Under the Glass
Small town, big capabilities
By Patrick Flannery
Aylmer Glass and Mirror was supposed to be a retirement project.
Aylmer Glass and Mirror was supposed to be a retirement project. After dairy farming for decades, Tony Holcombe was having issues with his knees and looking for something more relaxed that he and his wife, Deborah, could do for a living. When an opportunity came along in 2003 to buy Aylmer Glass – a small, three-man glazing contractor in the tiny town of Aylmer, Ont. (population 7,000) – it looked like just the thing. But a funny thing happened on his way to the quiet life. Holcombe found that it was not in his nature to sit back and let the company drift. And people kept bringing him different things to do that challenged his workers’ ingenuity. As word got around about the Holcombe’s friendly service and can-do attitude, Holcombe found his business growing. Nine years later, Aylmer Glass does three times the business it was doing when Holcombe bought it and has a number of high-profile, innovative local projects under its belt.
|Deb and Tony Holcombe are working more hours now than they did on the farm, but at least it is easier on the knees. They have turned Aylmer Glass and Mirror into a one-stop shop for all the glass needs in this small, southwestern Ontario town.|
Aylmer Glass occupies a 5,000-square-foot building Holcombe built himself six years ago. There are four full-time employees, plus Tony and Deb. Two workers do nothing but installations, and the senior employee, Henry Geisbrecht, mainly stays in the shop doing repairs and auto glass work. The fourth employee is Holcombe’s son, Matthew, who does whatever is needed and constitutes the company’s IT department. Aylmer Glass does mostly residential window and door replacement, but no category of work is turned away if Holcombe feels he can handle it.
In addition to doing commercial storefronts, glass enclosures for public buildings and display cases for the local police college, Aylmer Glass keeps up a steady stream of automotive windshield replacements. Holcombe estimates residential work is 60 per cent of his business, automotive 30 per cent and commercial coming in around 10 per cent. On the division of labour between himself and Deb, Holcombe has a simple explanation: “She does 90 per cent of the work,” he laughs. “If she takes a day off, Matthew and I are running around here like chickens with our heads cut off.” The company is a Northstar dealer and primarily a contractor and service provider rather than a manufacturer. “Our equipment is basically what you would find in any working shop,” Holcombe explains. There is very little in the way of specialized glazing equipment; he has a saw for vinyl and one for aluminum rail and a wet belt grinder. He sends all his bevelling work out to London Glass. The company has a pick-up truck and a 14-foot, tandem-axel trailer for deliveries.
|Henry Geisbrecht “came with the company,” Holcombe jokes. Geisbrecht handles most of the in-shop work while the rest of the team does installations. Holcombe says increasing Aylmer Glass’s workforce has enabled him to grow the business significantly.|
Aylmer Glass and Mirror has been in Aylmer since 1969, changing owners and locations many times. Holcombe knew the last owner, Doug Newell, from his high school days in Tillsonburg, Ont., and the two had served on the Brownsville volunteer fire department together. Newell’s father-in-law also farmed in the area and knew Deb’s father well. “After I sold all my cattle, he came to the farm one day and said, ‘What are you going to do with yourself?’” Holcombe remembers. “And I said ‘I don’t know, I just want something I can sink my teeth into.’ And he said ‘My son-in-law is thinking about selling his business.’” Holcombe shadowed Newell for two weeks, accompanying him to installs and meeting his distributors. Afterwards, he and Deb looked over the company’s books and decided to take the leap.
|Location: Aylmer, Ont.|
Sq. Footage: 5,000
Owners: Tony and Deb Holcombe
Aylmer Glass and Mirror is a Northstar dealer, providing residential vinyl window sales and installation for new builds and renovations. But its list of projects goes much farther, including windows, doors, decking, railings, shower enclosures, closet organization, auto glass, glass tabletops, window film and repairs. The company has been in existence since 1969 and under present ownership since 2003.
Holcombe estimates Aylmer Glass serves the area in about a 60-mile radius around the shop, going as far away as Guelph and Dutton on occasion. The area is rural, with a few small towns and some light manufacturing. In such a market, Holcombe has found that specializing is not an option. He does get regular sales from two local builders. One is entirely residential, but the other does almost anything from commercial to renovations to custom home building, and Aylmer Glass has to be able to meet his needs. “It has morphed into a lot of different things,” Holcombe says. “Not only do I supply him with his windows and doors, but if he has a commercial job where he needs an aluminum door, I do that for him. In the past I have supplied him with decking material. It has morphed. You develop relationships and they tend to expand out for you and it grows your business if you are willing to take on things and do different, varied things. It is all a learning process for us, too. Every time you try something new you learn from it. You don’t always make money, but at least they know you can do it.”
Holcombe doesn’t worry about apples-to-apples competition in the area. There is more than enough work in the market for everyone, but “fly-by-nighters” are a problem. “They have a break in the back of a truck and now they are window installers,” Holcombe says. “Weekend warriors – there are a lot of them around here.” Holcombe feels that fabricators have a role to play in protecting legitimate fenestration contractors who service what they sell. “Northstar is getting better. That was one of my main complaints when I bought the business. They didn’t care who they sold to. If you pulled up in a pickup truck with a credit card in your hand, you were served. But they have really narrowed it down now so that you have to be an authorized dealer to buy off them.”
|Holcombe is determined to help his customers even when others say it can’t be done. With the help of his suppliers, he was able to preserve this 100-year-old stained glass window and put it into an insulating unit.|
By far his biggest driver of business is word-of-mouth and referrals, but he advertises in local papers and on the Tillsonburg radio station to make sure Aylmer Glass’s profile stays high. He usually waits for specials before running the radio ads, which works out to three or four runs per year. Northstar has been good about providing marketing material for the print ads.
