01 September 2016


I've been digging into some personal history lately, after having heard that several people I knew back in the early 1980s have recently passed away. I worked with them in a company that had a wonderful work ethic and environment, that also made a lot of money. It no longer exists, because of events that overtook it then, but the perpetrators themselves are no more.

I have written about Canadian Glass Industries Limited before, on another blog. However, how it collapsed would provide a great case study. I will just give a broad outline of it here.

Canadian Glass was previously known as Glaverbel Industries Inc, and it was taken over by Pilkington Glass Industries Limited (then a subsidiary of Pilkington plc) in 1976. As a condition of its acquisition, Pilks was required to keep Canadian Glass at arm's length to determine its own strategy and direction. The head office was moved to Toronto in 1979, and it occupied premises separate from Pilks, although only several blocks apart. The acquisition did reveal several surprises, such as the fact that CGIL could borrow money at prime, but PGIL had to pay prime plus 1! That was the first of several embarrassments, including the equally unavoidable fact that CGIL was a much more profitable operation. PGIL's Contract Division was its only operation elsewhere in the group that even came close to matching those results.

I joined Canadian Glass as its Corporate Controller in September 1980, and enjoyed it immensely. The job had broad scope, I had full responsibility for issuing consolidate financial results and preparing and filing all corporate and capital tax returns, and I was required to travel to all divisions across Canada to check on how things were happening out in the field. I got along well with everyone there, and the feeling was mutual, as my boss soon advised me.

In December 1980, Ford Motor Company reached an agreement with Pilks plc to acquire its Canadian operations. As part of its negotiations with Ottawa, Ford got the conditions relating to the 1979 Glaverbel acquisition cancelled. Ford's takeover occurred in the spring of 1981. That resulted in a particular witches' brew of corporate cultures coming into play:
  • Ford had (and still has) a particularly forceful brand of management, where specific targets are set and pressure is brought throughout the organization to ensure such targets are achieved. In the early 1980s, the focus was on reducing headcount throughout all activities within an organization. I really do mean all activities, and not just through voluntary measures such as incentives for early retirement (which tends towards somewhat patchy results). I should also mention that Ford had a fairly unified management structure, where top managers crossed over quite often between management and finance functions and back again. I was familiar with this, having grown up listening to my father's stories about how this had been applied at Ford's Oakville operations.
  • Pilkington had a decentralized country-by-country management structure, and the Canadian operation was fairly regimented in its approach. The finance side was quite humourless, and initiative was not expected but obedience was. There was a fair bit of bureaucracy there, which tended to slow things down. On the other hand, they always felt they were superior to CGIL, contrary to the evidence at hand.
  • Canadian Glass was quite relaxed in comparison, and collaboration was encouraged at all levels. At each division, the General Manager and Controller had equal authority and responsibility, and I was expected to deal with all of them. Response to any concerns was quite quick in both directions, and no issues were allowed to fester. Again, financial results were quite good throughout all divisions.
Note the priority of the cultures involved. Looking back now, it was quite predictable who was bound to lose when headcount reductions were forced through. The Pilks crowd were essentially looking for job security. As one of the first steps, the CGIL head office was closed in April 1982, and all of us moved across to the Ford Glass offices. And then the reductions started, albeit discreetly at first.

I sawit then occurring in a rather blatant manner in 1983, when I was given a survey form to identify what proportion of my time was spent on various activities. I noted that no-one else was being given such forms, and it didn't take a rocket scientist to figure out what was going to happen. I just gave some (*ahem*) wild guesses, and it was shortly after that I was told that my position was now redundant. Several weeks after that, I heard through the grapevine that those managers were shocked to discover that I was doing the workload of six of their people combined , and they really had to scramble to try and figure out how to divide up what had to be done!

I went ahead and got my RIA the following year, which was transformed into the CMA designation in July 1985. There have been interesting moments since that time, but none were ever as exciting or as enjoyable.


And what happened to that operation since? It has essentially gone the way of all flesh:
  • In 1988, Ford sold its entire glass operation to Asahi Flat Glass (owned by Mitsubishi), which is now known as AGC.
  • Their float glass manufacturing plant in Scarborough,originally established in 1967, was shut down around 1999. Another float plant had been established at St-August-de-Demaures in Quebec in 1992, but that one shut down in 2008 because of manufacturing overcapacity in the North American market.
  • All of the fabrication, contracting and retail centres in Canada have now been sold off or closed. There is only one automotive glass facility here now, as shown on AGC's map.
On a broader scale, I believe I got off a lot better than many others then. Many accountants came face to face with job losses for the first time in their lives. At Coopers + Lybrand, now part of PwC, the practice for articling students had been to allow them three chances to write the UFE (the CA final exam) before they would be told to leave if they still could not pass. Around that time, that was cut back to allow them only one kick at the can, as most UFE graduates decided to stay on at the firm instead of having a large proportion decamping to positions in private enterprise. From that point on, the senses of job security and loyalty were permanently shaken, and they have never really settled back down since. These days, it can be said that many actually suffered from a type of post-traumatic stress disorder from these events, although it was never described as such, and that had wide-ranging effects over the following decades that have never been discussed.

The desire for headcount reductions continues unchecked everywhere, and almost every acquisition seems to result in another head office being hollowed out as a result. I've heard it said that the fat has now been trimmed off everywhere, and now we're cutting into the bone!

I see the potential for several case studies and/or theses in several academic fields. I wonder who would be interested in following up on this?


  1. I am ready to participate in such a study about flat glass industry in Canada
    Bernard Savaëte

    1. Interesting idea. I took a look at the work you've been doing on the current developments in glass, and it's quite good. The Canadian situation, however, would be more of a case of an industry that has been vanishing.

      As far as I know, Pilkington is the only real manufacturer these days, with an automotive glass plant in Collingwood, Ontario, that is an inheritance from their later acquisition of LOF. The rest of the glass industry is focused on fabrication and distribution.

      PPG closed their plant in Owen Sound, Ontario, in 2008, and Guardian Industries closed its tempering plant in Tillsonburg, Ontario in 2010.

      My personal knowledge dates from more than three decades ago, and most other sources these days are close to, or have reached, retirement age. Given the industry, I'm sure most reminiscences will be quite colourful.

      Because of all the closings, industry records will be relatively scarce. Most industry press here did not branch out significantly from the press releases that were issued into any truly investigative work. Government statistical reports might be somewhat helpful in highlighting the big picture. More in-depth background will be much more challenging.

      This would be really outside my depth, but I could certainly help anyone who wants to take on this endeavour.