‘Race to the bottom’ – it’s a term applied regularly to the window and door industry, frequently accompanied by the charge that someone is giving away product rather than upselling innovation. ‘Race to the top’ – that’s a different proposition all together.
“As we see it there are four investment-led large fabrication businesses. Emplas is one of them”, says Ryan Johnson, Managing Director, Emplas.
He continues: “What marks us out is that we remain privately-owned businesses. They and we, don’t have to answer to venture capitalists, don’t have to deliver shareholder return or make large bank repayments.
“That means that we have been able to reinvest, in the same way that those other three fabricators are investing and that’s driving a step change in quality and service offer in manufacture.
“It’s a race to the top. It’s about continuous improvement of our product and service offer, to guarantee that we remain at the head of a group of highly innovative fabrication businesses.”
Johnson’s comments are perhaps prophetic. Celebrating its 40th year in business this year, Emplas has been through and come out the other side of three recessions. Although the last - the 2008 financial crisis and ensuing downturn - led to a number of casualties, it didn’t deliver wholesale restructure.
This, some commentators suggest, has only started to bite in the last two years, with a number of high profile acquisitions and collapses.
“Under investment in their product and manufacturing capabilities hit a number of big fabricators last year, while there has also been consolidation and acquisition”, says Ryan. “What has been important for us is that we continued to invest in our service and product offer throughout the downturn and that means two things.
“We have been able to introduce a number of manufacturing efficiencies, which have allowed us to keep our costs down, pass on those efficiencies to our customers and continually improve our product and service offer.
“And we have hit a point where we have critical scale, while remaining a family owned business. That scale gives us purchasing power, allows us to manage our relationships with our suppliers effectively and we can pass those economies onto our customers.”
At a time when many other fabricators have cut back on investment, Emplas own track record is impressive. This has included a more than £3.5m spend on its new factory extension and machinery.
Adding around a third again to its manufacturing facility and completed at the end of 2017, the new development houses new lines, loading bays and offices. A £1.4m spend on machinery last year also saw Emplas add a second Schirmer machining and cutting centre, multiple Rotox welders and saws, bringing its weekly capacity up to 3,000 frames.
This has been underpinned by a corresponding investment in our IT infrastructure and systems, increasing visibility of our service offer to our customer from the initial point of order right up to delivery.
“It’s been very important to us to make sure that our growth is sustainable so we can guarantee lead times and quality”, Johnson adds.
Emplas was set up by current Chairman, Kevin Johnson. Its’ initial focus was on retail, trading as T&K, switching focus to specialism in trade fabrication in 1985. If Emplas’ state-of-the art manufacturing facility is a far cry from the company’s origins as a start up from a bedroom and garage, it’s core values remain the same.
“We started in retail and T&K Home Improvements is still and important part of our business today because it operates in exactly the same market as our customers do and faces the same challenges. It means that as a trade fabricator we get and understand retail, which is why our retail support offer has been so successful”, continues Johnson.
“We’re also a family-owned and run business, which puts us in the same boat as many of our customers, sharing the same values and focus on personal service.”
He also highlights the strength of Emplas relationship with Profile 22. Having switched to Optima in 2016 and launched Optima Flush in 2017, Johnson cites innovation in systems as a key driver of growth going forward.
“We have a very strong product offer. This is not just about Optima per se but the service that sits around it. Profile 22’s new colour offer is significantly more competitive and that means we can offer our customers far better access and shorter turn-around times.
“That’s where we see future growth opportunities. There are two distinct challenges for fabricators. There are larger businesses that haven’t invested in product and service offer”, says Johnson.
He continues: “We’d argue the changes that we’re seeing in retail make that unsustainable. And the same for smaller fabricators who perhaps aren’t doing the volume to justify investment and who can’t compete on product offer.
“The other factor is cost. This is going to be a key challenge for fabricators going forward. Strategically, we’re already advanced in our planning to control and manage cost of supply. Scale is again an important part of that strategy in what it allows us to lever to the advantage of our customers.”
He adds that Emplas continuing investment in its IT infrastructure and the development of new software is key to Emplas future growth.
Official forecasts for 2018 are perhaps a little more downbeat. Palmer for example, suggests that with Brexit looming on the horizon growth will be muted at best. Johnson, however, is more optimistic. “It’s not necessarily going to be easy but there is business out there.
“If you look at the commercial sector the Government has pledged £44bn to build 300,000 new homes a year. We tend to overlook them but that actually creates a market for white PVC-U windows.
“I’d personally argue that it’s less about standard white or colour than it is about good window manufacture. Each have reach in their respective markets but what both need to be is well manufactured.
“This is key for us. We have capacity in place to manufacture 3,000 windows a week but it’s got to be about quality and it’s got to be about personal service. Whatever we’re doing has to come back to a better service to our customers and tangible support for their growth.”