Glenayre, Wireless Survivor

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In an emerging industry, the trick is sticking to your strengths.

In the Wild West that’s the wireless industry, heroes come and go with stunning rapidity: the life of a company in this industry is often measured in months rather than years. But a Burnaby company has been growing steadily in the space for 25 years and shows no signs of joining so many other companies on the wireless scrap heap. In fact, it’s aggressively expanding by recognizing exactly what it does best.


The Problem

In the late 1990s, brick-sized cellphones were becoming smaller and cheaper, putting them within reach of the consumer market. This threatened to swamp Glenayre, a Burnaby wireless hardware manufacturer that was serving the business market.


The Solution


Way back in the mid-1980s, brothers Tom and Allen Skidmore, who operated the Trans Canada Glass auto glass operation, launched a company called Speedy Celtel to cash in on a new thing called a mobile phone. The company sold the first mobile phone in Western Canada on the Cantel network and went on to become Cantel’s only national retailer.


In 1989 Speedy Celtel bought Glenayre and changed its name to Glenayre Technologies Inc. Three years later, the manufacturing operations were sold and the company was renamed Glentel Inc. In 1997 Glentel made a deal with Rogers Communications Inc. to independently sell Rogers phones as a retailer and opened a WirelessWave cellphone shop in Burnaby’s Metrotown mall. That started Glentel’s retail division on an expansion route that today has three different retail chains and a business division that bring in a total of almost $300 million a year.


Glentel’s retail division began with WirelessWave, an independent multi-carrier seller of cellphones that now has locations in 102 malls across the country. Three years ago, it bought its biggest retail competitor, Tbooth/La Cabine, which was struggling in its Quebec and Ontario base, instantly adding 49 locations across Canada. Tbooth/La Cabine’s contribution to the Glentel retail network has now grown to almost 70 locations.


More recently, Glentel’s retail division partnered with the Costco retail warehouse chain to open Wireless Etc., which provides kiosks within stores, selling cellphones to Costco members. Currently, Wireless Etc. has more than 60 kiosks in Costco stores.


Glentel’s retail strategy has always been relatively simple, although the underlying details can be very complex, says CEO and president Tom Skidmore. Primarily, it always “sticks to the plan” of staying within the retail environment it knows and remaining independent. For example, although three recently opened storefront locations are outside its traditional mall environment, they were carefully chosen to be in high foot-traffic locations that mirror malls, such as downtown Vancouver.


Glentel sought to repeat its knack for compatible acquisitions when Circuit City’s The Source electronics chain was put up for sale early in 2009, but it was beaten to the punch when it was outbid by Bell Canada, which snapped up the 750-store chain in Canada.


Did that matter? Skidmore doesn’t think so. Another opportunity will come along. And Glentel will be ready.


Lessons

• Form a strong and compelling vision. Know exactly what you want to be doing. And also know what you don’t know.


• Form a general plan and stick to it. To grow, you need discipline.


• Be relentless in your opportunity spotting. But don’t be blinded by ambition.



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