Mike Hughes talks to Colin Glass about how he built his business over the last 42 years and finds lessons to pass on to Yorkshire entrepreneurs.
If there is such a thing as a Yorkshire king of networking, it may well be the gentleman sitting in front of me. There can’t be many readers of this magazine who will not have bumped into WGN’s Colin Glass at a breakfast, presentation, awards evening or dinner somewhere in the region over the last year. His busy diary is a direct result of his four-decade involvement in the business scene, from advising and connecting to good old sweat equity.
“I am pretty obsessional in what I do,” he admits at his firm’s offices in St Mary’s Street at the side of the A64 on the edge of Leeds. “So when my business partner Melvyn Winburn got me interested in the stock market, I took a leaf out of Jim Slater’s book and saw that he was finding sleepy public companies that were ahead of their share price. He would research them, maybe buy a stake in them under the radar and create a string of ‘satellites’ around Slater Walker Securities.
“I thought this was fascinating and by then Melvyn and I had a part-time business dealing in shares and doing a bit of investment advice.”
Later, Melvyn, Colin and former Spicer and Pegler expert David Norfolk opened shop-front premises on Lidgett Lane as WGN, which is where the idea grew of using sweat equity to help newer businesses.
“I thought there was no way these early stage companies can afford to pay us even a modest fee, but we can advise them, roll up the fee and be granted a sweat equity status,” explained Colin, now aged 73. “This was unheard of then, but we went with it and used this model regularly after great success with a company called Datong, which David Tong had started by manufacturing products for radio hams, which he sold by mail order from his bedroom.
“As we only had very small stakes in these businesses, it was always going to be hard unless we had a massive, massive win, so it proved the model and supplemented the fee income. We were taking risks all the time, but I knew in my heart of hearts that we were contributing quite a bit and firmly believed that if people got the right kind of help and proper accounts and forecasts and a sense of commitment, then it was in our interest to pedal harder and make it a success.
“The amount over the years for the time that we have recorded but never recovered must be into seven figures. You have to also be careful who you get involved with, so I was always paranoid about reputation, but I have been fortunate to work with some great people, both entrepreneurs and colleagues.”
This is how the Glass DNA was created, strand by strand, and it is a fine example to follow for Yorkshire entrepreneurs: Know what your trade is and know it inside out; find the right business partner; don’t be afraid to challenge traditional methods; be comfortable with an unpredictable income and keep your eyes and your mind open for the next opportunity.
“My advice would be to remember that a lot of businesses don’t know what they don’t know,” he adds, emphasising the need to educate as he invests. “You can never guarantee success and wave a magic wand to make it happen overnight. You have to be prepared to go through some rough patches as well and not throw the rattle out of the pram, which does happen occasionally.
“The entrepreneur has got to want to grow his business and we will work alongside him or her at the rate they want to grow at. Some are really up for it while others take a more traditional view, but each is a story in itself, from which you can learn about people, contacts and how to work in different situations.
“When I first started out, going into business was the last option – it was the sort of thing that secondary modern pupils went into while the professionals wouldn’t sully their hands with it. But all that has changed now and people are leaving university and going straight into business – or even before that.
“The media and all the razzmatazz that goes with it makes it more exciting for young businesses and some fantastic characters have been created in Yorkshire. But the records show that only 80% will get over the first three years – but with help they can get further.
“Networking is very important, but you have to just go out and enjoy it and get a buzz out of it. When I see young people at these events who have obviously been told to go out there and get some business, I feel sorry for them because that is not the way to do it.
“You also have to be prepared to survive as well as to fail. It is certainly a good thing to have someone trusted alongside you when you start a business – as I did with Melvyn. If you have a mentor, adviser or even a friend who knows what they are talking about, it is someone you can bounce ideas off and who will give you an honest view. There are some good mentors out there, but there are some poor ones as well, without the experience, so you need to choose them carefully. Business is always about people and the team they can become.
“Just think about the things an established business has, from something as basic as asking someone to fetch a file for you or do some research to the benefit of a HR or marketing department. When you start out you have to do it all yourself, it is a different ball game.
“I realise the way we started our business may not be possible now. The red tape for starting a business can make it very difficult and there is far more competition. But I have never regretted it and despite the 24/7 mentality with constant meetings and emails to deal with, I would gladly do it all over again.
“Yorkshire generally is a very busy place at the moment. We have a good council and the BID team seems to be doing a good job which means that business-wise there are a lot of opportunities and the city has coped well after the demise of the clothing industry and the likes of Burton’s and Hepworth’s.
“Now it is more about the high-tech businesses and the digital era, which is such an important step forward for the region.”
Leeds born and bred, he is genuinely grateful for the recognition his work and networking skills have brought him, from being named in the Maserati 100, to an honorary Doctorate of Business Administration from Leeds Beckett University, to the celebrity status of being chosen from 13,000 applicants to be one of 12 judges for Richard Branson’s Voom business pitching competition.But as an accountant, Colin knows the simple maths behind all that.
Experience + knowledge + character + determination = business success.
Whether he is compiling that equation for someone else or for his own business, Colin Glass has the answers.