Mechanic with rare skin disorder finds new purpose 'reimagining, redesigning and reinventing' scrap metal
Unable to work as a mechanic after dermatographia diagnosis, Thompson's Don Glenn finds new business success
Don Glenn sands over the rough edges of a wood TV stand in his Thompson garage workshop. It's one of many custom orders the former mechanic is now constructing from his home-based business in the northern Manitoba city.
Glenn, who everyone calls "Shorty," makes functional artistic pieces out of reclaimed scrap material through his business, Shorty's Upcycling Studio.
Glenn's business has been building since 2015, but he says it started from a darker place.
The mechanic of 16 years had been sick with what he initially thought was an allergic reaction. He would have episodes where his skin would get red and itchy, and his tongue and throat would swell up.
"Some of the weirdest things are challenging. Brushing your teeth, your gums swell up, your mouth gets all itchy. Itching and swelling between your fingers, your ears — when I wash my face I look like I'm about to explode and kill somebody. I go all red and swell up. You have to work around everyday stuff that you might not think about."
Laughing, Glenn said crunchy foods aren't top of his list anymore.
"Toasted sandwiches aren't a go-to item anymore and shaving is kind of a skip."
'A dark place'
The biggest impact of the disorder, he said, has been on his family life.
"The hardest ones I found are [that] I like roughhousing with my kids. I like to play with my kids and I can only do that for a certain period of time before my skin starts to flare up on me and that was very, very hard for me."
Glenn describes himself as an able-bodied, independent person and said that he's always worked, going back to his teens. Not working or being able to provide for his young family, and watching his bank accounts dwindle, left Glenn in a "dark place," he said.
"I was diagnosed with severe depression and I was also going through the guinea pig process of trying different medications to try and get my skin condition under control."
Glenn said he needed to pick himself up off the couch and find something to keep his mind busy "and try and get back the value of myself as a person. I felt like I had lost that, like I didn't value myself as a person and a father and a provider, and so basically it's what drove me to the garage, and this is kind of where I let my crazy out."
The need to get off the couch and an argument with his wife led to some "garage time," where Glenn made one of his first custom pieces — a kitchen pot rack, made from a the side of a baby's crib.
The success of that project and the encouragement from his family led to him to start up a business, reclaiming scrap material and creating furniture and other household fixtures from the discarded materials.
Happier, healthier, busier
Four months ago, Glenn started taking once-a-month injections which have been greatly reducing the effects of his skin disorder.
Happy and healthier, with a growing family and business, orders have been steady and growing, even though Glenn hasn't done any real marketing.
He said there has been incredible local support and that the city of Thompson is a great place to run a business like his, as there is ample scrap material. Requests from clients lately have involved taking old, meaningful items and reshaping them into something new and practical.
In February, Shorty's Upcycling won the 2017 Just Watch Me video contest in the Manitoba startup bracket. The non-profit Community Futures contest celebrates business successes from rural Manitoba and Saskatchewan for entrepreneurs with disabilities or health conditions.
Glenn is entering the contest again this year in the seasoned entrepreneur category. On top of the $1,000 cash prize for the winner, there are a variety of business-building prizes, including marketing training.
Glenn said his business is doing well enough at this point that they are thinking of hiring someone in the shop to help him, but that winning the contest could help his small company grow even more.
For now, he's happy to be working.
"I get a lot of pleasure out of the business. I find it very challenging. Every day is something different, every day's project is a different challenge and … it touches onto a creative side of me that I didn't really get into before."