Under The Glass - February 2015

Making friends Provincial Glass seeks to forge new relationships.
 Jim Chliboyko
February 10, 2015
By Jim Chliboyko
It’s a tough world out there. Margins are tight, clients are demanding, suppliers can be unreliable and the competition bloodthirsty. After years duking it out in the tough business of glazing, it is natural that many of us become more cynical and defensive - skeptical about anything new, suspicious of the motives of others, careful about whom we associate with and generally less likely to seek out collaboration and new relationships. It’s a well-earned caution learned in the school of hard knocks, and it’s an attitude you see a lot when you look around this aging industry. Past a certain point, we start to care more about protecting what we have than finding something new.

That’s why Brett Lucier, the 36-year-old co-owner of Provincial Glass in London, Ont., is such a breath of fresh air. Lucier is all about the social - and not just Facebook and Twitter, though he’s big on that, too. Lucier has a vision of a collaborative approach to this business that sees abundance where others see scarcity and friendship where others see rivalry. He’s out there looking for new friends every day, and positively bursting with eagerness to tackle the challenges the old guard hate, like energy standards and safety regulations. He’s an example of the preference for working together we have heard about in the Millennial generation...but does it work? So far, he has doubled Provincial Glass’s business since he became part of the ownership team with Gaston Drapeau, the company’s longtime owner. Maybe there is some hope for the future in this industry after all.

First off, the company in numbers: As of 2014, it’s a 30-year-old firm, currently with 27 employees, with a fleet of 12 service vehicles, 24-hour service and a 7,000 square foot shop on York Street in downtown London (original location was on Ridout Street). The original owner, Drapeau, is 65 and still involved, though taking a less active role. The company carries North Star for residential windows, and relies mainly on Kawneer, Alumicor and Windspec for its architectural products. Provincial Glass is a regular recipient of awards from local newspapers and business groups, such as Readers’ Choice and Best of London.  Provincial gets most of its business in the Chatham-to-Kitchener corridor in southwestern Ontario.

So, now, meet the new boss. Lucier is pretty young to be heading up a glass company, a family man with two children (Cole, 9, and Claire, 7) and a former budding architect, who seems a bit surprised to end up where he has. Lucier attended London’s Fanshawe College graduating as an architectural technologist. “I was originally going to be an architect,” he remembers. “I got accepted to the University of Michigan. My parents took one look at the first year’s tuition, room and board - $30,000 - and said, ‘You’re going to college.’ And away I went. I sold my drum set, and afforded the first year of tuition at Fanshawe, went and graduated.”

After school, Lucier took a co-op position then worked with several different architects and an engineer.

Location: London, Ont.
Founded: 1984
Owners: Gaston Drapeau and Brett Lucier
Employees: 26
Facility: 7,000 square feet
Serves: Mainly southwestern Ontario between Chatham and Kitchener.
Focus: Commercial storefront, residential glass service and window renovation/replacement
 
“After I got out of Fanshawe, and worked with a couple of architects and engineers, I realized that this is not what I wanted to do. As a technologist, I get really no credit, and nobody knows who I am, usually. So, I said this isn’t working, I need to change this up and I took a job at a building box store, designing kitchens. I designed kitchens for about a year. Greatest job I ever had, probably made $13 an hour. Loved every second of it. Worked with three beautiful women the whole time. And part of my position there was I had to phone local glass companies to find glass for the kitchens. So, for the cabinets and the corners, or for shelves or the glass in-fills, and/or backsplashes, to co-ordinate those as well. I called around and got a couple prices and it turned out that Provincial Glass was the cheapest price. So we started ordering from Provincial Glass for a couple orders. About two or three weeks after that, there was an ad in the paper for a junior estimator that had architectural knowledge and some glass knowledge. I said, ‘Well, I’ve ordered glass shelves, what more could there be?’”

That was 14 years ago. Lucier slowly moved his way up the ranks within the company to get to where he is today. Going from architecture to glass has been a pretty interesting turn for Lucier. After 14 years, he is still excited about the prospects for finding change and growth in his market. “Every day is still exciting for me, and especially looking ahead, looking at the future of glass and the future of glass companies, using things like social media and getting into networking,” he enthuses.

If Provincial Glass has a niche it would probably be shopping plazas and strip malls. The business splits fairly evenly between commercial and residential. On the commercial side, Western University and Fanshawe College are big customers. Residentially, Provincial does shower enclosures, vinyl windows and entry doors. The business model is one you do not see as much any more: a one-stop shop for glass. “If it has glass, we can help you out,” says Lucier. For 20 years, Provincial has done the storefront repairs and renovations for all the GoodLife fitness clubs across southwestern Ontario and has written the specifications and installation instructions for GoodLife’s mirrors for all their clubs across Canada.

An early challenge for Lucier at Provincial was the new student centre at Fanshawe College. It was at the time the largest project Provincial had ever done - almost a million dollars of glass and aluminum. Lucier got his trial by fire dealing with the architect as a green estimator. “Having to measure things on my own, lay things out on my own, for a large-scale project, it was overwhelming some days,” he remembers. “But at the end of the project, to be able to look and see everything in was pretty incredible.” Though he had left the school some time before, Fanshawe still had a valuable lesson or two for him.

