By Pamela Brownstein
By the time you get in touch with Robert Browning, chances are you’re already a little broken up. Or, at least a piece of glass in your car or home is in need of repair, and that can be a stressful situation. That’s why for Browning, owner of Glass Express in Beaufort, customer service and quality workmanship are so important.
“We work hard to prove ourselves, one happy customer at a time,” said Browning, who has more than 30 years of experience in the glass industry.
After studying to be a geologist in college, he was undecided about his career path, so he started working at a friend’s glass company in the meantime and just stuck with it. He’s managed glass shops all over including Michigan, Tennessee and North Carolina. It was while he was working outside of Asheville, N.C., that he met his wife, Annah.
“I kept asking her out and she said no,” he admits with a chuckle. “So when I stopped, that’s when she decided to give it a shot.”
The couple has been together for 17 years, and married to each other twice, technically. The first time they were married by a captain on a fishing boat in the Outer Banks, and even though they had a marriage license, the county deemed it unofficial. So a few years later they were officially wed by a justice of the peace in Florida.
Robert said the two arrived in Beaufort by accident. They met a couple from Beaufort who bad-mouthed their hometown, and that piqued the Brownings’ curiosity. They decided to visit and liked it so much, they couldn’t understand the bad critique.
As a lifelong fisherman, Robert was drawn to the water, and they built their home on St. Helena Island. “I love the coastal lifestyle,” he said of the area, and he takes his boat out often to his favorite fishing spot in St. Helena Sound.
He said that even though as a small business owner he hasn’t had an official vacation in 10 years, “I’m on vacation everyday when I go home; that’s why we live in paradise.”
From his shop on Boundary Street, Robert talks about the changes he’s seen with the improvement of technology — from handwritten invoices to pagers to cell phones and computers. Today, Robert focuses on work in the shop and making repairs while Annah works on the office side and does all the books. He said her outgoing personality makes her a natural when it comes to dealing with customers.
Running a glass company comes with unique challenges. “I’ve been cut so many times, you don’t even realize it,” he says matter-of-factly. But he’s been fortunate that he’s never had one stitch. He said the most important item of protective gear is a pair of safety glasses. He joked that glass must be attracted to the eyes because it can jump up and get in your eyes even while wearing the safety glasses.
When it comes to fixing glass, Robert said he’s never had a vehicle that he can’t figure out. “This business doesn’t come with an instruction manual,” he quips. Especially when it comes to automobiles, the trick is how to fix a windshield or broken window without damaging the vehicle. Robert said his goal is “when we’ve worked on your car, you can’t tell we’ve worked on it.”
Beyond the tangible hazards, the owners of small glass companies are competing with big corporations for business. Robert is a member of the South Carolina Independent Glass Association, which recently saw state legislation passed that works to prevent large companies and third party affiliates from dominating the glass industry. Similar bills have been passed in states throughout the country, according to Browning, and he sees it as an important first step. But he fears that without more regulation, the small locally owned glass shops could go the way of hometown hardware stores.
He said he appreciates the support of local businesses, and especially local insurance agents who refer clients to his shop.
Regardless of the changes to the industry, Browning believes that actions speak louder than words and remains committed to high standards. “It’s important to get it right every single time.”
Glass Express is located at 1806 Boundary Street, Beaufort. Call 843-379-7222 or visit glassexpress.org.