My first corporate investigation

Canadian Glass was in the flat glass industry (as opposed to hollow glass, which is glass containers). Margins have always been half-decent in that business, and, if you minimized your cutting losses on your jobs and negotiated good payment terms with your suppliers, you were always assured a good living. However, if you did not keep these in mind, the results are disastrous.

I learned that the first week I started there, when Alf came into my office and told me we were flying to Montreal the following morning. One of Charlebois’ customers, Starr Glass, had just ceased business, and our receivable from them exceeded $60,000 (quite a considerable amount of money at that time). Not only that, our parent (Pilks) was in to them for more than double that amount, and they wanted us to report on the total situation.

Why all this concern? You have to appreciate the differences that existed then in how bankruptcy laws were applied across the country. Before the federal bankruptcy rules were standardized in 1992, provincial rules of civil procedure applied with respect to when a creditor could appoint a receiver to come in to seize a debtor’s assets. Common-law jurisdictions in Canada generally required about 10 days’ notice before such a move could be made, but no notice was required under Quebec’s Code of Civil Procedure.

Starr Glass had cash flow problems, to put it mildly. Not being in a position to secure further financing from more traditional — and legitimate — financial institutions, it sought a loan from an “alternative source” (ie, the loan sharks). Still having cash flow issues, the principal tried to stiff them, and they stiffed him — he was assassinated, and one of Starr’s creditors sent the receiver in immediately to seize the assets.

We arrived at Dorval airport, and were met by Jean-Pierre Ross, Jacques Bellemare, and Régent Millette (the credit manager at Charlebois). As it was close to noon, we went first to a local brasserie to discuss the affair over lunch.

Alf asked Régent to update us on the issue. Régent said, “Don’t worry, I pulled our glass out of there last week. I received a telephone call advising me that it would be a good idea if I did!”

And that was that. Under the terms of acquisition that were in effect from 1979 under the Foreign Investment Review Act, Canadian Glass and Pilks had to manage their operations separately from each other as if they were third parties. Pilks did not have as good a series of connections in the Quebec construction industry as Charlebois had, and thus were out their money.

After lunch, we went over to Charlebois, which was on Boulevard Coûture in St-Léonard, where I got acquainted further with everyone. The only other person I can recall from those days is Gilles Grégoire, who was Charlebois’ sales manager (quite a character in his own right).

That was an eye-opener, and quite the beginning to what proved to be a very dramatic and exciting time at that company.

Remembering a long-gone company

It’s been 30 years since my first job as a Controller at Canadian Glass Industries Limited, which was owned by Pilkington Glass Industries Limited. After the latter’s takeover by Ford Motor Company, it was subsequently renamed as Ford Glass Limited. Today, neither company is in business. The Ford Glass assets were transferred to AGC, a subsidiary of Mitsubishi, but the operation I knew has long since gone.

Canadian Glass, unlike its immediate parent, was a great place to work at, with people throughout that were a pleasure to deal with. It may have had to do with the glass business itself, as all the principal players had an element of transparency about them.

I worked for Alf Thomas, who was the Vice-President, Finance at Canadian Glass (previously known as Glaverbel Industries Inc before its acquisition by PGIL in 1979). I can describe him as probably the best person I have ever worked for.[1] Sadly, I have learnt that he passed away in 1999. He is probably better known by the company he kept: he was the son-in-law of Donald Coxeter, the famous mathematician, and was mentioned rather obliquely in the latter’s biography (hagiography?) that was published several years ago.

The following were the key players at the various divisions across Canada:

Division General Manager Controller
Charlebois (Montreal) Jean-Pierre Ross Jacques Bellemare, CA
Solarpane (Dorval) Hubert Fischer
Ontario Distribution (Concord) Tom O’Riordan Harry Coleman, RIA
Ontario Contracts (Concord) Gord Henry Ford Dunlop, RIA[2]
Manitoba (Saint Boniface) Frank Davey Bill Levy [3]
Saskatchewan (Regina, Saskatoon, Yorkton) Bill Pockiak Bob Buchanan, RIA
Alberta (Edmonton) John Unsted Len Hryciw, RIA[4]
BC (New Westminster) Bill Youde[5] Valerie Fricker (Bookkeeper)

I have not heard from any of the others in a very long time, but still wonder what happened to them all.

1. Alfred D. Thomas, CA, alumnus of Thorne, Gunn, Helliwell and Christenson (one of KPMG’s predecessors), VP Finance at Glaverbel from c. 1965. Half-Welsh, half-Afrikaner, born in South Africa, his life probably merits a book on its own. He attempted to write a novel in the 1980s called The Throwback, and the manuscript certainly reflected his style of storytelling, but I don’t believe it was ever published.

2. When he was born, Ford cars in Canada were sold with Dunlop tires. Sadly, within months of his birth, Ford switched over to Firestone.

3. Rather brutally treated during the Ford Glass consolidation in the early 1980s. His obituary says that he retired in 1983, which would have made him only 55 years old. He never found any employment after, except as a volunteer driver for charity work.

4. Name is of Ukrainian origin, anglicized as “HER-shaw”, but more properly pronounced as “HREE-syew”.

5. “e” is silent; pronounced in the same manner as “loud”.