such as the Flushing Council on Culture and The Arts, the Queens Museum of Art, the New York Hall of Science, Queens Theater in the Park and the Poppenhusen Institute.
Providing aid in times of need and crisis is an obligation to Chen, Livingston said. His memories of days spent toiling away at work and fighting to ascend keep him grounded and remind him of the importance of assisting others.
In 2004 and 2005, Chen and his employees donated $5,000 to Habitat For Humanity’s Hurricane Katrina relief efforts and $10,000 to relief efforts for the South Asian Tsunami disaster. After the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on New York City’s World Trade Center, Crystal collected almost $100,000 by setting aside a percentage of 2001 year-end sales and then donated it to various organizations the following year.
And though he’s humble about his giving, the philanthropy of Chen and his son has received recognition; Chinatown YMCA’s “2005 Spirit of Immigrant” award was presented to Thomas Chen, and Flushing Council on Culture and The Arts named him “2003 Honoree.”
The factory’s i-3 Intercept line.
Crystal, which is a Minority Owned Business Enterprise certified by several government agencies, as well as by the American Architectural Manufacturers Association, is keeping up-to-date with its technology and product manufacturing. The Queens’ manufacturing location, which sits on 215,000 square feet, continuously provides innovative products and services.
It provides 13 window product lines, four lines of sliding patio doors and a swing terrace door, and if that isn’t enough, it’s in the process of developing new product lines and features. Its Series 6000 Double-Hung Window received an outstanding rating from AAMA of H-AW70.
Since Chen won’t settle for anything less than perfection, he’s made sure that the company offer, to installation companies training and certification through the Installation Masters Institute, a two-day program developed by the AAMA. According to Livingston, it is viewed as the “national standard for professionalism.” Crystal has two AAMA-certified installation instructors who conduct classes throughout the year.
As Crystal’s domestic market expands, distributing products in 33 states, Chen’s name has reached numerous dealers and dispensers in the Northeast and Southeast. But it doesn’t stop there: Chen is also looking outside the United States for inspiration and growth.
These machines extrude vinyl at the factory.
On his many business trips, Chen has explored the markets of other countries, taking his expertise to China and Taiwan, where he opened a subsidiary. He is currently looking to provide services throughout East Asia, Australia and New Zealand, and has gained some interest from the Dominican Republic and South Korea as well.
In the meantime Chen and his son will continue their charitable involvement in the local Queens community and maintain their relationships with various organizations and groups, strengthening their ties to the common people, with who they still closely identify.
Though this young immigrant kept strong and prevailed in the face of adversity, achieving high status and accumulating millions of dollars in capital, he did not compromise or lose his values of community, education and family.
Maintaining strong relationships and ensuring contentment are key factors to success, according to Chen, and that is what he believes will enable him to achieve even greater things. In attaining such progress, Thomas and Steve Chen and their resilient company will have more to give back – and that is truly when the sacrifices become success.