Glassman returns as metalman

Gary Dean returns to the pages of Glass Times in a new role.

Yes, I am back. Having been a little stifled by the corporate machine that instructed me that they didn’t believe in PR I am now free as the co-owner and CEO of OnLevel to revisit these pages with random thoughts and reflection. 

I thank Andy and Mandy Westhead for their support in encouraging me to return to regular articles and their constant support for the industry and its voices regardless of position, budget or advertising spend – these are publishers who love the industry first and we are lucky to have them and the Glass Times team.

Supporter such as these and The FIT show constantly fill me with joy that there is a very solid and committed core of professionals in our business who genuinely have passion for it every day; long may that continue.

So, sitting down to construct this first opening article after seven years away, meant firstly it was time to reflect. When thinking about where we are today, and where we were when I wrote my first piece in 1992, I was struck with a kind of reversal of fortunes.

At that point, the ‘white gold’ was leading with perceived innovation coupled to window and door security hardware, while the glass guys seemed to be forced to sit in a corner and deliver whatever the window industry wanted at ever reduced prices.

Innovation in glass was largely Germanic soft coated glass for high performance with limited applications, and was out of the reach for many, and seemed unnecessary for the rest – apart from in the Middle East (where I relocated to in the mid-90s for a while to enjoy the boom) and so it didn’t really feature in the UK until many years later.

This pattern however seems more familiar on reflection: leadership in innovation appears to have been led by one baton bearer at a time – glass, windows, software, machinery.

My upbringing was in the glass business and moved over time to glazing consumables and architectural hardware in the last decade; and it’s been remarkable to observe the ebbs and flows of these sectors during this time.

While the glass industry seemed to realise around a decade ago that the way to differentiate and regain margins and momentum lay in true innovation; it would seem the glass hardware business generally has stagnated and fell instead into the ‘chase down the price’ rut of stack it high.

True innovative – which I would classify as original thought and the reinvention of new solutions to old problems – is few and far between, and can often be seen as the modification (copying?) of one new idea across several companies rather than ground breaking.  

The few things we have seen recently, such as hydraulic hinges for door closers, have been one revolutionary idea from Italy ‘reworked’ in India and China and resulted in varying quality and ever decreasing returns for the efforts of the people that took the risk. The drive by key players in the market to strip out the true value in an effort to maximise short term profit – on a wave of ego-massaging market share – works directly against adding real value opportunity to the sector for the long term.

This is counterproductive behaviour as the market doesn’t move on, and low cost becomes an overarching differentiator which is never sustainable and erodes the final customer experience, to the long term detriment of the industry and its perception by consumers.

We saw this with the major glass supply chain two decades ago and know how that ended; now from my observations the best performing glass companies are largely passionate independents driven to add real value to the supply chain.

Modestly, my company OnLevel, is committed to the genuine innovation route but that is hard – hard on time, hard on resources, hard on cash demands and hard because a successful innovation will often have a short life before its principle advances are ‘adopted’ by competitors.

In our case, however, just because it’s hard doesn’t mean we withdraw from making this a principle of our business vision. In an environment that reminded me of the glass industry in the 80s and 90s , the glass hardware/architectural hardware sector needs to move on to a true phase of our innovation again, and OnLevel takes up the challenge to be part of it.

From passionate innovation comes advances that change the course of thinking and opportunity, it must be incumbent on the best and most honest players to encourage and welcome start-ups and people with groundbreaking ideas, rather than ignore them or try to drown them out with tactics belonging to the oil giants or Silicon Valley’s elite.

Whichever segment of the industry you belong to I would humbly ask you to support the innovative ideas and organisations, challenge yourself to innovate in your business, and try an add true value to the marketplace, which doesn’t always mean finding a way to be the cheapest, but often means finding ways to be the best in every sense of the word.