Past, present and future

After more than 30 years in the industry Gary Dean left the corporate warmth of an international business and set out on his own. One year on he tells Glass Times about his past, his present and his visions for the future.

I have been around the glass industry all my life. My dad started as an apprentice glass cutter at 17 and reputedly become the fastest glass cutter in the north – these where the days where they made stepped double glazed units and he would cut up to 600 pieces a day.

Because he got noticed he firstly became a partner in a couple of glass companies before creating his own; it was sweeping the floor and filling aluminium spacer bars with desiccant by hand on Saturday and during school holidays where I first got the fascination with glass at his company.

As a teenager, you never want to do what your dad does and I trained an actor and theatre director to do something different, but finally I succumbed, and with my dad’s financial support set up an IG components wholesaler when I was 19, selling it to Solaglas five years later.

I then invested in my dad’s growing IG business and became sales director. After a few years we went into partnership with Interpane of Germany before selling the complete business to them in 1994.

I joined Guardian in Dubai as sales director for the Middle East, but it’s hot out there and I only stayed a few years. Returning to the UK I was offered the job of managing director of Bohle in 1998, which had recently bought the complete company of Berlyne Bailey and needed a complete restructure and marketing uplift.

This was a great time where I was able to build a team, and we changed a rather broken and old fashioned company into a market leader. We increased turnover sevenfold, leading to Bohle UK becoming the largest subsidiary in the group.

I was then offered the chance to open Bohle America in 2008 and moved yet again. Two years later and CR Laurence offered me a very high level post in Los Angeles, but as they were also expanding in Europe I decided to take on the role of European director, and was once again back in Manchester.

In 2016, as my 50th birthday approached, I started to really think about what the next 15-20 years held in store, and really couldn’t see myself in a large corporate machine. At the same time I hankered after that excitement I had when starting up at 19, and then again at 34 when I took over Bohle. I realised I had to get my teeth into a start-up again, despite the risks, the stress and the reduction in income.

Some people said that I was mad at 50, which made me even more sure that it was the right thing for me to do.

OnLevel is an innovative company and an inspiration in business culture – exactly what I was looking for. My friend and partner in building the hardware business at Bohle, Marcus Lenge, had joined OnLevel as a partner and commercial director the year before, and Iwan Luttikhuis was the leader and technical director of the company – someone I had long admired as the person behind building the Q-Railings business, and who had subsequently designed great products at the helm of OnLevel, like the Flex-Fit system.

The best bit was they wanted to start to expand internationally and wanted an experienced partner who had a background in start-up expansion in different countries, and was prepared to be an investor.

It couldn’t have been a better match, and the instant we all three met we found an immediate chemistry and found we had all the same view of fair and farsighted business culture.

We all want to add value for customers, employees, our supply chain, and the wider community – we donate 5% of net profits to charities supporting poor communities in deprived areas.

To support our vision, we are committed to innovation and the development of enhanced solutions for the balustrade and glass hardware sectors; we work relentlessly on new ideas and the improvement of installer friendly and safe solutions.

We will expand our business internationally to bring these benefits to the widest possible audience through own subsidiary locations and distributor partners – we already have three locations with two more countries in planning and distribution partners from New Zealand to Canada.

Finally, we are all on one level – we purposely avoid hierarchical structures and top down control and management in our business culture by the rules we impose on the organisation. We sincerely believe that our job as business owners is to free our people to develop to their highest capacity and guide and mentor them along this path.

We have fun, and through fun we drive the success and positive engagement with all stakeholders in OnLevel.