You Bet Your Glass: April 2016
An entrepreneur and a gentleman III
In my previous two columns I told you about Fred Fulton’s early days in Toronto, his beginnings in the industry with Pilkington Glass, the start up of Sealite Glass, and the establishment of the Insulating Glass Manufacturers Association of Canada.
Sealite Glass was a great success story, continued to grow since its inception in 1959, and opened an office and production facility in Montreal in 1962. Fred Fulton and Joe Shapiro had made Sealite a major player and this did not go unnoticed by the big boys. In the mid 1960s Fred and his partners were approached by a large Belgian glass manufacturing company looking to grow their business in Canada and to improve their insulating glass production processes in Europe. The company was Glaverbel Glass. The Belgians liked what they saw, determined that owning Sealite would help them meet their North American growth objectives, and made them an offer they couldn’t refuse.
“After a period of time I was asked to assume the role of executive vice-president for Glaverbel Canada and to work on the integration of all of Glaverbel’s many branches across the country,” Fred reports. Glaverbel had done a major acquisition campaign of glass companies throughout Canada to establish a nationwide footprint. “This was a demanding but very interesting role which again involved coast to coast travelling. We also sent teams of people to Glaverbel’s facilities in Europe to assist them in organizing their plants to achieve the same quality of insulating glass we were producing at Sealite.”
During the 1950s the float glass production process had been developed and perfected by Pilkington Glass and by the mid 1960s this much-improved product was seriously shrinking the demand for sheet glass. All of Glaverbel’s glass operations in Europe produced only sheet glass. Fred tried to convince the Belgians that the days of sheet glass were numbered and recommended that they move into float glass production to stay viable. They chose not to go in this direction and instead, in the mid 1970s, decided to close shop in Canada and sell off their network of companies.
“Glaverbel in Canada was a fine company to be with, but some years after I joined they were sold to the Ford Motor Company and I decided that I would leave the new organization and hopefully plan a different future. I left on good and friendly terms,” Fred remembers.
The sale of Sealite Glass had contained a noncompete clause so Fred was unable to immediately go back into the glass business. As it happened, the assets of a company by the name of Dominion Home Improvements (DHI) involved in the apartment window business became available and Fred, “wanting to keep my hands in with the people I knew in the business,” purchased their equipment.
In 1978, with this used aluminum window production equipment, a small inventory of aluminum extrusions, DHI’s former shop foreman Mike Suto and six shop employees, Fred opened the doors of Fulton Windows in a 12,000 square foot factory on Aimco Blvd. in Mississauga. The product offering consisted of Series 1200 fixed and sliding windows.
Fred once again started pounding the pavement calling on the people he knew best – glass shops and commercial glazing contractors in the Toronto area – only to learn that most of them seldom buy windows. The method for many of these companies, as it remains today, was to buy lengths of aluminum profiles, fabricate it themselves, install it, and glaze it on site. Fred then pushed the idea that Fulton Windows could fabricate and assemble the Series 1200 window framing for the glazing contractor at a cost lower than they could do the work themselves. The glazier could then free up their inside fabricators to install more and increase their business. This was an approach that worked very well for companies involved in supplying glazing during the boom in factory construction surrounding the greater Toronto area during the early and mid 1980s. Fulton kept adding new products to meet demand in tnhis strong market. To support customers in the school window market, Fulton designed and introduced the 5100 Series double hung window followed by the 2000 Series vent system. Then to complement the window offerings, Fred brought Werner Kloke into the fold and introduced exceptionally well-designed and glazier-friendly curtainwall and skylights systems as well as the 2250 Series tilt/turn window system. Werner also brought a good rapport with the leading architects in the country to Fulton Windows
By the time 1990 rolled around, the Canada-wide construction boom had begun to implode and the economy plunged into recession giving birth to the catch phrase “stay alive until 1995.” With sons Frank, Fred, and Bob on board, a fully rounded product offering, an experienced engineering group and a wonderful team of dedicated people throughout the organization, Fred turned his eye to new markets and landed in Hong Kong, where eventually a great relationship with an exceptionally progressive and talented company called United Reliance Corporation was forged.
While businesses throughout Canada struggled greatly in the early ‘90s, about half of Fulton’s local customers found themselves unable to stay afloat. But Fulton’s approach of supporting the glazing contractors kept some business coming in from their broad base of customers. At the same time, Fulton was supplying a growing stream of custom curtainwall and skylight products to Hong Kong, eventually supplying a large section of the curtainwall for the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre that was built to host the ceremony returning Hong Kong to China from British rule in 1997.
Fulton’s ability to do business on the international stage did not go unnoticed. The Export Development Corporation branch of the Government of Canada, whose role was to promote capable Canadian companies, introduced Fred to a construction consortium in Japan. This unique umbrella organization, made up of companies across Japan involved in the building of business hotels and rental apartments, sourced innovative construction materials from suppliers around the world. Double-glazed and thermally broken aluminum windows were practically unheard of and rarely used in Japan in the early ‘90s. Fulton customized some of its existing products to meet the requirements of the Japanese market and was able to supply a far superior product at a cost less than the local manufacturers’ single-glazed offerings.
By the mid 1990s with the Canadian market just beginning to show signs of recovery, Fulton’s business in Hong Kong and Japan had grown to the point where more than 50 per cent of sales were being shipped to Asia.
During the downturn years, expecting that construction would have to rebound eventually, Fred had his engineering group developing a user friendly, multi-storey, unitized curtainwall system to supply to the glazing contracting market. Prior to this, a fully unitized and factory-glazed curtainwall was not readily available to these customers. The product was introduced to the market as FULWAL 4, and Fulton backed the dealer with in-house design and engineering horsepower.
When the North American economy rebounded towards the end of the decade, Fulton’s Canadian window business came back and FULWAL 4 opened new avenues. Fulton’s market footprint expanded into centres throughout the United States as well as the Caribbean and Europe.
By the time Fred and family sold Fulton Windows to Oldcastle Glass in 2006, the small company that had started in 12,000 square feet with seven employees had blossomed into a pretty formidable entity in a 130,000 square foot facility with over 200 people.
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