A year ago, Mike LeJeune ran a Twin Cities manufacturer with 1,000 employees pushing sales of $300 million.

Today, LeJeune owns 18-employee Glass Art Design, a glass designer and fabricator on the north edge of the Warehouse District. He hopes to make it to $5 million in sales within a couple of years.

LeJeuene, 56, a one-time University of Minnesota art major, loves watching the plate glass transformed into stylish table tops, stained glass, windows, decorative shower enclosures and other products. LeJeune, who eventually got an economics degree, spent 1996-2016 as CEO of Fabcon.

He’s outgoing, a listener and also a driver.

“We’re done with the investing phase,” said LeJeune, who has spent $100,000-plus in recent months to improve the plant he bought early this year. “We’ve put sales and marketing in place, social media and a new website, improved the building to take on more work and be more efficient. We’re dressed up and ready for the party ... and starting to get traction.

“I’m an impatient guy, and I think we should be further.”

LeJeuene is thrilled to run his own shop, after 20 years at Savage-based Fabcon. The family-owned company was sold late last year to a private equity outfit from Los Angeles. LeJeune turned once-struggling Fabcon into an aggressive marketer and builder of concrete walls for shopping centers and big-box retailers around the country by 2000. He learned to innovate after the 2001-02 recession.

Fabcon started using less virgin concrete, moving to 60 percent recycled content, waste products, and more insulation. It dovetailed with the sustainability movement in architecture and construction that continues. And also increased durability and strength. He moved the business gradually over the last decade from shopping centers, which were declining, to data and distribution centers.

Fabcon added three plants, hundreds of employees and grew to nearly $300 million in sales before the owners, the family of the late developer Gerald Rauenhorst, decided to sell for an unspecified price.

LeJeune said he learned to consider ideas from everywhere, encourage innovation and reward employees. He ran a centralized management, partly because all plants were making basically the same products. But he gave managers responsibility, latitude and rewards for sharing and success.

“Fabcon was very challenging at the beginning,” LeJeune said. “I worked hard. I like people. I listen. And good ideas come from everywhere.”

Jim Houtman, the veteran marketing senior vice president at Fabcon, recalled that LeJeune brought a discipline and energy to Fabcon that it had lacked. He listened to different opinions, let managers innovate and then drove successful changes through the organization.

“Mike was very involved, approachable, and he set the right example,” Houtman said. “People liked Mike.”

Mike LeJeune is the son of Larry LeJeune, the Twin Cities businessman. Larry took his father’s steel-fabrication shop near 60th and Nicollet in the 1950s and turned it into a two-plant enterprise of several dozen employees. Mike LeJeune, who started on the shop floor as a high school kid, stayed on and eventually ran LeJeune Steel after Lee Anderson’s API Group bought it in 1989. He was lured to Fabcon in 1996.

Mike LeJeune hungered to own a small business after he left Fabcon. He found Glass Art Design through a friend, a commercial real estate broker. They partnered and paid more than $2 million to acquire the business and the 18,000-square foot design studio, factory, including a kiln, and showroom.

LeJeune assured employees that they would be part of a growth company, that he would keep their benefits and compensation would rise as the business grew. Employees were encouraged when LeJeune added a few people, including two sales staff. That includes promoting a receptionist because of her customer-relationship skills.

“This used to be more of an artsy place, and I’m trying to make it more of a business,” LeJeune said. “It all starts with the artists. I believe we can double [sales] to $5 million in 2018 and $7.5 million in 2019. We have the capability in the building to do all that. And we’ll add people. Stained glass artists and others.”

Glass Art Design has launched a new website and lowered prices on some products to drive volume. There’s competition in high-end, fire-molded glass makers in Canada. And most local competitors do standard etched glass.

“We shine with high-end stuff for homeowners,” LeJeune said. “We have a lot of $500 and $1,000 sales. And then the $20,000 sale.”

“We have good products. Priced right. This is a family business.”

One of LeJeune’s kids works at Glass Art Design. Just as Mike LeJeune started as a high school kid in his dad’s steel shop 40 years ago.

 

Neal St. Anthony has been a Star Tribune business columnist and reporter since 1984. He can be contacted at nstanthony@startribune.com.