In early 2010 the baton of leadership at conservatory and window system manufacturer Synseal was passed from founder, Gary Dutton, to a select group of the company’s management. Tim Brown visited the company’s site, just north of Nottingham, to talk to members of the manager-owner team about the changing of the guard and their plan for brand development.
In 2009 opportunity came knocking for seven members of the Synseal management team. It was a chance to take a much greater interest in the company for which they worked and, after witnessing the company’s successes first hand and having an appreciation of its future potential, none of the group needed a great deal of encouragement to answer the call.
Due to the economic situation in 2009 the timing for the purchase of a multi-million pound company might have seemed, on the surface, less than ideal.
In fact, according to production director Robin Byron, the industry perception was that the feasibility of the sale bordered on the impossible. However the perception of market volatility at the time reduced the final asking price and assisted the completion of the sale. The management buyout took about nine months to orchestrate and was finalised in February 2010 with assistance from Catalyst Ventures and finance from private investment firm HIG.
Following the completion of the management buyout and in recognition of the scale of the achievement, Synseal was awarded ‘Deal of the Year’ at The East Midlands Dealmakers Dinner. While flattered by the accolade, management admits that it is not the buyout of which they are most proud but the continued development of the company products and services throughout it.
A site to see
Even with a stretch golf cart on hand for the site tour, a trip around the expansive Synseal manufacturing site takes a full hour. The cart first stops in the extrusion department beside an immense set of shelves housing Synseal’s 300 individual tools which are used to make its 200 strong profile range of window, door and conservatory systems. Synseal operates a 24 hour extrusion operation with small teams operating 38 high speed PVC-U extrusion lines. A high level of importance is placed on ensuring perfect consistency in quality, colour, and finish accross the site.
It is said that a good craftsman never blames his tools.
The level of attention paid to the maintenance of tools at Synseal ensures the company never need pass blame. “If you look after a tool and maintain, monitor and measure it, it will look after you,” says commercial director, Gareth Edwards. “Not only do we specify new tools to a higher level than industry standard required but we carefully adhere to the service plan for tools which is dependent on how much work it has done.” Byron explains: “Maintenance means measuring the wear points and placing some carbide inserts on those wear points to bring them back up to original position. After 100,000 metres of use, the tool will have proven that it will deliver us the yield, output speed and scrap level that we require. At that stage it is surface coated to make its life longer. Our target is to achieve 2.5 million metres per tool and sometimes we get even more. In addition we continually look at the water and vacuum channels to make sure they are clear and delivering the right amount of water and vacuum to the right areas.” According to Edwards, in the extrusion industry tooling can be targeted to try and take cost out of a business; an option which is feasible in the short term. However, he says, in the long term such short sightedness will inevitably see an operation finding itself in the compromised position of blaming its tools. “If one or more tools in a suite fails, it could be 6 months before that suite is operational again as it could take six months just to make the replacement tool.” Furthermore, Byron says that a well performing tool will assist greatly to minimise waste, an area of considerable cost for a company such as Synseal. “Our scrap level is low but even a 1% increase in scrap level could cost us £250,000 per annum.
If you are cutting corners with tooling waste would be likely to increase. For the sake of trying to save money on tooling you quickly lose it on wastage of raw material.” The second stop on the Synseal tour takes in the conservatory manufacturing department which is a large open plan manufacturing operation with staff working on conservatory systems in different states of completion. Synseal was the first systems company to create and manufacture a system which included a specific roof – the Complete Conservatory System was created. This system and its contemporary, the Global Conservatory System, have afforded Synseal with considerable success and the conservatory operation is a case where the figures truly speak for the scale of the operation. Today, one in four conservatories in the UK is fitted with a Synseal roof and despite the popularity of the company’s products, Synseal offers customers a three day turnaround from order to delivery on all roof kits.
The next port of call is the in-house injection moulding facility which was added in May 2004 and is comprising of five impressive automated machines which stand side by side. As we watch, the operator monitors the progress as conservatory components are produced with impressive speed and accuracy.
The idea behind the introduction of the injection moulding department was to provide Synseal customers with everything needed to produce a conservatory. Currently Synseal manufacturers 340 components with all parts made from the same Synseal compound so as to provide both quality consistency and give a perfect colour match with the rest of a conservatory system.
The final manufacturing area on the tour takes in the laminating facility. Combining the appeal of a wood grain window frame with the ease and maintenance of a plastic frame, extruded lengths of uncut window frame are passed through the laminating machine. Synseal offers a palette selection of eight colours and four ‘real’ woodgrains with a grain so fine it’s almost impossible to tell the finished product is not real wood. Market research, carried out with Synseal customers, played an important part in developing the colour palette for the offering known as the Artisan Woodgrain Collection for windows.
