Sempra Energy’s gleaming new headquarters downtown has acres of glass panes covering its 16-story frame. Darker portions of glass zag along the building’s façade and jut above the top floor in a V-shape.
The stark profile was made possible by Vision Systems Inc., an architectural products manufacturer. Vision specializes in unitized curtain walls, panels of glass surrounded by aluminum frames that can be fitted together to form entire skyscraper exteriors. The project was one of Vision’s most challenging. The size of the panels and several cantilevered sections required especially strong frames with steel inside.
Vision’s successes have given it enough capital to move ahead next month with a new 7.2-acre campus in Santee, after years of using four buildings in El Cajon for engineering, assembly and storage, some about a mile apart. Vision has been very careful with real estate, according to Vice President and co-founder John Gillis, previously renting space nearby for months at a time in busy periods instead of committing to a new location.
“We’re cautious, that’s one reason we survived,” Gillis said.
But flat land suitable for manufacturing is becoming scarce, prompting plans for the new headquarters. The combined office and warehouse areas will be about 90,000 square feet, roughly 10,000 square feet larger than Vision’s current space.
“We knew soon there would be no more undeveloped land in this part of the county,” Gillis said. “We have a nice backlog of work to comfortably support the venture.”
Building a Business
Gillis and Fred Witte founded the company in 1981. Witte, Vision’s president, and Gillis grew up in the same neighborhood and went to school together. In their mid-20s, they decided to work for themselves and quickly attracted a team of about 10 to work on small storefronts and office buildings. Before insulated glass became popular, Vision fabricated their glass as well.
A breakthrough for the company came in the mid-1990s, when it provided skylights for the San Diego Convention Center’s second phase. Work in Los Angeles also buoyed Vision’s reputation, including the University of California, Los Angeles’ Gonda (Goldschmied) Neuroscience & Genetics Research Center and the Museum of Television and Radio. Its biggest job so far was for the Palomar Medical Center in Escondido, with a 500,000-square-foot window wall, according to Gillis.
“One day you’re building 7-Elevens,” Gillis said, trailing off and gesturing toward workers cutting aluminum bars for BioMed Realty Trust’s $189 million life science lab-and-office project, called i3.
Vision also delivers and installs the curtain walls it manufactures in East County, with about 50 of its 200 employees out in the field. Most of its work is in Southern California, though larger contractors have asked for Vision’s help on projects in Oregon and Washington.
Jay Leopold, the San Diego regional manager for DPR Construction, has worked with Vision for years, most recently on projects for Qualcomm Inc. and Alexandria Real Estate Equities. In the past, there were not many significant differences between Vision and its competitors until Vision stepped up its focus on unitized systems, according to Leopold, allowing for less work on-site. While some competitors also have those systems, they aren’t as vertically integrated, he said.
“They made the jump from being a commodity to being a sophisticated service provider,” Leopold said. “Anytime you can move components off-site and bring more labor into the shop, the ripple effect is important.”
Vision decided to take over delivery and installation early on because the company wanted to stop ceding control of its products to outside vendors, according to Gillis. It was a struggle to coordinate the initially unfamiliar logistics, he said, but it was worth the investment.
“We were young and ambitious and we didn’t think it was going to be as hard as it was,” Gillis said. “There were more things that could go wrong and we had no one to blame but ourselves. But now we have all the work we want to do.”