Why stability is essential

As supply to the window industry is still facing problems, including long lead times and product shortages, how has Liniar found itself in a position where it can capitalise on the increased demand? Glass Times editor Nathan Bushell spoke to managing director Martin Thurley and sales director Nigel Bishop to find out.

Turn the clock back a year, to the start of the coronavirus pandemic, and everyone found themselves in almost exactly the same position: locked down and uncertain. How businesses have emerged after those challenging 12 months depends on a number of factors, but it is clear that some are faring much better than others.

For Derbyshire-based PVCU extrusions company Liniar, a combination of significant ongoing investment and an engaged workforce has left the company positive for the months leading out of lockdown.

In fact, when Glass Times asked group sales director Nigel Bishop about life after lockdown, his first thought was to the future and not to the past or present.

“We are looking forward to three or four busy years,” he said. “Housebuilders are getting planning permission to build many new homes, and householders have saved money which is definitely being diverted to home improvement.”

For managing director Martin Thurley, his focus is very much on keeping the ship steady, especially following a busy Christmas where Liniar ran a 24/7 operation to get the business back on track, and stock levels built up to levels higher than they were before the pandemic.

“We now have a calm feeling,” he said. “We are in a great position where we are in control and have opportunities for new business.”

Martin is clear that while his senior management led the charge in keeping the business functioning as normally as possible during 2020, the investment in Liniar prior to March 2020 allowed it to weather the storm.

“The luxury of working for a modern business like Liniar is like living in a seven-bedroom home when you are a two-bed family,” Martin said.

He explained that the company’s strategy has always been to give itself headroom, which meant that it always aimed to work at 60% capacity. Therefore, when the business experienced a 40% increase in demand during Q3 and Q4, Liniar was able to absorb that with the current infrastructure, while increasing the workforce by 200 employees in a matter of weeks

Today, while other systems companies are still struggling to meet demand, Liniar has increased its (already impressive) stock holding to 20% above pre-Covid levels, making the most of the expansive warehousing facilities it has in Denby, Derbyshire.

“Now, we’ve got the headroom back alongside stability,” Martin said.

Owner Quanex has always followed the Liniar philosophy of building the headroom first before filling it, and not the other way around. To this end, the American-based company has invested more than £60 million in Liniar since it acquired the business in the summer of 2015.

“Even before the Quanex acquisition, Liniar’s growth was built on product quality, excellent service, and engagement with customers,” Martin said. “That comes about by being a solid supplier that invests in the business, and Quanex understands that.

“We recently bought a new Luna foiling line, a decision that was barely questioned by Quanex, because it understood its importance.”

Nigel explained that this investment leads directly to growth with customers, old and new.

“Today, more than ever, companies are thinking more strategically about their supply chains,” he said. “They don’t want their businesses built on unstable foundations, they want stability, not short-term gains.”

This stability from Liniar, Nigel said, has allowed its customers to raise prices as competitors consistently fail to deliver on time because their supply chains are less robust. Liniar’s otif is already back up to 99.4%, and made-to-order services resumed in early February.

“As a result, 2021 through to the end of 2022 will be a great time for Liniar,” Nigel said.

And this confidence is reflected in top line gains.

“We are projecting above £100 million turnover this year, on the basis of a very strong first quarter,” Martin said. “That is not some blue-sky number: we are very confident we will exceed that milestone. This is testament to the great work of the team at Liniar. Our most recent five-year strategic plan set in late 2020 projected we would hit £100 million sales around 2023, so we’re effectively two years ahead of this plan. Exciting times.”

Both Martin and Nigel are ready to admit that the last 12 months have been far from easy, and Liniar had its share of challenges as it responded to sudden and unprecedented increases in sales. But they are satisfied that the company has found sustainable ways to improve even further, and has created better systems as a result.

“One of the first things we learned in lockdown was that our existing communication channels were not sufficient,” Martin said. “People will live with some delays, but they won’t live with ambiguity and uncertainty. Quite simply, the systems we had in place to deal with shortages were not sufficiently robust as we don’t normally have shortage issues.”

Nigel explained that this also led to a more joined-up approach internally, with regular customer communication reflecting the exact operational status at Liniar.

“We’d already invested in our online customer ordering system ‘LiniarConnect’ which had seen a timely launch in January 2020. This infrastructure and our internal expertise allowed us to quickly develop the platform, including better visibility of stock availability for customers,” said Nigel.

“Following the initial lockdown, LiniarConnect became a central hub for customers, and the number of customers using the platform shot up to 80% within weeks: another example of prior investment allowing a swift reaction.”

Martin said that these subtle changes extended to beyond the workplace.

“In general, it feels like we all care more about other people in our community than we did before the pandemic,” he said. “That is certainly reflected at Liniar, and we have established a formal platform to help local causes. In the future, Liniar employees could be paid for a day’s voluntary work, for example. Community work is a big part of our culture, and it adds to an internal feel-good factor.”

Over the next 18-24 months, Liniar will look at growth markets, designing new suites of products if necessary to meet the expected demand.

“All in all, things are very positive here at Liniar,” Martin said. “All the key factors are well under control and we’re extremely well positioned to accelerate our growth plans.

“However, while we have a decent amount of headroom for growth, we must also be careful to maintain a steady ship at Liniar, and remember everything we learned during the pandemic.”