Another thing Holcombe loves about Northstar is its willingness to work with him on unique projects.
As an example, he points to a recent installation of a picture window in a house in Port Bruce overlooking Lake Erie. “We needed it designed,” he explains. “We had a rough idea of how we wanted to do it, so we called them up and told them what we were looking for with the dimensions. They sent us back the plan for it, said ‘Here you go, here’s the CAD drawing of it.’” The window is 12 feet by 90 inches, vinyl with low-E thermal glass and an argon fill. The mullions had to be specially designed with metal reinforcements because the size of the window exceeded the extruder’s specifications.
Taking on unusual projects gives Holcombe’s day some zip. About two years ago, he was approached by a local homeowner who had been turned away by a number of larger glazing contractors in the region. The owner had just purchased a 100-year-old Victorian home in Aylmer that had the original stained glass in one of the upstairs windows. Needless to say, the old frame was anything but weather-tight and the homeowner’s upstairs hall was freezing. He was looking for a solution that would preserve the beautiful, hand-made stained glass while providing some insulation.
Holcombe jumped on the problem. “It came down to the fact other people had told him it can’t be done,” Holcombe explains. “When you look at it, you think there has to be a way. So I made a few phone calls and my wife made a few phone calls and, sure enough, there are companies out there.”
Holcombe rounded up help from Sunrise Stained Glass and Southwest Glass in London, Ont.
First, Holcombe’s installers gingerly removed the old ¼-inch pane, supporting it across its entire surface and carefully laying it flat. It turned out that the old piece was actually bowed, so Sunrise had to flatten it out. Then Sunrise re-leaded the outside edge and attached a guard that would fit into Southwest’s IG assembly. Southwest fitted the stained sheet into a custom ¾-inch spacer and built the rest of the IG unit around it, creating a gas-filled, triple-paned IG unit with the stained glass fully visible in the centre.
|Northstar helped Holcombe out with a custom design for this oversized bay window. When it is finished, the room is going to have a stunning view of Lake Erie.|
Occasionally, Aylmer Glass is called on for something larger and more commercial than a small-town glazier would normally tackle. One such project was at Bobier Villa, a retirement home run by Elgin county. The walkway where the nurses entered the building for work was icing up in the winter faster than staff could clear it, so the county commissioned a glass-and-aluminum enclosure to protect it from the elements. The enclosure needed to be two storeys high to cover the staircases and slope-glazed to let water and snow run off. Holcombe contracted Cambridge Architectural to build the frames and Southwest to make the insulating units. Another time, Holcombe took on building a handicapped entrance for the Elgin County building. “That was a real challenge,” Holcombe remembers. “It had to be just exact. We had to make a template for Southwest to get the thermals made and we had to make a template for Cambridge Architectural to get this roll so that the aluminum would roll just right.” The county had insisted on a fancy arch at the top of the enclosure that drove up the complexity significantly. The project also included three round hopper windows that needed custom frames.
Aylmer Glass’s eclectic mix of service even extends to auto glass. The previous owner had stopped doing auto glass because “he was tired of dealing with the insurance companies,” Holcombe explains.
“The insurance companies have gone central. It is called Belron. Let’s say you have an Aviva claim and you want a new windshield on your car. Well, I don’t call Aviva, I call Belron. The claim goes through Belron and this is where some guys find it a little difficult to deal with.” Holcombe says Belron follows a very structured approach when processing claims. If the service provider is missing the smallest amount of information about the claim or the customer, Belron will not process the claim or even proceed to collect the rest of the information until it is given. This requires the service provider to be organized in its information collecting process, and Belron works well when it is; however, Holcombe says, many small shops find the rigid process too frustrating to deal with. By organizing his process, Holcombe has been able to bring the auto glass business back to Aylmer Glass and realize some significant additional revenue.
Holcombe attributes Aylmer Glass’s success since he and Deb took over to this willingness to go out of their comfort zone and say “yes” to whatever comes in the door. “We just tackle more things,”
Holcombe says. “[The previous owner] did not tend to keep as many employees around. The most he had was two; we have four.” Holcombe finds that keeping on a dedicated installation team in addition to his shop workers helps service and also gives him an incentive to aggressively pursue business. He avoids laying workers off as much as possible, and is keenly aware of the need to keep the company growing in order to support his staff. “We were just going to come in and if people came in and wanted a mirror cut, yeah, OK, we will do it,” Holcombe says. “But you can’t. You can’t when, all of a sudden, it is not just you and your wife and your family but now you have Henry’s family to feed and another employee’s family to feed. It is a natural progression and growth is always there if you are willing to look and work for it.”
Holcombe’s workers do not have glazing certifications, having been trained entirely on the job, as he was. “I think if you went to probably 90 per cent of small shops, you would not find too many guys that are [certified],” he says. The issue of worker certification does not come up for him, even when bidding on government contracts at the Ontario Provincial Police college nearby. “I’ve been working there for years and the only thing they require is police background checks,” he says.
Holcombe has found a supplier he loves in Northstar, and says once he has a working relationship, he is loyal to a fault. “Northstar is a phenomenal company to deal with,” he says. “Their service department – not that we use it much – but any time we do use it, they are top notch. If you have an issue or a question, they are right there for us.” This approach mirrors Holcombe’s own, which understands that in a small town there are no secrets. “Word gets out. You have to be service oriented,” Holcombe says. “You have to be willing to work with people and, to be honest with you, I think that is what draws people here. We are willing to stand with them and work side by side with them when they are trying to do a project of any kind in their homes. We help them pick the doors, we help them pick the design of the window. That is the key. It is customer service and customer relations. That has really helped our growth.”