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Flushing window biz makes move to College Point

Thomas Chen, owner of Crystal Window & Door Systems in Flushing, has a small sign on the desk of his cramped, though soon-to-be-vacated office: “Put Up, or Shut Up.”

An immigrant from a rural outpost in southern Taiwan who lives in Little Neck with his wife, Chen took his small sign this week to a new $14 million facility he built in the College Point Industrial Park, just off College Point Boulevard near the Whitestone Expressway. The move from the plant he has leased on Maple Avenue in Flushing since 1990 is expected to last six weeks, as equipment is transferred to the new building.

Crystal Window & Door Systems, a manufacturer of vinyl and commercial aluminum windows, is a true immigrant success story. In 1982, at the age of 27, Chen moved to the United States with little money. Unable to speak English, he quickly got a job in the garment district of Manhattan, where he drove a truck.

But he was always good with his hands, a skill he honed as a construction worker in Taiwan. So later on, after he and his wife became superintendents of a Flushing apartment building, he started fixing things while still working in Manhattan. Crime was running amok in Flushing in the 1980s, and the tenants wanted window bars. That is when they asked him if he also replaced windows.

And so in 1990, Chen, his wife and another business partner formed what would evolve into a window manufacturing empire, becoming one of the top 80 producers of replacement vinyl and aluminum windows in the nation.

A tour through the Maple Avenue factory, which is about 100,000 square feet, shows just how much Chen’s business has grown in the last 10 years. The factory floor is cramped and appropriately so. His company manufactured more than 300,000 window and door units last year, with sales peaking at more than $37 million, said Bob Nyman, an executive consultant.

Chen’s work force of 210, which is expected to grow by 150 in the next seven years, is mainly Asian and Hispanic. It is common to hear both Cantonese and Mandarin mixed with spurts of Spanish over the din of the factory floor.

Recalling how he got his start, Chen said he makes a point of hiring immigrants, putting Crystal Window & Door Systems on the map as one of the top 25 minority-owned businesses in New York City, according to Crain’s New York Business newspaper.

“Immigrants’ work style is more matched with Crystal’s style,” Chen said.

Slight in build, diffident in demeanor, he is a man of modest ways despite his wealth. To save power, he prefers to work in his office with the light turned off.

The workers’ cafeteria looks much like the ones in city high schools, but he does provide three rice cookers as well as free rice and a microwave for his employees to heat up vegetables. Keeping his employees at the factory, he said, will ensure that they are never late returning from lunch.

And his mantra, “Put Up, or Shut Up,” is there to make sure that his workers are as productive as possible. “Work is much better,” Chen said, than the alternative.

Crystal Window & Door Systems will continue to use about half the space at its Maple Avenue plant to manufacture heavy commercial windows. In recent years, Chen’s business has expanded to include contracts with the city’s School Construction Authority and LeFrak City, a housing project in Elmhurst. He has a customer base of about 5,000.

Nyman, Chen’s spokesman, said a grand opening ceremony for the two-story, 165,000-square-foot building would probably not be held until early next year. Chen decided to have an open house Wednesday that was to feature a traditional Chinese Lion Dance to chase out evil spirits.

The new facility, which took two years to build and will provide up to three times more manufacturing space than the Flushing plant, also has a 2,200-square-foot room to display Asian art, a hobby that Chen has cultivated over the last few years. It has a cafeteria, too, like the one on Maple Avenue, but with a modern flair: new rice cookers, new microwaves and plenty of air conditioning.

Reach reporter Chris Fuchs by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 156.

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