Improvement and value
Synseal has enjoyed a long term culture of continuous improvement which existed prior to the management buyout. “We set ourselves very high targets and we achieve them but we do put ourselves under pressure,” says Byron. “Every year we set lower conversion rates, better delivery tonnages per vehicle and lower scrap rates. We measure delivery performance daily and anything below 95% at whole order level is unacceptable. We deliver several thousand order lines that make up deliveries to around 150 customers a day.” According to manufacturing director Steve Musgrave, Synseal has already undergone a considerable amount of improvement with regards to efficiency through automation. However, while the window systems are produced en masse, other areas of the business, particularly the conservatory department, operate a bespoke offering which doesn’t lend itself to automation.
“We have automated to the extent that we feel we can,” says Musgrave.
“However, we have processes that even if we put a machine in to do it, it still needs a man. In such situations, what we’ve done is part automate as well as poka yoke the process so as to mistake proof it against human error.” An example of this is a drilling solution which was installed where the drill only works if the correct material is placed in to the correct slot and pushed all the way in. The hole is always in the same position because if the material hasn’t been pushed all the way in and touched the stop, the drill will not engage.
To continue to find areas of improvement outside of automation, Musgrave says that the teams are encouraged and indeed expected to make small improvements all the time without the influence of management.
“Our employees are empowered to make changes where appropriate. We hold brainstorming meetings to keep everyone’s wheels turning. It is a whole company philosophy and recently it was introduced in to the non-manufacturing administration area which can traditionally be an area that is neglected.” The company claims that its continuous improvement efforts have afforded the company with industry leading standards that excel far beyond those of its competitors. “We have the best industry output rates per extruder,” he says. “We measure and monitor tool performance through its lifetime better than any of our competitors. We have the best yield and scrap rates in the industry. We are significantly better than all of our competitors; much much better than the second best in terms production figures. We don’t do anything vastly differently from other manufacturers but everything we do we do well. We continually revisit what we do, why we do it and ask the question: ‘Can we do it better? We consider good performance to be a journey not a destination; you never get there.” While the improvement philosophy has been in place at Synseal for a considerable period, since the buyout the company has had more opportunity to put some of the bigger improvement processes into place. This has resulted in the introduction of new products and new markets.
Throughout the course of this year the management team has worked hard to uncover previously untapped areas of value. These have included the development of new products and entrance into markets that were not previously Synseal territory.
“For instance,” says Byron, “the specification sector (councils, local authorities, government contracts, commercial) wasn’t something that Synseal was traditionally strong in as we were always stronger in domestic replacement and maintenance. That was one of the opportunities seen by the team doing the buyout which has allowed for expansion.” The company has also created a number of new product offerings including a vertical slider window system and a 60mm window system that were both designed to fill a market space from which Synseal had previously been totally excluded. Synseal has also recently introduced themally efficient profiles and inserts to its’ range, to help its’ fabricators deal with an increasingly energy conscious market.
“We did a lot of work with universities and conducted many simulations,” says Byron. “We took a good six to nine months of understanding what people wanted and what were the best and most cost effective ways of achieving those desires. This was done while taking in to account operational sustainability and the future state of government standards. We underwent a massive period of learning and evaluating before we decided what we were going to make and how we were going to pitch it to the customer.
We’re at the point now where we have the products and we’ve put them in to stock for market and we feel we are hitting the ground running.” Synseal management agree that the company will continue to grow and develop through process improvements, acquisition and product development. According to Musgrave, while Synseal will look to introduce further new products in the future, any new additions will only be considered in context of the needs of its customers. “For instance we don’t want to introduce products or services that directly conflict with them,” he says. “What we try and do is introduce products that impact our customers in a good way.” Work towards satisfying the needs of the customer first and success will inevitably follow is clearly a mantra that has resulted in tremendous success for Synseal and one to which the company will undoubtedly continue to adhere.
1980: Gary Dutton founded Synseal as a direct sell and fit PVC-U window operation buying windows.
1981: Thirteen showrooms are opened across the East Midlands. Synseal started fabricating, still operating purely as a direct sell operation.
1985: A trade division is set up to supply the local trade. This soon expanded into a nationwide operation.
1992: The first extrusion line is purchased and commissioned at our base in Sutton in Ashfield, Nottinghamshire. The extrusion company had been conceived, and profile was soon being sold directly to window fabricators.
1995: The Trade Division it consistently selling over 2,000 trade window frames and some 50-60 conservatory roofs every week. The conflict for Synseal was selling trade windows to the same market that our profile customers were also seeking to supply. To avoid selling windows in to the same market as its customers the Trade Division was sold.
1996: Synseal launches the revolutionary Silhouette window profile system. Within 6 months it attracted over 100 fabricators and formed the backbone of Synseal’s later growth.
2001: Synseal’s patio door system is independently verified as the best system on the market. More fabricators in Great Britain use Synseal profile than any other profile available on the market – again independently verified.
2003: Synseal had two primary conservatory systems on the market: the Complete Shield Conservatory and the Global Conservatory.
2004: Synseal announces sales of conservatory roofs are in excess of 1,000 conservatories every week.
2006: Synseal brings the manufacturing of Legend to Sutton in Ashfield and built an additional 100,000 square foot warehouse.
2009: Synseal acquire the window manufacturing assets of Eagley Plastics.
2010: CEO David Leng and his management team acquire Synseal, enabling Gary Dutton to retire from the business.