Emplas hits 40 this year. We catch-up with its chairman and founder, Kevin Johnson, who argues that innovation remains the life-blood of the window and door industry.
“What’s the biggest single change the window industry has seen in the last 40 years? It’s a lot harder to make money!”, quips Kevin Johnson, Chairman, Emplas. 2018 marks Emplas’ 40th year in business. And if Johnson suggests that window fabrication is today tougher, he nonetheless remains sanguine about Emplas’ future.
“Things are more difficult but if you look at what Ryan [Johnson] and the team here are doing, it’s absolutely incredible”, he says.
“I always found it very hard to let go. I always felt I could do something better myself. But the culture here today is very different.
“We’ve recruited some very skilled and talented people. The way in which they are now collectively moving the business forward is incredibly impressive.”
Although the market saw moderate growth at the last count, the last year was defined by a level of volatility, factors not normally conducive to major capital spend. Yet at the start of 2018, Emplas is riding high, reporting sustained growth and reinvesting for its future.
A £3.5m spend on an extension of its factory and new machinery, including a second Schirmer machining and cutting centre, in the second half of 2017, has increased Emplas’ production capacity to 3,000 frames a week. Something underpinned by a corresponding investment in its IT infrastructure and systems.
“We’ve seen growth but that growth has been going back into the business. You need to be able to deliver on product quality and service as much as product itself. Innovation in window and door technology means that you have to continually invest or else you’re simply going to fall behind”, says Johnson.
“That’s a key difference. 40 years ago product quality was nowhere near where it is today and there were still lots of people making good money.”
Johnson’s own entry into the window and door industry began with T&K, Emplas’ home improvement business. The ‘T’ to Kevin’s ‘K’, in this case was Tony Foster, the pair buying-in aluminium frames and manufacturing their own IGUs. “If you can believe it, we were making sealed units in a garage and bedroom”, reminisces’ Kevin.
The turning point came in early 1979 when their supplier went bust. Johnson and Foster buying up their stock and machinery and going into fabrication under their own steam. This was accompanied by a move into more suitable premises
A year later the company dropped aluminium to begin fabrication of a new ‘wonder product’. “We weren’t part of the very first tranche of manufacturers to go into PVC-U fabrication – they had come in in 1975 and 1976: Jim Rawson; Astraseal; and others. The market and demand in that sense had been created.
“We were right at the start of the second group of entrants and it turned out that the timing was pretty good”, says Johnson with a wry smile. “PVC-U offered little to no maintenance, it was energy efficient and people wanted it.”
Against a backdrop of an explosion in demand and to the ‘soundtrack’ of Thatcherite Britain, the company relocated to the newly created Park Farm Enterprise Zone in 1984. It did so still under the banner of T&K – but things were about to change.
“We knew how bad trade supply was, how many people just weren’t doing it right, who weren’t offering any form of customer service, terrible product quality and we knew we could do it better”, says Johnson. Cue the launch of a new specialist trade fabricator, ‘Emplas’, 1985.
“We were committed to product quality and service because that’s what we saw as missing”, says Johnson. “It’s still a core value for us. Despite our growth we remain a family owned and family run business. We aren’t accountable to venture capitalists or banks, we know retail. We’re the same as our customers.”
Growth and expansion
The move to Farm Park, Wellingborough, triggered a period of significant growth, so that by the millennium Emplas’ turnover had topped £7.3m, 5-years later it reached £10.8m, while by 2015, it had exceeded £24.5m, employing more than 218 staff.
“If you asked me what were the key moments along the way, I’d say that one was British Standards accreditation, BS 5750 as it was then”, says Johnson. “We were one of the first 22 window companies to be issued with a Kitemark at Glassex in 1991.
“Of those, 21 were national companies and we were the only independent, and that opened up commercial opportunities and bigger contracts, which allowed us to put money back into business growth.”
It is perhaps worthy of note then, that Emplas completed a rigorous external audit by BSI to retain ISO 9001, ISO 14001 and OHSAS 18001 at the end of last year.
Product development and shifting expectations
It’s product development which, by definition, however, Johnson cites as key. “We could see the opportunities that were offered by the conservatory market. You have to remember that at that time, conservatories tended to be very expensive and manufactured in timber – the Amdega type.
“We were able to offer the consumer a simple, affordable 3x3m extension to their home and at the time people loved them. It didn’t matter that they were too hot in summer and too cold in winter, people wanted them.
“The irony is that that is now creating new opportunity. The industry has a track record of turning out under-developed products and then going back 10 or 20 year’s later and reinventing them!”
He also points to the rapid growth seen in sales of composite doors, which saw rapid uptake in social and specification sectors following their introduction in the early noughties, through to 2007, before their expanding reach into retail and replacement markets.
“The other thing that you would obviously highlight is foils – not just woodgrains but solid colours. It’s been a clear driver of growth, something which has significantly accelerated last year”, says Johnson.
“The final thing that I would perhaps single out is the shift in consumer behaviour. Expectations have changed but also how they buy.
“When we started out with T&K, you were always coming up against the big nationals and you had to persuade people to buy from you. What we’re seeing now are lower levels of trust in those national companies and a shift towards local businesses continues.”
And the future?
Johnson argues that product innovation means that the industry is bringing exceptional product to the end-user. “If you look at the security that we’re able to offer the end user, the energy efficiency, the choice of finish and styles, for example flush casements, foils, composite doors, hybrid conservatories and glazed extensions – consumers are getting a very technically advanced and high performing product.
“The bigger challenge for the industry is keeping a lid on costs and making the cost model work. At retail, that means charging sensible prices and in fabrication, keeping overheads down through efficiencies in production without compromising on quality or service.
“That’s what we’re positioning ourselves to do through the investments that we have made and are continuing to make in our operation. We are pretty unique out there and I’ll go back to it – we remain a family owned and run business while having scale. We’re passing on those economies of scale to our customers”, Johnson concludes.