Glass Times speaks to Neil Evans about Balancing Trust & Reliability
November 19, 2020
What will be on the top of the new VEKA managing director’s inbox when he assumes the role in January 2021? Glass Times editor Nathan Bushell talked to Neil Evans to find out.
VEKA’s 2020 followed a trajectory much like any other business in the fenestration industry: started great, with good projections of growth; came to a standstill with Covid-19; planned the reopening after lockdown, made the necessary adjustments to cover the loss of failed customers; then swung the other way to meet unprecedented demand once lockdown was lifted; and kept a clear head to prepare for anything that 2021 may throw its way.
The fact that VEKA – the Burnley outpost of a family owned Global German operation – also had to factor in a change of managing director in that time could almost pass without comment. In fact, with any other company, questions could be asked about why the previous business head was departing.
However, Dave Jones, who has a very good reputation both locally and within the wider industry, had announced his decision to leave the company long before the effects of the pandemic would be known. And his succession had been planned for many months before that to help support a smooth transition.
Dave was appointed in 2007 from within VEKA, having previously been operations director. Neil Evans, on the other hand, while also an internal promotion, steps up from the sales director role.
While it could be argued that an operational focus was important in the late noughties onwards, as VEKA integrated the Halo brand, pushed its recycling agenda, and expanded the Burnley operation, it could also be argued that a clear sales focus would be what the company needs in 2021 as it prepares for a post-Covid world.
Neil is a very affable man with a soft Geordie accent, and he has very clear views of the business, especially when it comes to its stability, the role of product rationalisation, and new business opportunities.
Having cut spending where possible, VEKA then took the prudent decision to commence a consultation process that would result in a number of redundancies. This followed the collapse of two of its largest customers: Customade and Sash UK.
“Based on the information we had at that time we feared we may have to make around 80 of our team redundant,” Neil said. “Fortunately, thanks to natural turnover, a surge in demand, and some retraining, we ended up with fewer than 25% of the original number being made redundant. Painful for all involved, but throughout the team has been magnificent in their unwavering determination to give our customers the best we can.
“We can now concentrate on what’s coming in the future without negative repercussions,” he said.
But it soon transpired that the events of 2020 could well leave a longer legacy regarding the way VEKA conducts customer relations, and how it adapts to the changing trend of fewer but larger fabricators.
When Customade re-emerged via a prepack administration, it left VEKA with a large hole in its finances and, somewhat unexpectedly, the systems house didn’t shy away from letting its feelings known.
“We made it clear that we want to focus on trusted partners,” Neil said, “which has been good for our reputation, and we would hope would be up there as a reason to keep, or to start, working with us. Not least of all because with our family ownership, strength, and total focus on design of window and door systems with the highest quality extrusions to support that.
“We are presented with the greatest number of opportunities we have seen for some time. There will always be a level and quality of new business we are interested in. We are certainly not chasing new business for the sake of new business.”
As it turns out, this is easy for Neil to say, since many potential customers have been beating a path to his door as limited supply has frayed many relationships in the industry. This has been compounded by popular brands being withdrawn from the marketplace.
“We are not entering discussions with people who want to pay us 10% less than their existing supplier,” Neil said. “Quality, trust and reliability costs money to deliver, and if we ignore that we weaken our ability to be the best option for our customers. And in turn we would weaken our customers. We just won’t risk that.
“However, it’s nice to say that the ink is drying on a couple of contracts, and we’ve got more negotiations that should bear fruit very soon.”
That’s not to say he is being complacent.
“During lockdown, we decided to bring our senior sales team back early,” he said. “First, to deal with the reactive demand. Second, to draw up a new business list. And third, to scrutinise what our customers were buying from us and what they were getting elsewhere. Now all of the team are back we have a very clear focus on where our opportunities are.
“We headed into 2020 with plans to rationalise aspects of our offer, especially where there were multiple duplicated choices in areas such as ancillaries. While Covid delayed some of that we kept it as a priority. As a result, it has helped us deliver higher levels of service than might otherwise have been possible at current levels of demand.
“We hope that is worth more to our customers than what was lost from some reduction in choice. We also believe that investment in other aspects of choice and complexity that can help our customers succeed is what is really needed, such as a further expansion of our colour range for 2021.”
This, Neil insists, is important for the smooth running of the supply chain, which has creaked under pressure over the last eight months. He argued that there has been too much guesswork and too much choice, which has contributed to the stock shortages experienced by a number of suppliers.
“Thanks to Covid, there are more conversations between customer and supplier about what is in the pipeline,” Neil said. “And by the end of lockdown, we were talking about volumes secured on orders books so that we could be prepared for when we came back.”
In an ideal world, according to Neil, systems companies like VEKA would have detailed knowledge of their customers’ order books – including colours and specific design details – which would enable them to be better prepared for spikes in demand.
“If we could get that level of detail then otifs of 98%-99% would be at the lower end of what companies would achieve,” he said.
VEKA may have German parents, but its heart and soul reside firmly in the UK, clear from the amount of investment it places in the Burnley site and the surrounding area. In fact, all profits generated here stay here and are typically reinvested in the next stage of VEKA’s plans in the UK.
But Germany certainly has its advantages, and resin due for other destinations has been re-routed to Burnley during the pandemic. The German parent was also very supportive in ensuring cash was available during the tricky lockdown and subsequent reopening.
It is this combination of deep roots, family ownership, focus, and a significant safety net that provides Neil with the stability that he is so keen to portray to the rest of the industry.
“Hindsight has been very valuable to us, and we’ve had some very open and honest discussions within the company,” he said. “Sometimes you have got to forget volume and revenue and look carefully at you and your customers; whether you focus on turnover or sustainable business will create different kind of businesses. Our concentration is solely on being a sustainable business that you can trust to support you in whatever you want to achieve as a customer, or as an employee, for however long you want that to be.
“We want to be the company that is the most trusted, most reliable and safest pair of hands in this industry. Others will let us know when we are there.”
Nathan Bushell, Glass Times