Founders Series: Gary Thorn, Director and Owner of Cube Glass Limited

Gary Thorn
Gary Thorn

What does your company do?

We design, fabricate and install aluminium windows, doors and curtain walling systems, mainly for commercial properties but also for residential customers. Lots of architects choose aluminium these days for windows and doors partly because, whether in black, grey or charcoal, it is stylish and looks good, but also because of its strength and longevity. This means that you can fit big windows to optimise light without the need for frame supports which detract from the amount of light getting into a building. Our role is to look at the design drawings we are given by architects and other customers and, using our experience, tell them what can be practically achieved.

We do some internal glazing but 99 per cent of our work is with external glass, supplied principally by Senior Architectural, Metal Technology and Schueco, the world-leading German aluminium systems manufacturer whose products include bomb-blast and fireproof aluminium systems, some of which we have installed in high-end properties across Scotland. We are a select approved Schueco partner in Scotland.

What was the aha moment that led to the company founding?

I had always wanted to work for myself. It had struck me that business owners seemed to have a better life than the rest of us: they weren’t tied to a desk or factory floor during business hours and didn’t have to ask anyone for permission to take an afternoon off if they needed to. Now, if any of my team needs time off to attend, say, a school sports day, they only need to ask. They can make up the time off afterwards.

I was working as general manager for a company in the same sector, Insutech Scotland Limited. I had increased its turnover by 100 per cent since my arrival. There was an understanding that at a certain point, one of the directors and shareholders in the company in which I was general manager would step down, and I would buy his shareholding and become a director. In the event, we differed sharply over the value of his shares and he decided to stay on. I left as the company folded due to the bank refusing to provide support without both directors agreeing to use their houses as collatoral during the recession.

Where did you get assistance when you started?

I called up two major suppliers I had worked with previously at Insutech and asked them to supply my new business. Each gave me £25,000 worth of credit which helped relieve my working capital needs.

My biggest break was getting the first telephone call from a long-standing customer of my previous employer. He told me he wanted to work with me regardless of where or who I was working for and placed a good order.

Give us a brief history of the growth of the company

When we started, it was just me in an office in Queenslie with a computer, mobile phone and a desk. I quickly started to secure work and took on my old colleague Gary Stevenson almost immediately. Within 10 months, we had a small factory and employed two good fabricators and achieved a turnover of £775,000. More importantly we were making profit, providing a good service and getting repeat business from familiar sources. We’ve grown steadily year on year to a turnover of £2.76m just past.

So, what does it look like now with regard to staff and turnover?

14 direct employees and 12 sub-contractors, and our turnover stands at £2.75 million

What’s the difference between when you started and now in your marketplace?

Our brand has grown and the market awareness of Cube Glass is now excellent compared to day one.

What is your target market – Who is buying your product / service?

Principally, we sell to main contractors, like Morris & Spottiswood, Clark Contracts, Hadden Construction and Maxi Construction. I take a risk occasionally by working with other contractors we haven’t previously dealt with whilst hoping to build a relationship with them.  We always put them through a “Cube Glass” examination, however, to test whether we are going to continue working with them. They only pass the test if they pay us on the agreed terms and don’t try to mess us around with deductions from the agreed cost of works. If they are in the “Cube of Trust” our customers know that we will always be there to have their work turned around whenever they need it, sometimes in six days rather than six weeks. We work also with end-users and home owners.

What is your background?

I grew up in the village of Stepps in the north-east Glasgow suburbs and attended the local school, Chryston High, then graduated with a BSc degree in building engineering and management from Glasgow Caledonian University. Afterwards I worked in construction-related businesses before becoming general manager at Insutech.

What are your goals for your business?

I don’t want Cube Glass to become too much bigger. When we get to a turnover of £3m I’ll be happy to keep it around there. Any bigger and it is inevitable, I think, that I’ll get caught-up in all sorts of bureaucracy and doing stuff I don’t find enjoyable and don’t want to do. We can get more productive though. Having said all of that, I imagine the business could grow towards the £5m turnover mark. My concern is that I really like what we have achieved and where we’re at and I don’t want to lose the special qualities I believe we have, like the dynamic of the team and the excellence of the products we sell.

What are your biggest current challenges?

There is a worst moment every time I chase a customer for payment. One main contractor recently went into administration owing us £120,000. They were late with payment and kept promising us the payment was coming. It never did. This is a recurring theme. We try only to work with customers we know. Around 80 per cent of our turnover arises from trusted, reliable, well-managed businesses and we have no trouble getting paid on the agreed terms. When we try out a customer we don’t know, I’m sorry to say they usually let us down.

What has been the biggest challenge so far?

I find that the biggest contractors are the worst payers. Too many of them look for a main contractor discount (MCD) of 5 per cent for payment 35 days after the invoice date, then don’t pay on time, but still want the discount. It’s called “subby-bashing” and it is ingrained into the UK construction sector since middle managers in construction companies appear to be incentivised to knock thousands of pounds off the agreed prices of sub-contracted work.

What do you know now that you wished you had known earlier?

To only work for people I know well, and that I trust.

What’s the secret to good leadership?

Working closely with customers; having fun whilst working hard; enjoying life, not working every hour, and looking after our families.

Where do you see the company in five years?          

We are currently negotiating to buy our own premises and extend the building to accommodate our planned growth over the next 5 years. The additional space will allow to build a showroom for our domestic sales prospect and also resolve our space issue. We will then invest in bigger, more productive machinery such as a £135k CNC machine which will improve the speed and precision of our curtain walling products.

How can the Scottish start-up/entrepreneur landscape be improved to help more businesses start up and grow?

Provide stability for business owners to invest more in our employees and enforce legislation which supports sub-contractors chasing late payment from main contractors who have no valid reason for delaying the payment process.

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