Under the Glass
Time for more – Centennial Glass turns 50
By Treena Hein
Ottawa’s oldest glass company has its best year yet.
By Treena Hein
As 2017 approaches, the name of Ottawa’s oldest, largest and most diversified glass company is taking on new meaning. Centennial Glass is about to enter the second half of its first century – it’s 50th anniversary – and it’s thriving under careful management that welcomes new efficiencies while maintaining quality workmanship and excellence in customer service.
A great majority – almost 90 per cent – of Centennial’s work is custom. Residential fabrication and installation services range from shower enclosures to mirrors. Commercial and industrial contracts include everything from custom storefronts to curtain walls.
Centennial Glass began in 1967 and changed hands in 1986. The commercial division was expanded starting in 1998 with the addition of small commercial framing and entrance fabrication. In early 2000, Centennial introduced glass shower enclosures to the residential market, growing the business from dozens to thousands of custom installations each year in every style and configuration imaginable. The replacement window glass business also expanded and transitioned to include sales and installation of prefabricated brand name Canadian windows (now a dedicated division). The company also created one of the largest showrooms in the Ottawa area, updated in 2009, along with a full-service retail counter complete with “while-you-wait” repairs.
In May 2010, Kerri McArthur and (Wes) Donald Rafuse purchased the firm. Previously, the couple had lived in B.C., with Rafuse serving on many boards in Squamish and developing business opportunities in the sea-to-sky corridor. McArthur worked various sales and operations positions in the hotel and property management sector in the Whistler area, directed a software sales force in North Vancouver and managed a Tim Horton’s for over a decade in Squamish.
But with two young children with them in B.C. and aging parents in Ontario, the couple had started to spend more and more time travelling back and forth. After over 20 years out west, they decided to move. “We looked for a business to buy and Centennial Glass was one of them,” McArthur says. “We looked at several of them, the whole of each one, the future outlook and the competition, and we got to know Centennial and decided to go for it. I wasn’t intimidated by getting to know a new industry. I knew most of the people in the glass industry are getting ready to retire, so I knew I could take my skill set and apply it. There is no template in the glass industry and that’s exciting. So here we are six years later. I guess you could say we’ve gone from glazing donuts to glazing curtain walls.”
Mid-2010 wasn’t the easiest time to buy a new business with the recession still in swing. It certainly required the couple to pay close attention to margins and to the price of raw materials like aluminum, but Centennial Glass had a strong brand name and was already doing well – which of course had made the business an attractive purchase in the first place.
At the same time, McArthur and Rafuse felt ready to take the rock-solid business model of the previous owners to take it to the next level. “With an industry learning curve and a million things we needed to do, we dug in,” she remembers.
|Owners: Kerri McArthur (owner/director) and Donald Rafuse (owner/partner)|
Employees: 29 full-time and two part-time
Location: Manufacturing and head office in Ottawa, satellite office in Renfrew, Ont.
Plant: Fabrication and manufacturing facility approximately 8,450 square feet
Products: Residential, industrial and commercial products and services from shower/bath enclosures to full building envelopes
Dug in, indeed. For starters, the couple began growing the scope of projects (they now include full office building envelopes, exterior/interior glazing, storefront entrances, skylights, roof glazing and more). Indeed, Centennial now has a larger range of products and services than any other company in the area and it expanded that market reach with the launch of the Renfrew satellite office in 2015.
The couple also added fabrication technologies to control costs and eliminate errors. In addition, they cross-trained their staff in commercial and residential work, exposing them to the widest possible spectrum of manufacturer and material training programs possible. This, says McArthur, improved teamwork, skills, job quality and project completion times. And better safety outcomes too – Centennial was accident-free in 2015.
McArthur and Rafuse also instituted customer account managers who handle jobs from inception to completion to ensure smooth delivery throughout the entire project cycle. “In our commercial division,” McArthur adds, “we’ve implemented and improved our bidding process and we’ve strengthened our emphasis on maintaining and developing relationships that will lead to higher-margin negotiated projects with acceptable payment terms rather than bid projects. We’ve also implemented stronger financial controls, and we instituted very tight credit and collections procedures. Every month we set up targets to meet/exceed.”
Part of the business model was being very transparent with financial partners. “We’ve been very fortunate to have a good commercial banking partner and we also work very closely with our accounting firm,” McArthur says. “You can’t do it all. You need partners you can trust that also share your vision to help you get there.” The couple has also implemented Lean management and created the company’s own signature metrics for all areas of the business, resulting in a better experience for customers, with less risk of errors and callbacks.
The challenges Centennial has faced, in McArthur’s view, have been those of any glass company: training with and integration of new technology, cost control, project management, customer service, compliance with ever-changing building and construction codes, staffing for fluctuating seasonal work loads and more. They have faced these challenges with the implementation of several philosophies.
“Centennial will never compete exclusively on price,” McArthur explains. “It’s about quality and we partner only with suppliers who share our service and quality philosophy.” For example, with thousands of annual commercial/residential custom glass shower installations, Centennial’s callback rate stands at less than 0.5 per cent.
Another philosophy is look after staff. “We’ve learned that smart business sometimes includes turning down bad business, because we don’t want to take unnecessary risks that may hurt the company or our employees’ bottom line,” McArthur says. “We do our very best to keep the entire team working all year long and to provide everyone with work-life balance. Our employees understand that the better the company does, the better we all do. As a family-run business, we try to provide structure and freedom, and we try to foster an environment that is peaceful, friendly and supportive.” This dedication to employees has served them well. Many employees have been with Centennial 15 years and longer.
McArthur and Rafuse have also cultivated a proactive philosophy. “Like any business, you have bad jobs, make errors, deal with competition and low profit on some jobs,” she says. “We’ve had our share of lows, but you have to keep it moving forward. You cannot hope a business will thrive on its own, you have to have foresight, you have to research, you have to be prepared to adapt quickly and lead your team. Employees need leadership and to know what the big picture is. You have to create the excitement and engage them every step of the way. When that transpires, working is fun and everyone comes together with a sense of purpose. That’s truly my role and it’s imperative to the success of the company.”
Valuing the customer is also an important focus. It’s everyone’s job at Centennial to be an ambassador for the business. McArthur and Rafuse believe that developing great relationships and being available to communicate 24/7 by phone, email or in person is paramount to keeping customers. “We are a service delivery company and we need to keep that top of mind at every level,” McArthur says. “Our people answer calls after hours and on the weekend as required. Customers don’t have time to wait. Our people are prepared to deliver.”
McArthur freely admits that it’s not always easy to change the mindset of employees and to implement change but the results speak for themselves. “I can say that it feels pretty good to have this year the best sales year in the history of the company,” she notes. “The team we have today is the reason. We’re lucky to have the experience and skills of top people who have the energy, persistence, and expertise to come into work every day with the drive to ensure results. There’s not one position more important than the next. It’s a team effort every day.”
McArthur is very pleased to be part of a “wonderful” group of like-minded people who share a vision and philosophy for quality materials, workmanship and service. “Like a family, we rely on each others’ input,” she says. “Even though we may vary in our opinions and ideas, at the end of each day we have enormous respect for and trust in each other, so we always walk away in agreement. Because of this, we are enjoying Centennial’s best year yet.