Westcrowns Group chief on support from Scottish Enterprise

Fraser Haran, CEO, The Westcrowns Group. Picture: John Devlin
Fraser Haran, CEO, The Westcrowns Group. Picture: John Devlin
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In partnership with Scottish Enterprise

FRASER Haran, chief executive of the Westcrowns Group, explains how a family firm founded in 1873 is at the forefront of modern business thinking – thanks to strong leadership and investment in people, products and technology.

What does leadership mean to you?

It’s always been a journey. I qualified as a chartered quantity surveyor and worked in London before coming into the family firm in 1989.

I went through what would now be seen as old-school development; management and leadership were not really differentiated and it was all about managers like my father urging staff to get the vans out quickly and make money.

After a decade in the business, I was a director and my father told me it was time to step up. My path was set out; I was in charge of 300 people, but what the hell did I do?

We had some involvement with Scottish Enterprise so I approached them and said I was in massive need of training and development.

So I started a two-year MSc in corporate leadership, which included ten days at Emory University Goizueta Business School, Atlanta, where we visited some large firms including Coca-Cola, UPS and CNN. This was the first step on my leadership journey.

What is the difference between leadership and management?

In the early days, I started a new division, consolidated our smaller businesses and I think I was perhaps a good manager – I got things done. Maybe I stepped on a few toes; I was competitive and wanted to achieve in quick timescales.

The MSc helped me realise leadership was more about having shared goals, ensuring your people want to achieve the same thing, rather than telling them what to do.

Certain characteristics made that easier to achieve; honesty, a degree of inspiration and giving people something to aspire to. And you must have credibility and trust; I had to build trust and show people I could lead a company of this size.

This was a fourth-generation family firm and my father and those before him had inspired through hard work and experience. But leadership was about how they wanted things done.

I wanted to do more and there was a lot to build on – a friendly, family culture and a paternal attitude to do the right thing for your workforce.

How did you start the process of change?

In 2003-4, we looked at the business and what it stood for. It was difficult for some of the older directors; they said we are here to make money. But it was much more than that.

The firm had always taken the long-term view and looked after its people – not just people inside the firm, but suppliers too. We build long-term relationships – we have worked with Pilkington Glass since we started in 1873 and banked with the Clydesdale for over a century.

So we set about defining our core values and looking towards our 150th anniversary in 2023. We knew instinctively what those values were, but had never written them down. It was all about integrity, family culture and continual improvement.

Those core values have been our foundation since 2004-5; all decisions are based on them. When we are faced with a dilemma or a business problem, we go back to the core values.

This was a new vocabulary for people –vision, values, purpose. My credibility was on the line – the firm had never done this before. Some guys just didn’t get it – and they are no longer with the firm.

What shape was the business in at that time?

My father’s entrepreneurial spirit had taken it onto a new level through the 1970s and 1980s, but by the end of the 1990s, it was flat and we had to move forward. 

But two years after we launched the vision and values strategy, I had to take the very painful decision to close the oldest part of the business [J&W Haran Ltd].

It had over-extended in terms of contracts abroad and wasn’t always getting paid. It was 15-20 per cent of the business but carried 80 per cent of the risk.

We had to protect the group and the 250 people who weren’t in that part of the business, compared to the 40-50 people who were. I was supported by the directors and board as well as the bank. Scottish Enterprise was on hand to advise and I found that advice very important.

There were three to four painful months but the management pulled together and we were a much more coherent team afterwards.

We went through a crisis but that allowed us to get growth, profitability and most importantly discipline into the business.

Closing J&W Haran Ltd took turnover down from just under £30 million to £22-23m and jobs from 300 to 250. We are now back up around £35m and employ 400 people in the two parts of the business – Independent Glass [a hi-tech glass processing business] and Westcrowns Contracting Services, which provides glazing and flooring products and services to the construction industry.

How important is developing your people?

A common theme throughout our vision and values is about people and I am very clear that loyalty and commitment are crucial to growing the business.

We offer staff the opportunity to realise their ambitions with us at all levels; about 18 people have been through our one-year Emerging Executive programme. Some have really developed, others found it wasn’t for them; but it’s good for us and for them to understand that. There is also a lot of formal NVQ and HNC training from the shop floor upwards.

Many employees have been with us their entire working life, so we want to show them life outside the business.

Scottish Enterprise has been really helpful; as their staff come to know our business, they suggest various ideas for training and development and point us in the right direction.

We have done more coaching and mentoring and we also teach people to teach others. We’ve also done a lot around sales and marketing.

Our people know that if they want to, they can develop their capabilities with Westcrowns and I think we have done well to identify those who want to progress within the business.

We currently have four directors on our internally-developed Next Generation Leadership programme, supported by Scottish Enterprise, with a view to them stepping up to board level. These opportunities give our people confidence about leadership and what it means.

We also take people to international conferences. Eight went to the World Business Forum in New York and were exposed to world-class leadership thinking they had never come across before.

