Preparing for a world beyond glass
Cornwall Group was formed at the beginning of July, following a restructure of the former Cornwall Glass Group, which included Cornwall Glass and Mackenzie Glass. Glass Times editor Nathan Bushell met with some of the directors to find out why.
As a regional powerhouse and loyal Saint-Gobain Glass customer, Cornwall Glass Group was on a successful trajectory, especially after buying (and turning around) the downstream Bristol-based Pilkington business Mackenzie Glass two years ago.
If things were looking so good, why did the senior management decide earlier this year to restructure the business and drop ‘Glass’ from the group’s name?
It was a question that Glass Times put to group chairman Mark Mitchell at the start of the interview, and his response suggested that it was the most natural thing in the world to do.
“Separating the group functions from the strategic positioning of each division allows the business to operate more efficiently,” he said.
“We’d got to the point where board meetings were taking up a whole day, and important items were coming under ‘any other business’,” Mark said. “We’ve cut that right back.
“We’re already seeing synergy. The general managers of each of the three manufacturing sites are already getting together and sharing ideas. It’s brought new focus to what we do and, with it, efficiencies and improved product quality and service.”
Despite dropping glass from the group name, the focus on glass is a significant driver for the restructure, which created three new trading divisions: Cornwall Glass and Glazing (retail and installation); Cornwall Glass Manufacturing (IGU manufacture and glass processing); and Mackenzie Glass (glass merchanting).
The manufacturing division includes Cornwall Glass’s flagship site at Langage Plymouth, and IGU and processing facilities at St Austell and Highbridge near Bristol.
“The new facility at Langage, Plymouth, took the business into new markets,” Mark Norcliffe, who heads the manufacturing division with Mark Knight, said. “Large panels of glass are being used more and more, and people literally want to go bigger.”
This £5 million Langage investment in 2016 gave the group an IGU line with scale and capacity to manufacture architectural IGUs alongside standard units, and water jet and CNC machines.
“The challenges are where it comes to understanding glass and using it properly,” Mark Knight added, “and this is where Cornwall Group is positioning itself.
“We are also putting value on the relationship with the customer, whether that is out in the field or over the phone. We want to offer close support as they work through projects, even where they have their own teams.”
This strategy raised eyebrows when it was taken to its logical conclusion, and Cornwall Glass and Glazing was given the green light to go out to the market to buy glass from suppliers other than Cornwall Glass Manufacturing.
“The sites in Plymouth, St Austell and Highbridge have always supplied a mix of internal and external customers,” Mark Norcliffe said. “And we do it pretty well. There’s always, however, an opportunity to be better at what we do.
“A key benefit that we’re seeing is the increased integration between manufacturing sites and greater synergy in how they’re run. That’s already allowing us to deliver a more flexible and better service to our internal and external customers.”
He continued: “Clearly, the fact that our internal customers have options to go elsewhere (which we’re determined that they won’t do) sends a message to our external customers. This makes the service levels that we expect to deliver very clear, something which directly benefits anyone buying product from us.”
Mark Mitchell added: “The divisions and businesses within them have to be autonomous if what we’re doing through the restructure is going to be credible.”
Cornwall Group is anything but insular. The business has been built via both organic growth and acquisitions, including: Solaglas, Westcountry Glass, Exeter and Mackenzie Glass Centres, the M5 Glass Centre, and Colston Glass Centre, among others.
“The group restructure was in part designed to address the cumbersome nature the business had become,” Mark Mitchell said. “It needed decluttering.
“Furthermore, the restructure also allows us to acquire new businesses more efficiently.”
Mark also said the move allowed individuals within the group “to shine”, pointing out that Mark Herbert and Matt Prowse – who together head up Mackenzie Glass – both came from apprentice roles within the company and are credited with turning around the fortunes of the Bristol-based business, and reporting a 20% uplift after its first year of trading.
Mark Knight hails from a human resources background, and he explained that focusing on apprentices and new blood is vital, and a gives the company a healthy dose of agility.
“When young people, or older people looking for a career change, take on an apprenticeship at Cornwall, they can be guaranteed a job at the end of the programme,” he said.
Cornwall Group has worked with Exeter College to develop an apprenticeship journey to meet this need, and Mark Mitchell said the new group structure gives colleagues room to develop and be promoted.
“We actually have one or two gaps on the Cornwall Group board, which I’m in no hurry to fill,” he said. “It gives people that opportunity for progression if they want it.
“A quarter of our colleagues joined as apprentices, and they help give this business the family feel it is renowned for. I’m surprised the term ‘apprenticeship’ still has negative connotations.”
Looking to the future, Cornwall Group’s direction arguably looks clearer since the restructure.
For example, the company bought Hayes-based multi-laminate specialist LW Architectural Glass in April 2017, only to then close it down following lease complications, mothballing the equipment in the process.
With the restructure now complete, there are proposals to reinstate the facility in a new location, with sites along the M5/M4 corridor under consideration
“Laminate glass manufacture is a specialism, and setting up a business from scratch and recruiting the right people can be very difficult,” Mark Mitchell said. “Our preference is to go down the acquisition route and purchase an existing glass business, which may perhaps be in distress or considering exit.”
And a life outside glass for the Cornwall Group?
“We have always grown through acquisition,” Mark said. “The efficiencies that our new structure gives us should allow the group as a whole to continue to expand in its core area of business but also with potential to expand outside it.
“It is a longer sighted proposition. We have 12 skilled people employed at a group level who could turn their skills to different sectors. It will allow us to invest in allied businesses and sectors as opportunities present themselves.
“That’s not something that’s going to happen overnight but it is part of our strategy.”