UGL and Zar: A Family Business that Leads the Stain Industry

UGL and Zar: A Family Business that Leads the Stain Industry

Compared to many of its large competitors, UGL (United Gilsonite Laboratories) is a relatively small, family-owned and -run company. Yet their Zar stains gets consistently high marks among professional and amateur woodworkers.

What’s their secret? According to Joe McGraw, UGL Advertising Manager, it’s a combination of maintaining strict quality standards; steady, solid growth; and solid innovation.

“We have to make sure we’re proud of what’s in the can,” Joe explained, “Our company president is the son-in-law of the original founder. Instead of being committed to a board of directors, he and all of us are committed to making the best products. Zar polyurethanes are made with ASTM Type 1 … the pure polyurethane resins (solids) that are the Cadillac ingredients in the industry.”

As a dedicated coatings manufacture, with what they consider to be the best people, equipment, and technical ability, UGL can offer high quality products at very competitive prices. Until recently, competitors couldn’t or wouldn’t match that quality, but government regulations have forced everyone else in the industry to reformulate to higher quality solids … though few can beat the Zar price.

“Another area that sets up apart is our sales force,” Joe noted, “They work directly for UGL … no manufacturer’s reps … and through our training, they become industry and a real resource – even beyond our product line – for our dealers. And there’s another thing that sets us apart … all our sales force are required to wear coat and tie. Our founder, Gerald B. Payne, wanted us to stand out; so the way we dress is a sign of our respect for each dealer’s business.”

You won’t find Zar products at Home Depot, Lowe’s, or other big box stores. UGL built its business and reputation with the co-ops like Ace and Our Own and independent mom/pop hardware stores.

“People ask us why we aren’t the largest.” Joe explained, “The answer is that we’ve grown at a conservative, controllable pace and won’t sacrifice quality to gain more market share. A lot of our dealers share our pride in selling a quality product. That’s not to say we wouldn’t like to be in the big boxes … but even with the consolidation of the Home Depots and an economy in a downturn, our sales have been on a significant upturn.”

That conservative approach means UGL doesn’t follow fads or easily jump on the latest industry bandwagon. A few years ago, every other company was coming out with pastel shades of wood stains. UGL cautiously met the demand, but through its custom-tint-base formulas, rather than by packaging a whole new group of off-the-shelf products. The pastel fad came and went, but when UGL recognized an emerging consumer-driven demand for deeper colored stain, it added them to the Zar line.

Good products stand the test of time. If you’re not familiar with Zar wood stains, they are a cross between a gel and a penetrating oil. You can brush it or wipe it and it has both stain and sealer built in … so it gives you the same appearance on different kinds of wood.

“With sustainable growth logging, woodworkers are seeing more rapid growth woods — such as parawood or aspen — varieties you never saw even 15 years ago. They are essentially soft hardwoods, and Zar stain – the same formula we developed in the seventies – gives you the controlled penetration you need to achieve beautiful results.”

And when the time is right, UGL is not afraid to innovate, even years ahead of the competition. Back in the early fifties, varnishes were the product of choice in the U.S. But they took a long time to dry and didn’t hold up well against liquids. Tough, water-resistant urethanes had only been available in Europe, when UGL introduced them in 1953. Though initially more expensive, the new formula soon found enthusiastic applications on floors, furniture, cabinets, and doors.

UGL’s most recent innovation is Zar Ultra. According to Joe, it’s a breakthrough in oil-based polyurethane.

“In the past,” Joe explained, “Both consumers and professional woodworkers liked water-based urethanes because they dried fast. They could put on two or three coats in a day and be done. The water-based polyurethanes are good — we offer them ourselves — but they’re not as durable as oil-based. Now with Zar Ultra and its breakthrough in resin drying technology, we have the durability of oil-based polyurethane combined with a two hour drying time!”

And what’s it like to work for a family run company?

“It makes me proud,” Joe described. “I like being able to tell customers that I’d recommend any of our products for use by my friends or family.”

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