This is expensive but we see the benefits in better decision-making all through the business – rather than passing everything to a senior director. There is a better understanding of risk and benefit.

Why are new skills so important?

I see it as a personal leadership toolbox. I only used to have a hammer but I’ve added a lot more tools over the years. I’ve learned how to coach, to deal with conflict and to develop greater empathy and emotional intelligence.

One of the most important skills our staff can learn is the relationship between sales, profit and cash. You can have great sales, but you have to get paid. It’s a critical learning in our businesses about how you turn sales into profit and most importantly into cash. And I see our investment in people increasingly reflected in the bottom line.

What does innovation mean to Westcrowns?

It can come in a number of ways and is related to our core value of continual improvement and never being satisfied with the status quo.

It’s about being prepared to invest in people, products and technology that can not only do things better and faster, but also differently to the competition.

Innovation is also about looking forward, seeing trends and preparing for them. For example, we continually invest in new technology to improve the quality, delivery and cost of our product ranges. We have also developed new patented product ranges to offer additional benefits to the marketplace.

We are currently researching what products will be needed to make buildings more energy-efficient in three or five years and how to allow maximum daylight while offering solid wall insulation values.

We recently invested heavily in a new large-scale glass processing facility incorporating a digital printing process for glass. This new process can reproduce photographic quality images on 6m x 3m panels of glass.

What about exporting?

We have taken an increasing interest in patented technology and that has allowed us to develop our Lumaglass product.

This internally illuminated glass wall can be used to light up huge glass facades at night, or be programmed to change colour as internal glass partitioning.

We have been able to enter new markets in the Middle East and Europe. Because it is a patented product, we have much better payment certainty, which is a breath of fresh air in the construction industry.

With the confidence that Lumaglass is doing well, we are looking at another patented product, as part of a European consortium, and with the assistance of Scottish Enterprise, we have applied for funding through the Horizon 2020 Fast Track to Innovation Programme. This fund offers the opportunity to bring new innovation to a global market which would normally not be available to a company of our size.

How do you balance constant innovation and developing new products and servicing the business you have already?

It’s a balance we discuss at every board meeting. We are constantly balancing our core business with what comes next. We are not afraid to step away from new business opportunities if we think that is the right thing to do.

As a family-run business, we can change our mind – we don’t have to go through endless layers of corporate governance. I’ve learned not to be so hung up on the short term. As a family business, we are not constantly having to please shareholders and can take a longer view.

How has Scottish Enterprise helped you?

It has been invaluable to our growth and success. We wouldn’t have been where we are without its advice, support and direction. It has always looked to offer extra value to the business.

Scottish Enterprise staff have learned about our company over many years and the relationship is a two-way street; we ask them things and they come to us with ideas. We have to show ambition and innovation and commit to developing our people and our company.

Do you have to make unpopular decisions as a leader to achieve business objectives?

One of my weaknesses is that I am perhaps too keen to promote harmony and avoid conflict. However, when it is time to be tough, I get over myself and make the tough decisions. In general, I think the harmonious approach works, but you have to be careful and I always want to be able to challenge people and for them to be able to challenge me. Also having a very experienced board of directors and my sister Lindsay as group finance director certainly keeps me on my toes.

So what is the target for 2023?

We strive to be the best family business in Scotland and a company capable of becoming a £100m turnover business, which delivers £10m profits.

That’s very ambitious, but we can see our new glass processing facility and digital printing process more than doubling the turnover of our Independent Glass business. We also expect growth within the contracting side as the construction industry continues to improve after the recession and our new products increase their export potential.

The capacity in the business is around £60 million, so we need something else to hit that 2023 target. We want to be seen as a company of scale. Personally, I want to show my tenure has been a successful time in the company’s history, creating new products and going into new markets 

I want to take the legacy beyond 2023 and secure the business for the next generation. It might not be as the Haran family – although I have two sons, who are still teenagers – it may be another part of the extended Westcrowns family who lead the business into the future. We are still very ambitious and we want to do the right thing for the business, the communities we work in and for the next generation.

An eye for innovation

John Devine, managing director of one of the Westcrowns Group businesses, Independent Glass, has more than 50 years’ experience in the glass business.

He explains why innovation – and timing – is so important to the business:

“It’s all about experience, about keeping up with what’s happening with innovation and how it lends itself best to processes you are involved with – and about spotting it at the right time.

“We first looked at digital printing about 12 years ago but only invested heavily in 2015. In the long-term, it should be a very useful addition to what we do. We sometimes see resistance from the more traditional tradespeople when we bring in new technology but when they are shown what it can do, I think they sometimes surprise themselves with what they can achieve.

“We work with architects and you have to be at the forefront of innovation. They always want more efficient glass, bigger glass, something different.

“We keep moving; we go to all the international exhibitions to evaluate the market and decide when it’s right to launch a new product.”

This article appears in the Spring 2016 edition of Vision Scotland. An online version can be read here. Further information about Vision Scotland here.