But the technical aspects of managing Provincial were not the hardest ones for Lucier to overcome. Networking and selling did not come naturally to him. “Gaston’s been the face for 25 years,” Lucier explains. “Now that he’s pulled back, I’ve had to force myself to get out and be noticed and get my face as Provincial for the future. Which is good, because it’s forced me to originally be doing something I wasn’t comfortable doing but now I love.”

Having conquered face-to-face networking, Lucier is now taking it to the next level. “Technology is big. It’s not going away. This new-fangled Internet thing is here to stay. It might be around for a little bit longer,” he laughs. Lucier is unusual in the industry in his enthusiasm for social media, especially as a channel for smaller glass companies. “Using things like Facebook and Twitter for free advertising - why put out the advertising when you can reach all your friends and their friends’ friends for free?”

Lucier’s involvement with social media started with personal use, then gradually evolved and grew as he realized the potential for his shop. He’s started with a simple Facebook page for Provincial, then got involved with a Twitter account where he can watch for industry information and post messages to people interested in buying glazing services. Down the road, he sees potential in using YouTube to help train employees and inform customers, as well as position Provincial Glass as an expert resource. And then there is the word-of-mouth networking aspect. “All my staff is on social media,” he explains. “So all their friends can all do the same. Even my installers are on social media, a lot of them, because I have a very wide mix of ages. The majority of guys do social media, especially the younger guys. I bet we generate anywhere from one to five leads a day through social media. And that’s through friends of friends.”

But Lucier’s networking isn’t limited to contraptions with a screen and keyboard. He is also an advocate of being a member of community associations, like the London and District Construction Association and the Ontario Glass and Metal Association. He says there are multiple reasons to give back to the community on behalf of your business: “Number one, it makes you feel good. Number two, you are helping somebody out and, number three, you are getting your name out in a positive light. Gaston himself just did, for Jesse’s Journey, parts of a walk from Quebec to Winnipeg, which is 4,000 kilometers. Myself, I’m usually involved in sports-related stuff. I do Hockey Helps the Homeless. I do multiple things for cancer. Again, any way you can get out. I did one of those mini Tough Mudders this year [Jesse’s Journey’s Xtreme Warrior Challenge], which was on a bucket list.”

Lucier’s progressive approach to business does not stop with his marketing strategy. Shortly after getting involved with Provincial, he became concerned about the workers’ tendency to live paycheque-to-paycheque without saving any money. After buying into the business four years ago, Lucier started up a retirement plan and offered an improved benefits package to try to stabilize his employee’s lives and attract their loyalty. “Keeping my guys happy is priority one. There’s a lot of things we do for these guys. Almost monthly, if not every other month, we do a social outing. So, whether we’re doing a brewery tour, whether we’re doing paintball, whether we’re out at a comedy club, whether we’ve got a suite at a hockey game, we try and get as many people as we can involved—office staff, installers, helpers, everybody - just to get out and blow off some steam. And when you’re doing team building activities like that, it goes a long way.”

The health and safety of his employees is another concern for Lucier. “We had an employee injured five years ago. It scarred me for life. I never want someone to go through that again.” It was under these stressful circumstances that Lucier found that safety material published by government health and safety authorities had little application to a smaller business. “The literature wasn’t out there, the material wasn’t out there,” he says. “The knowledge wasn’t out there, especially with the smaller glass companies. So that was one thing that I learned by reaching out, by talking to other glass companies: what do you do in this situation? How do you guys do this? Is there a safer way that we could do this? And then implementing those here has gone a long way to keeping our guys safe.” Lucier does admit that finding out how to keep employees safe was only half the battle. Getting employees who had worked in the industry as long as he had been alive to change their ways was the other half.

Collaboration and cooperation are Lucier’s default settings, even when it comes to competing glass businesses. “I think there’s a lot of glass companies, and that we can help each other,” he says. “There’s enough work, I know, in London and surrounding areas that we’ll get some crossover every now and again, but I mean, I don’t look at it as competition so much as we can help each other out. You know, if I need a piece of aluminum that I don’t have in stock, I can pick up the phone and there’s probably three different glass companies that I can call right now that I know may have it. And they’ll give it to me. And we’ll swap it out in the next couple of weeks or something like that. I see great benefits with not closing any doors, with not burning any bridges. I’m not asking everybody to like me. But you never know when you’re going to need somebody.”

In terms of the future of his company, Lucier plans to just keep plugging away, and rolling with the seasons.

“I know when we get the high winds or heavy snowfall, there’s a lot of accidents and things like that, that tend to bring work our way. And the buildings keep going up, new strip plazas keeping going up. I mean, London keeps continuing to grow, so it’s a great market that we’re expanding out the edges.”

A lot of the work revolves around actually building up the company itself from within, it seems.

“I take great pride in some of these younger guys – they came in as not knowing a lot but have now developed into amazing glaziers. They’ve really taken the ball and run with it. And they’re prime, they’re in their 30s. As good as they are now at 30, or mid-30s, they’re in a pretty good position. It’s great for them, it’s great for me, too, because hopefully I’ll be able to hold on to them for another 20 to 20-plus years.”

But he seems very happy with the industry he’s ended up in.

“There’s never a boring day. You could be going into all different kinds of restaurants, meet all different types of people. I enjoy the construction sites but I think I enjoy the businesses and residential stuff a little bit more. I think they’re just different,” he said.

“Glass is – I love it. I find that glass breaks, that’s why we’re in business. As long as we’re not the ones breaking it, we’re all set.” •

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