Why Prefix is a pioneer

As Prefix celebrates 25 years in business, Glass Times editor Nathan Bushell takes a whistle-stop tour of the company’s highlights, and looks at why it remains one of the industry’s most-revered brands.

Prefix Systems was founded 1996 by Chris Cooke as the conservatory industry was starting to gather pace and conservatories became the must-have house extension.

Since then, the company has expanded its portfolio to include its award-winning WARMroofs, verandas, rooflights, orangeries, aluminium doors and windows, and now operates from four sites across the UK.

Over the last 25 years, Prefix has led the design revolution for differentiation in the glazed roof market and, for WARMroof systems, arguably becoming the architect for a whole new market sector, inspiring other companies to follow suit.

The company has won numerous awards from within and outside our sector and its joint owners, Chris Cooke and Chris Baron, are regular commentators in the trade press.

humble beginnings
Prefix Systems was established when Chris Cooke identified a gap in the market for quality off-site-constructed conservatory roof structures. The emphasis was very much on quality, service and support for installers, something which is still at the heart of the Prefix Systems company ethos today.

From humble beginnings in a 2,500ft2 unit in Bacup, Lancashire, Prefix produced its first roof in March 1996. Four years later, the company moved to Accrington where it stayed for 15 years, eventually moving to Blackburn in 2015 where the head office now occupies a 60,000ft2 manufacturing facility.

This new site is the head office, producing glass conservatory roofs and the industry leading tiled Prefix WARMroof along with other roofing and home improvement products.

Prefix Systems also established manufacturing facilities in Northampton in 2006 and Swansea in 2010.

In 2016, Prefix acquired renowned Sussex-based conservatory roof and aluminium systems fabricator Pavilion Systems. It provided an important geographical location to further develop the south east, with daily deliveries and a more localised level of technical expertise and support.

The company has grown from a team of three in 1996 to a group of companies occupying over 100,000ft2 of space and employing more than 100 people nationwide. And it is still growing.

ahead of the curve
In another example of being ahead of the curve, Prefix was investing in its colour offering as early as 2005, and was the first company to launch a full suite of colour-foiled glazed roofs. By 2015, one in five of all new orders included a foil finish.

As demand continued to increase, Prefix invested further in a new colouring facility at its head office in Blackburn, which includes a ‘mix on demand’ paint system.

This allowed the company to manufacture conservatory and lantern roofs, along with Verandahs, in hundreds of different RAL colours. Heritage colours, urban influences, and even one-off projects are now embraced by the company, with stocks of black and anthracite grey being held across several product ranges.

“Colour is one of the biggest talking points in the glazing and fenestration sectors,” Chris Cooke said. “The days of just a few woodgrains and colours are now long gone and we are now able to produce fully manufactured products in a vast array of colours and with a 10-year finish guarantee.

“Our new colouring facility will provide customers with consistent supply, quality finish and with a quick turnaround from all four branches. We have a reputation for customer excellence and so this latest investment will again be testament to our commitment to service.”

fundamentally technical
An almost unrivalled technical knowledge underpins the Prefix business, which breeds confidence in customers’ dealings with the company, while promoting a level of professionalism that benefits the industry as a whole.

For example, Chris Baron was arguably the first technical voice to discuss potential problems with conservatory roof replacement projects – even before trade bodies were involved.

Writing in Glass Times in October 2008, Chris highlighted potential issues when polycarbonate roofs were being replaced with glass, which is up to four times heavier.

“While it is all well and good for the roofing sector to look at the replacement market as a new revenue stream, we need to be careful that we are not being naïve as it gains sales traction,” Chris said. “Standards of conservatory installations have already blighted us in the past and we’re at risk of doing so again in the replacement sector.

“Trading Standards can be rightly involved in projects where there has been product failure, while there’s also a real risk of insurance companies not paying out due to such disasters, but merely pointing the finger back at the installation company. It is, however, a market that can be fully addressed if we are prudent in such installations and seek the necessary advice from the supply chain.”

Naturally, Prefix had designed and launched a product to help in such cases: Retro-Fix posts. These are structural posts that can be fitted within existing conservatories and glazed extensions.

This was further enhanced with the introduction of MULTIbeam, an industry first, which spanned wider openings within conservatories such as bifolding doors. A simple-to-install and cost-effective aluminium eaves bolster that could be retrofitted, the product was developed in conjunction with Window Widgets and won the best product award at Glassex 2009.

aluminium renaissance
At the 2017 FIT Show, Prefix launched two aluminium window systems and its URBANRoom.

Among the leading pack of companies catering for an uptick in interest from homeowners for aluminium glazing products, Chris Cooke said: “Aluminium is certainly enjoying a renaissance and taking share from PVCU and not just dominating in bifolding doors, as we are seeing growth with patio doors and in other types of installations. We’re also experiencing greater adoption in full-height glazing.”

Prefix was also catering to the trend for sympathetic heritage products with its Heritage window system under its own aluminium brand Opal.

