A GLASS manufacturer that grew from a family business run from a corner shop into a leading British innovator is bidding to make gains in export markets.
Tuff X Processed Glass products can be found in shopping centres around the country, and in landmark buildings such as London’s Shard and Buckingham Palace.
Its toughened glass is also in sporting arenas including Liverpool’s Anfield football stadium, a stone’s throw from where managing director Graham Price’s grandfather set up the business – using horse and cart for transport – in 1947.
It’s a far cry from the company’s current 55,000ft sq plant in Knowsley, from where the firm has enjoyed rapid growth over the last five years. Turnover has risen from about £5m to a figure expected to approach £14m in the current year, while the payroll has increased form 50 to 157.
“It’s been rapid growth but steady,” says operations director John Tierney. “To be a global market leader, you have to invest in research and development. We try to come up with a new product, be it a new colour or size, to try to keep ahead of the market.”
This year’s development, Glow heated glass for bi-fold doors, was inspired by a visit to a trade show in Germany where a tiny, heated glass pane had been fitted to an igloo to melt any flakes of snow as they landed.
Tierney says what appeared to be a gimmick piqued their interest, and before long they had identified a marketable use for the product. The door panes can be electrically heated up to 40C (104F), are controlled by thermostat, insulated using argon and, says Tierney, can have running costs as low as 18p per hour.
They work in a similar way to a car’s heated windscreen, albeit without the visible ‘zigzag’ pattern of elements. And while the technology has never before been available to homeowners, it’s not the first time the company has taken inspiration from the automotive industry.
Tuff X was at the forefront of the development of domestic laminated glass, which prevents panes shattering in a similar way to car windscreens, and introduced subtle colour-shading to home glazing, says Tierney.
The company owes much of its growth to demand for conservatories which Tierney says has rocketed during his 17 years with the company.
“When we started it was all polycarbonate and glass was only 2 or 3% of the market but we got involved early on and now it’s 70%,” he says. “Polycarbonate is too hot in summer and too cold in winter, it has no acoustic value and is hard to clean. Glass is self-cleaning, you can’t hear the rain and once we came up with the concept and got our heads around processing it, we were able to market it.”
Domestic demand – including feature stairways, glass roofs and walk-on floor panels – accounts for about 60% of Tuff X business, with the rest focused on thick glass balustrades of the type seen in shopping centres. But the company has also produced highly specialist items such as a walk-through tunnel for the tiger enclosure at Edinburgh Zoo and an exhibit to display £1m in £50 notes at the Millennium Dome.
“Years ago, glass was just glass – something you put in a gap – and you added a spacer bar if you wanted double-glazing,” says Tierney, who started his career as an apprentice for St Helens-based Pilkington.
“Now, if you look at any skyline in the country or the world, it’s the main thing architects want. It meets their needs, be it in shape, design, colour or thickness.”
A £75,000 grant from the Regional Growth Fund helped the company to expand last year, with investment in a new furnace and the creation of 20 jobs.
And while Tuff X has supplied other British exporters, such as a firm that has built squash courts in Dubai and Egypt, it doesn’t currently export itself.
“We’re enhancing our eCommerce offering at the moment, which should help us miss out the middleman. Our heated bi-fold doors would be ideal for parts of eastern Europe where the weather is a bit more adverse.”