A part of the family
Glass Times editor Luke Wood, talks to Rehau’s CEO, Martin Hitchin, about his 35 year journey with the family owned system company, the changes he has seen and his outlook for the future.
Luke Wood (LW): How has business been so far in 2023?
Martin Hitchin (MH): We came into the year with a degree of uncertainty, but so far sales have remained quite stable. We have had customers who have reported a downturn, but then others who have experienced growth.
We also have strong partnerships with small and medium sized housebuilders, ones who aren’t impacted by the problems facing the larger, national housebuilders, and high end refurb is all returning good levels of business.
LW: How long have you worked at Rehau?
MH: I joined Rehau in 1988, initially as an engineer working in some of the other sectors that Rehau operates in, and then became involved with the windows division later on.
It was an exciting time to be part of the business, and to experience the speed of change with the early adoption of PVC. We were training three to five new fabricators a week – and I’m proud to say that a good number of those manufacturers are still with us 30 years or so later.
LW: How has the industry changed for you over the years?
MH: I love the way the industry is constantly innovating. We have always prided ourselves as offering a premium offering at Rehau, but the level of quality today has never been higher.
That’s driven by the natural progression of R&D and regulatory change but also by responding to demand from our customers, who might come to us with new ideas that could prompt us to try out new approaches to design.
A lot of things have changed but our long-term customers have remained successful because they offer consistently high-quality service, they continue to invest and the values that those companies were built on remain the same today.
I’m enjoying a lot of 30- and 35-year celebrations with customers at the moment and that’s hugely rewarding. We’re all still here and we’ve been on a fantastic journey together.
Those are the positives but there have been many challenges over the years as well. Around 19 years ago, we experienced some major supply issues with raw materials, something that periodically impacts across the industry.
At Rehau, we have significant leverage on material supply, because of our size, but we have invested heavily to help mitigate against potential future disruption as well.
That includes significant spending on our recycling capacity, which apart from being the right thing to do in terms of improving the sustainability of our operations and our products, also gives us additional control over our supply chain.
Covid was also a huge challenge – as was the subsequent boom in demand for home improvements – but there were positives that came with it. One of those is that we rapidly learnt how to improve the way we communicate as a business and I’d say that we now do so much more frequently now than we did pre-Covid.
LW: We’re currently hearing that demand for aluminium is growing – would you agree?
MH: From the conversations that I’ve had recently, I don’t actually think we’re seeing a big hike in activity for aluminium products, although I would say that demand for premium solutions remains strong and the strength of our product offer means we can compete directly with both aluminium or timber.
That includes our flush Rio casement, our range of foil options and also our new Slinova patio system. There are some big challenges for aluminium systems at the moment in terms of U-values, but Slinova performs brilliantly and looks every bit as good as the aluminium alternative.
LW: What are your thoughts on the Future Homes Standard?
MH: At the time of this interview, we still don’t know exactly what the requirements for FHS will be, but there are some quite challenging assumptions and we are providing our customers with all the info they need on that.
We already offer a window system that can achieve a 0.8-U value, and the easiest way of doing that is with triple glazing. It will obviously only apply for new build initially but as far as I understand it, the new standards will apply to the replacement sector in the long run.
There are additional challenges with manufacturing, handling and installing triple glazing of course, but I don’t see any other way around it.
LW: What are the biggest challenges and opportunities for the industry going forward?
MH: I think one of the biggest problems at the moment, is how to attract young people into the industry. Many of our customers have grown very successful businesses over the years, they’ve done very well financially, they’re multi-millionaires.
You’d think that would be a big incentive but it doesn’t seem to be the case.
We are lucky in that we have a good link with local colleges and we’ve worked hard to develop our apprenticeship programmes, but I have customers that say they could run three more teams of fitters – the demand is there – but they can’t get the people.
But there is still plenty to go for. The cost-of-living crisis might hit less affluent households the most, but it’s also helped to drive sales at the top end of the market, with consumers who want to improve energy efficiency and reduce the cost of energy.
If you have invested in the right products and in service, then there’s plenty of opportunity.
LW: There has been a big impact from the demise of Duraflex. Can you see further consolidation in the industry?
MH: In terms of consolidation with fabricators, I don’t think it’s anything new – it’s usually more to do with the age profile of the owners than any other factor.
And for systems houses, all I would say is that one of the main reasons I’m still at Rehau is that it’s a family business, and those values are important. It’s about taking a longer term view, built around generations of family, than short term profits.
It’s an essential part of Rehau’s DNA.