An eye on investment strategy

Mark Mitchell reflects on the first two years of the Cornwall Group, including lockdowns, product shortages and £multi-million investment plans.

Cornwall Group was created in July 2019 from the restructure of Cornwall Glass, creating three distinct divisions, each with its own focus on a key area of glass supply.

The strategic aim, announced at the time by its then managing director Mark Mitchell, was to bring more focus and agility to key areas of the business.

Now, with two years under its belt, the model has been put through its paces by Covid, and the chaos tankers stuck in the Suez Canal and cold maintenance programmes have brought to manufacturing and glass supply.

“Of the two-years we’ve existed as a group, for 18 months we’ve been working and living with Covid,” Mark (now group chairman) said. “It’s been tough but I’m very pleased with how we’ve adapted.

“Had we still been structured as a single business, without the divisional model, I believe things would have been a lot harder. We wouldn’t have been as agile as we have been.”

Cornwall Group operates across three divisions. This includes two focusing on trade: Cornwall Glass Manufacturing and glass merchanting business Mackenzie Glass, which was acquired by Cornwall Glass in 2017 from Pilkington/NSG. A third division, Cornwall Glass and Glazing, is focused on installations, trade and retail supply.

Although each has distinct areas of operation, each shares an underpinning focus on high value products; Cornwall Glass Manufacturing, for example, specialises in supply of over-sized IGUs and high-performance laminates and coatings.

Mackenzie also shares a focus on high-performance laminates and coated products, plus specialist items including mirrored products and fire glass.

Combined, this has supported the group in delivering a 20% increase in turnover this year, despite the challenges presented by Covid and the major disruption seen in glass supply.

“We aren’t looking to sell the cheapest product,” Mark said. “That goes for Cornwall Glass Manufacturing and Mackenzie Glass. We want to sell high value product, solar control, tinted glass, mirror. It’s about added value, service and support.”

Mark said the diversification in its model has also made the group resilient to the challenges that have come its way.

“We are stable and some of that stability has come from the fact that we aren’t locked-in exclusively to a single area of the market,” he said.

“We do toughen our own product but we aren’t a volume toughener. I’m aware that some manufacturers have had to introduce three-day weeks because they can’t get their hands on enough 4mm float.

“I don’t see that pressure – given the challenges in glass supply – easing anytime soon.

“We are more diverse. We operate in different areas of the market, so our risks are spread a little more broadly.”

This was another key element of the strategy that underpinned the formation of the group, including a broader diversification of the business into new areas of operation. This has included new retail businesses, focused on home furnishings in Cornwall, and a second retail launch in the Isles of Scilly.

“We’ve opened a home furnishing business, which is obviously very different to our core manufacturing business but that was the aim: to try new things. We’ve also made some investments in property and are looking to explore and diversify further, as and when we see the right opportunities.”

This hasn’t, however, distracted Cornwall Group from investment in those core areas of business. It announced plans to invest £6 million in its Highbridge site at the start of this year. To be delivered over the next three years, it will expand its operation from 15,000ft2 to 55,000ft2, making Highbridge the largest of the manufacturing division’s three sites.

It will also give it new specialism, including: walk-on insulated glass units; nonslip glass floors; staircases; and other specialist processed glass products creating up to 30 new jobs.

It has also continued to invest in its other manufacturing business. Alongside its flagship Plymouth operation, this has included the installation of a new Bottero 520 LAM(e)/37 cutting table at the start of 2021 in its St Austell operation, something which has supported it in meeting the increased demand for laminates since the first lockdown in 2020.

Mackenzie Glass has also increased its laminate cutting capability with its own Boterro table, invested in new bevelling processing equipment, as well as carrying record levels of stock throughout lockdown with more than 80,000m2, including 200+ glass types on the ground in its 37,000ft2 purpose-built Bristol site.

Mark also points to the group’s corresponding investment in people. The Group pledged at the beginning of 2021 to recruit a further 10 apprentices on the Cornwall Group Apprenticeship Journey.

This was made as part of a longstanding commitment to ensure that at any time, 10% of its workforce is made up of current or former apprentices. Combining on-the-job learning with a formal training framework, the scheme has 20 current apprentices working across group businesses.

“We’ve worked incredibly hard to give our customers stability. That’s on price, where we’ve absorbed some increases, and in supply,” Mark said.

“Our allocations have held up and we’ve had enough. We’ve communicated well with our suppliers and our customers, and while manufacturing lead times have been pushed out, people have understood why.

“And we’ve not lost sight of our investment strategy, either in our manufacturing facilities or the colleagues who work in them.

“And that gives us a lot to be proud of.”