We talk to our Managing Director Mike Parczuk who reflects on change within the window and door industry, our recent handling of COVID-19 and use of social media during lockdown.
How did you get into the industry?
Mike: Sternfenster is a family business. The window industry is part of my DNA. I’ve worked in sales, installation – the factory floor.
What changes have you seen good or bad, aside from the current situation?
Mike: The changes that we’re currently seeing are pretty difficult to ignore! If we’re talking the longer-term trends that I’ve seen in that time, at a headline level it’s that business has become more challenging – often not helped by government and red tape. Also, that the work ethic has been eroded.
If we’re being industry specific, it’s about innovation and reinvention. 20 or 30 years ago it was very easy to sell windows – the ‘White Gold’ era. That’s long since gone but the industry has been very effective in reinventing itself and its offer.
Take the growth that we’ve seen in colour in PVC-U in the last couple of years, or aluminium, the enhanced security options that we can now provide to the homeowner. Smart technology in my view isn’t quite there yet, but I do believe it will have a big influence on the industry going forward.
The other thing that has been a game changer for us, has been the Graf seamless weld. We brought it in early and it’s given Sternfenster and our customers a very strong selling point, particularly alongside growth in flush casements. We offer R9 but the Deceuninck flush has been the real winner for us – I have it in my own home!
We’ve also changed the way that we run our business. Our digital presence – and the digital support that we can offer, has for example, been important in driving customer acquisition and in turn, their growth. It was also something recognised in our G19 Award win last year.
What is your outlook for the industry in the next 6-18 months – boom or bust? A mini boom as consumers spend on home improvements, perhaps with a view to spending more time remote working from home? Extra cash to spend on windows, doors that would otherwise be spent on holidays?
Mike: Short term – and from the demand that we’re already seeing from our customers – it appears ok. They’re seeing leads and working through pre-existing orders. There may even be a small bounce. Government support and the furlough scheme has also up until now kept a lid on unemployment.
In the medium to longer term I think that that’s going to change. We saw figures come out this month [May] which showed the biggest jump in people claiming unemployment on record – and that’s going to probably set the course for the next few months as furlough comes to an end.
We’re heading into a downturn and that’s going to hit everyone medium term with some form of consolidation inevitable. For example, we’re seeing speculation in the national press about Everest already and there is in-industry speculation about a number of fabricators already.
The positive is that the companies who get to the other side will see opportunities. Fabricators and installers who push down prices in the race to the bottom, who don’t pay their bills – if they go and we see a re-set, something good may come out of this.
We’re not, however, counting on that and will be looking at everything we do, trimming the fat where we need to and making our processes leaner and smarter.
A lot manufacturers have under-invested since the last downturn. They’ve not brought new machinery online and sweated tired assests. We have invested. We brought our 30,000 sq ft dedicated aluminium factory into operation in 2017, representing a £3.6m spend.
We have a FOM LMT65 machining and cutting centre; we have an industrial powder coating line and with our own IGU facility – we own and control supply from start to finish. If we get it wrong, you could argue we don’t have anyone else to blame – but our set up and the control it gives us means that we don’t get wrong very often.
Machinery gives us the right starting base, but we’ve also invested in our people and our team. I’m sure in every article like this people always say that – but we have. We have a shared focus on product quality but also service. People buy from people and that underpins what we do.
On a more personal note – what do you enjoy doing away from work? How did you keep busy during lockdown? What are you most looking forward to as restrictions are eased – sport, cinema, restaurants that kind of thing.
I didn’t actually stop working during lockdown because we didn’t have to and I’m frustrated by the positioning that was released from sectors of the industry (with one or two exceptions), during it. It was misleading, it confused the market and it damaged business – particularly the comments posted on social media.
The last thing I want on my conscience is anything to happen to anyone in the window and door supply chain, employee, supplier, customer, because of a decision that I have made. Why would I? We’re a family business who have been trading for more than 40 years.
And that’s why the decision to open again was so difficult. You have to, however, listen to government guidance and that was that we should work – if we could work safely. That’s what we worked towards collectively and responsibly with our staff, our customers and suppliers.
What would I like to do in the future? I would love to sit down in a pub (assuming they reopen one day!) with some of those people who were very critical of us, and of other fabricators who were opening up, and compare notes and understand why they thought we were wrong and they were right?
We need to stop listening to what people think they know on social media and start listening to the facts.
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