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Fire-resistant glass gets even tougher with $100,000 boost

Glassopolis president Jordan Richards, left, and general manager Rob Botman attend the tradeshow Glassbuild at the Las Vegas Convention Center on Friday, Sept. 14, 2012, in Las Vegas.

Isaac Brekken/Globe and Mail

Every year, Rob Botman and Jordan Richards, co-owners of Toronto-based Glassopolis Inc., fly to Las Vegas to attend the Glass Build America show. This year, they were more excited than ever to hit one of the largest glass-industry trade shows.

Why? They headed to the show $100,000 richer, thanks to Glassopolis's first-place finish in the Challenge contest sponsored by Telus Corp. and The Globe and Mail.

The company, a seller and distributor of fire-resistant glass, beat out 1,200-plus other entrants to win this year's contest, which asked companies to explain the biggest challenge their business faces today, and how a $100,000 grant would help them overcome it. The number of entrants was almost double the year before.

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Glassopolis has put its focus on a new category of fire-resistant glass, which it calculates is a potential $50-million market in North America. It aims to take a $10-million chunk of it over the next three years, Mr. Botman said. If successful, that would double Glassopolis's current revenue of $10-million.

The company is ready to sell the new product; its challenge was a financial hurdle to obtain the equipment it needed to move forward.

To come out on top, Glassopolis beat three other semi-finalists: Rosa Flora Growers Ltd. of Dunnville, Ont.; Tenderloin Meat & Sausage Inc. of Winnipeg; and of London, Ont.

"It's a thrilling validation of the business model we're working with here," said Mr. Botman, general manager of the 20-employee company, about the win.

"There's definitely going to be some buying action or deal-making here," he added from the trade show, which was held in mid-September.

Though launched in 2008,  Glassopolis's roots date back to 1912. Back then, Richards Glass Co. was selling glassware – mostly pill bottles – to the pharmaceutical sector. Mr. Richards, Glassopolis's president, is the original founder's great-grandson.

The company, which once made most of its business distributing laboratory-related glassware, has been through several name changes, but it really took off when it started to sell fire-resistant glass to the fireplace industry.

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In the 1990s, the company started to sell its glass to architects who needed fire-resistant windows for the stairwell doors in offices and other buildings; stairwells are often the only escape route from a burning building.

The company was selling only small quantities of this glass in Canada until 2008, when it switched over to a German manufacturer from a previous Japanese one. The new supplier gave the company, called Pro Science Inc., the right to become a master distributor across North America.

Pro Science decided to start a new business to focus exclusively on fire-resistant glass, and Glassopolis was born. It's a wholly owned subsidiary that operates as a separate business.

Since Glassopolis's formation, sales have quickly taken off, with revenues growing between 2008 and 2011 by 300 per cent, reaching about $10-million last year..

If one thing was passed down to Mr. Richards from his business-owning ancestors, he said, it's that you can't rest on your laurels. Even though Glassopolis was doing well, its co-owners wanted to expand their product offerings.

There's another type of fire-resistant glass, much thicker and heavier than they were previously selling, that's used in places such as car dealerships and universities to protect entire rooms from fire. The glass can last for up to 120 minutes in intense heat, far longer than the thinner glass they also sell. As the company wrote in its Challenge contest application: "This will truly save lives when a building is threatened by a fire."

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They knew about the glass because companies in Europe were already selling it, but the European product wasn't regulated for American use. Glassopolis looked for a manufacturer that could create this glass with the U.S. market in mind. After a long search, Glassopolis found one in Switzerland and is now the master distributor of its brand of glass in North America. That means the company can sell that product to architects, contractors, sub-contractors and other companies that would install glass.

Glassopolis had one problem: The equipment the company has been using can't handle the new glass, which is six times thicker and 16 times heavier than the thinner glass. Quite simply, it needed a new saw to cut and package the glass, and other machinery, like a forklift, to move it.

That machinery, however, is pricey: A new saw that can specifically cut thicker glass runs about $100,000 and a new forklift costs up to $50,000.

Glassopolis's owners applied to the Challenge contest in the hopes of winning enough money to buy new equipment to be able to handle the new glass. Mr. Botman said the company had planned to spend $50,000 of its own cash to upgrade, but that would have covered only used equipment.

Jim Senko, vice-president of small- to medium-sized business for Telus and one of the contest's judges, thought putting the cash toward the purchase of new equipment was a great use of the money, and he could see how the product could take off.

"We liked the tangibility of what they wanted to do in terms of going after a new product niche," he said. "We could see how it would succeed."

He also liked how the company was innovating in what could be perceived as a staid industry and it also demonstrated a clear path for growth.

"They know their addressable market, but they can't service it with the current machinery," he said. "So being able to get that injection of capital will set them up for business growth. It's a really good use of money."

While Glassopolis would have gone after  the thicker-glass market even if it did not win the contest, it would have been difficult to reach its  revenue target with older, less-efficient equipment, Mr. Botman said.

It also takes a lot of the risk out of jumping into a new market, Mr. Botman added. "It increases our opportunity to move up a notch. We can now add a tremendous amount of productivity to the new line."

It's already putting the winnings to good use. Just this week, it signed a deal to purchase a new, Italian-made automated saw, Mr. Botman said, adding,  "it's quite a leap for us."

Glassopolis plans to take delivery in six to eight weeks and will begin to reconfigure its plant to accommodate it and the new glass.

It won't be long after that it begins to sell its new product.

"We are ready to go," Mr. Botman said. "It's been a complicated process and not something that turns on a dime. But it can turn on $100,000."


Now that Glassopolis Inc. has won the $100,000 Challenge contest, the real work for the seller and distributor of fire-resistant glass begins: marketing and selling a new line of glass.

While the company's owners can't wait to start taking orders, contest judge Jim Senko, vice-president of small to medium-sized business marketing for Telus Corp., co-sponsor of the contest with The Globe and Mail, said it's easy to get tripped up when launching a new product.

He has two pieces of advice to help get Glassopolis started:

Stay focused

It's easy to get excited and distracted when entering a new market. Mr. Senko said the company really needs to pinpoint where its growth market lies, and market aggressively to that segment. Figure out how its going to penetrate that market. "Now it's time to focus on execution," he said.

Drop less lucrative clients

It's also easy to feel overwhelmed when launching a new product – companies still have to keep their previous business going after all. Mr. Senko said Glassopolis may need to "be ruthless." Say goodbye to clients that don't bring in a lot of money and focus on attracting and servicing deep-pocketed clients that want the new glass.


The second annual $100,000 Challenge Contest attracted a record 1,200-plus entrants this year.

The semi-finalists and the winner were selected by a six-member panel that included Jim Senko of Telus Corp.; consultant/entrepreneur Evan Carmichael; Chris Griffiths of Fine Tune Consulting; and Sean Stanleigh, Steve Tustin and Terry Brodie of The Globe and Mail.

The judges applied the following criteria in reaching their decision: 15 per cent for the description of the challenge; 55 per cent for the proposed solution; 15 per cent for the description of the anticipated results, and 15 per cent for the description of how values are incorporated into the business.

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