Investing for the future

Glass Times editor, Luke Wood, talks to Prefix Systems’ directors, Chris Cooke and Chris Baron, about how the company performed during lockdown and how new product development and investment has delivered a positive outlook for the multi-award winning conservatory, glazed extension and solid roof specialist.

Luke Wood (LW): The industry has faced some incredible challenges over the last few years. How did you manage your operations during the pandemic?

Chris Cooke (CC): It was a very challenging time and like most other companies we experienced high levels of demand. We closed at the start of the first lockdown, retaining a small, office-based continuity team so we were ready go once we opened up again in June.

The aluminium side of the business, which is based in our Southwest facility in Swansea, was incredibly busy, but the home improvement boom also generated a huge amount of interest in Warmroof as well as for products from our ‘Outdoor Living range’, such as our veranda system.

We have emerged from the pandemic in a strong position – but it’s been a bumpy ride ever since the downturn of 2008! As the recession ended in 2014, we had Brexit in 2016 which impacted on consumer confidence, then Covid and now we have the war in Ukraine…but we remain very confident for the future nonetheless.

LW: One of the big changes under lockdown was an increase in working from home – ongoing demand for additional space must be a key factor in how confident you are for the future?

CC: Absolutely, the market has evolved from simply upgrading old fashioned polycarbonate to solid roofs, we are now seeing a lot more refurb projects that are completely remodelling the existing conservatory so that it offers a more substantial, year-round living space.

That has, in turn, accelerated demand for larger openings that are typically filled with big bi-folds, although the downside for many roof suppliers and installers is that this has created a scenario where some roof systems are beyond their structural limits.

The average aluminium bi-fold installation is now 3.5 to 4m wide and around 2.1m high, but bi-folds get to a certain size and then they can start to deflect in the middle – which can prevent them from operating properly, creating remedial and reputational issues.

We’ve resolved this by engineering solutions that ensure a much greater structural capacity to cope with larger openings.

It’s the same approach that we took with our Retro-Fix posts. We designed these over 15 years ago out of a duty of care to consumers and our customers that replacement glass roofs – which are around four times heavier than a polycarbonate roof – could be properly supported and that conservatory projects are structurally sound.

These solutions that we’ve developed and built into our roofs for oversized apertures are borne from the same ethos of doing things properly. It also means we can help our customers deliver on increasing demand without losing sleep at night!

LW: Have you been working on any other new product development?

Chris Baron (CB): Yes, we’ve been working on an updated version of Warmroof, and while this is more of an evolution of the existing design, it has introduced manufacturing efficiencies and improved thermal efficiency so that it meets the stricter requirements for Part L.

We’ve also invested more than £500,000 under lockdown to further enhance our production processes, which includes more automation and improvements to our IT infrastructure. The introduction of barcode scanning and the ability to track and trace products will allow us to be much more efficient and in turn, offer improved customer service.

On top of that, we are also about to launch our new Prefix Studio. This was developed before lockdown but held back until we saw signs of market stability post lockdown.

It’s designed to offer a flexible living space that can be used as a garden office, living or playroom or even a bar.

It’s constructed using modular, 600mm insulated panels that are pre-fabricated off-site so it’s incredibly easy for installers and builders to create a structure.

In fact, only the second live test build of a Prefix Studio was 3m x 11.5m and we were able to finish that in less than a day. It’s a really exciting product that’s going to help our customers make the most of ongoing demand for additional living space.

LW: We are currently seeing mixed reports on the strength of the retail market, some businesses seem to be doing better than others. What is your outlook for the remainder of the year?

CC: We are still experiencing high demand – some of which is the backlog from lockdown – as well as high order values and so we remain upbeat for the short to medium term, despite some forecasts that we are going to experience a downturn.

There’s no getting away from the fact that the cost of living will impact on consumer spending but there’s still a large proportion of homeowners that have the cash and the confidence to invest in their property.

The fact that we’ve invested so heavily in our production and product offer, means that our customers will be well placed to take advantage of that.