Leeds business legend Colin Glass OBE spoke to JLife’s Elliot Landy in a candid interview which unpacked the story behind a distinguished career.
At the September UKIB breakfast meeting, it was Colin Glass, a familiar face as Chairman of UK Israel Business, who took to the spotlight in a rare reversal of his usual hosting role. Though small in stature, over recent decades Colin has loomed large over the Leeds business landscape. Reducing 60 years of gambles, mergers and awards and down to 30 minutes was a tough ask, but it fell to Elliot to discover what makes the veteran entrepreneur tick.
As well as being the founding partner of WGN Business Advisors and Chartered Accountants, Colin pulls off an impressive juggling act of non-executive director roles at a number of organisations including The British Business Bank, UK Israel Business, and Shine, the Harehills social enterprise where the day’s meeting was taking place.
Colin began the interview by explaining how a youth spent working with high profile venture capitalists, including Skopes’ founder Jeffrey Cope, described as “a true entrepreneur”, defined his attitude towards seeing the positives in a bad situation.
He spoke of how Cope made hay during the 1973 oil crisis, responding to threats of petrol rationing by buying into a Halifax-based business which converted vehicles to run on propane.
“Jeffrey threw me headfirst into the company to help run it – and I had no idea. We were working in a half-finished building with creditors knocking at the door – but it was a fabulous experience.”
Two years later, as Cope began to consolidate the clothing side of his business, Colin asked if he could take this burgeoning Halifax business, along with a few other choice clients, to start his own accountancy firm.
Spotting a gap in the market for a firm of accountants to offer hands-on support to SMEs, Colin along with partners Melvyn Winburn and David Norfolk, brought their experience from private practice, investment banking and industry to create WGN.
His journey of growing start-ups and “sleepy companies” into profitable SMEs began with a stock market obsession he had no means to satisfy: “We started giving advice to small companies – they couldn’t afford to pay us, so we rolled up our fees, taking equity stakes and going on the journey with them. We took a big risk.”
It was a gamble that paid off, heralding 40 years of fostering sustainable businesses and mentoring upcoming entrepreneurs, which in 2017, culminated in an OBE for services to business start-ups and entrepreneurship.
“When I opened that envelope, I showed it to my wife Vanessa and couldn’t quite believe my eyes. You’re not supposed to say anything until it’s announced, so we didn’t even tell the kids.
“You never know who puts you forward for this. I’m sure there are many others worthy of the award, but just not in the right place at the right time.”
On a cold April afternoon, Vanessa along his two children Deborah and Adam made the trip to Buckingham Palace to receive the award from HRH Princess Anne.
“Princess Anne spoke to me for a while, shook my hand, and pinned the award on my lapel. It was a fantastic day out, but the photographs cost a fortune!”
For Colin Glass, WGN’s recent merger with Murray Harcourt in August appears to signify a graceful, yet somewhat reluctant bowing out from a world of business that has been all-consuming.
“With business, it gets harder as you get older. I enjoy what I’m doing and I don’t want to give that up, but getting the right kind of people is difficult. We looked for succession five or six years ago, but it didn’t work out. So earlier this year, I thought if I could find a company to merge with that had the same ethos, it would leave me to do what I want without the difficult bits, like looking after staff.
“So far so good. I feel relieved, and it’s given me the opportunity to spend more time with my grandchildren. That’s my one regret – when you’re in business on your own, it’s non-stop and little time for family.”
Colin ended by offering some words of wisdom from a career that has left an indelible impact on so many: “Everything in business is down to people. It’s so important to have a good team around you – people who can give good advice are invaluable. You have to be resilient, and never give up. Shine is a great example. We went through a bad patch, but we came through it because of the people.”