The Heritage 47 has a front-to-back dimension of just 47mm and replicates the same slim sightlines of traditional steel windows. It is also available with either a storm or flush casement, ensuring building specifiers and consumers have more choice.

And, of course, the URBANRoom, the all-aluminium glazed extension, was designed to meet the demand for a modern conservatory which “fully reflects contemporary living”, the company said.

This finger-on-the-pulse for changing trends in the indoor/outdoor space, was further evidenced by the launch of the Verandah a year earlier.

“In the UK we have a passion for the great outdoors and research has shown that we barbeque more than any other European nation, despite the unpredictable weather,” Chris Baron said at the time. “A Verandah is a perfect solution offering three-season usage.”

The Verandah was also developed with the installer in mind: a simple base-fixing plate can be used either beneath or at ground level and there’s built-in tolerance for post height levelling and fixing, and the company can even offer a partially assembled kit, allowing for installation in just a matter of hours.

Technical expertise and industry leading products form only part of the equation, and Prefix has always understood the importance of strong marketing support.

In June 2019, the company opened its new showroom. Glass Times was invited to the grand opening and subsequently called it “an eye opener”.

“While the focus of the open day was on the showroom, and the numerous benefits that it offers the company and its customers, tucked away inside were new concepts and products that promise to offer new opportunities,” Glass Times said at the time.

Around 100 customers had travelled from as far afield as southern England and Scotland, and they were rewarded with a factory tour and a bag of promotional goodies to take away.

Prefix explained that its customers can visit the showroom with their own customers, using it as an extension to – or in support of – their own showroom. As a trade-only supply, Prefix customers can use the facilities without fear of conflict and with or without the support of Prefix staff.

“Given our broad product range of roof systems, aluminium windows and doors, along with other home improvement and outdoor living solutions, our new showroom is the perfect place in which to present everything under one roof,” Chris Cooke said. “It also allows us to physically demonstrate the Prefix difference and the way in which we carefully manufacture and distribute these products nationwide, through our four branches.

“The benefits of a showroom are considerable in that they can be used for technical training, sales presentations and for general product awareness, to both staff and customers alike. It also supports all the work we do through our other branches, and over the next 18 months we’ll be looking to adopt the same type of premium showroom environment at these locations and we will soon have a showroom at each site.”

More recently, Prefix Systems launched a new interactive website for trade customers and their clients.

The new website, which is fully mobile and tablet friendly, was developed last summer to reflect the company’s growing product portfolio and product development now supplying a broad range of conservatory, home living and glazing solutions.

The new website is its biggest launch for over three years with many new features designed to make it easy for people to find information.

Hannah Gilrane, marketing co-ordinator, said: “Prefix may only sell direct to trade but our customers ultimately sell to consumers so we wanted our new website to be a platform they can use too.

“We have used certain colours and features to encourage consumers to use our website incorporated interactive elements so they can design their own products or request brochures and samples. It also allows them to easily contact us so we can put them in touch with a registered installer to discuss their project.”

The site includes: detailed information on all products; detailed technical information; trade and consumer brochures; order forms; online pricing; regular Prefix news; and contact details.

This was followed shortly afterwards by the online instant pricing service for Prefix’s aluminium bifolding doors, where trade customers can design online and get an instant price.

“Having an online pricing portal was important to us as we look to improve our online services with companies using the web more so than ever,” the company said.

“Pricing online gives our trade customers the freedom to design the systems as they wish perhaps even with homeowners so they can have full control over their project.”

This service will extend to other products in due course.

Investment in staff
As the company has grown, expanded and developed over the last 25 years, it is clear it is doing something right, but nothing shouts success quite like winning a gong or two, and Prefix has won several over the years.

Most notably, the company become the first in the history of the prestigious Red Rose Awards for Lancashire businesses to win in three separate categories in 2015.

Prefix Systems won Construction Business of the Year, Manufacturing Business of the Year and Medium Business of the Year categories, an unprecedented achievement and against fierce competition.

The company also won Best Solid Roof System with its WARMroof system at the inaugural Conservatory and Orangery Awards in 2019, beating off stiff competition.

“Prefix is now taking a leading stance in the development of the market for extended living, and we believe that the future for our customers and Prefix looks quite incredible,” Chris Cooke said.

Chris Baron added: “This is a true reflection of all the hard effort each and everyone involved in Prefix has put into the business and we’re overwhelmingly proud of this.”

A large part of this success can certainly be attributed to the investment in staff. Prefix has looked to recruit people with the best attributes and character to enhance the business, and a lot of the time this means new starters have no industry experience. So, training and development has been at the heart of the business since the beginning.

And staff development will remain at the heart of the business into the future with robust apprenticeship and mature learning programme in place linked to local colleges and universities.

Over the last 25 years, Prefix has continued to grow and develop, constantly seeking new challenges and designing products for markets that were only just beginning to open.

Prefix is certainly a pioneer, but it is also technically considerate. This balanced approach to product development has enabled it to continue servicing customers it gained in 1996, while continuing to win business for many years to come.