Ryan Johnson
Ryan Johnson

Succession planning is a big challenge for the window and door industry. We speak to Ryan Johnson, group managing director, who led Emplas successfully through a senior management restructure and find out what it means for the fabricator’s future.

Succession planning is going to be a big issue. It has to be. The industry loosely has been around in its current form for about 45 years. A lot of those owner entrepreneurs who started up fabrication and installation businesses are coming to retirement age.

Not everyone’s children want to go into the family business, which leaves a lot of companies being run by owners who are planning more for their retirement than the future of their businesses.

That has consequences for their individual businesses but also the industry more generally because succession planning isn’t being considered early enough and we’re not necessarily attracting the people we need with the skill set to carry the industry forward into the future.

Unless something changes, that will inevitably mean those companies will close and the number of players in the industry will shrink.

A continuing process

Emplas has been on that [succession] journey for a while now. In a sense we reflect much of the industry. Emplas is a family-owned business, which was set up by my father Kevin Johnson in 1979.

In 2014 he stepped into a chairman role and I moved to managing director, having previously been deputy. That was after an extended ‘apprenticeship’ working on the factory floor, fitting windows, working sales with T&K and then management roles with Emplas.

Rather than being the end of the process that was, however, only the start. Since then, we’ve built a young team – and importantly, one which combines a lot of sector experience with expertise from outside it – and focussed on creating the infrastructure and processes which support us in delivering a continuously improving service to our customers.

The importance of stepping back

The aim we had was always to build a management team, a young, hungry management team, with a broad range of skills, who could take this business forward – with me as a part of it, but certainly not with me at the centre of it.

For me this is one of the biggest risks that a lot of the businesses in our sector face. They centre around a single or perhaps couple of business owners.

That is not to negate the part that owner-entrepreneurs have in this industry – in a sense they make it what it is – but not letting go, not stepping back, creates inherent risks.

Emplas doesn’t need me to run – and that’s the way it should be. It makes us more stable. It’s not about individuals, it’s about collective culture and process.

Last year, we got to that point, when Kush [Patel, managing director, Emplas] and Phil [Harrison, operations director, assumed over-arching responsibility for the operational side of the business, while Jody [Vincent, sales director] assumed responsibility for sales and marketing, with Phil Brown, our FD retaining his lead on finance.

And it’s not about them either, it’s about the operational and customer services teams working alongside and with them; our departmental heads, our team leaders – and our apprentices.

My involvement as Emplas group managing director, isn’t critical.

Casting a wider net

Not always doing things the same way is also very important. That’s another risk in the owner-centric model. There may be exceptions but you tend to fall into the same way of doing things. They may work, but in our experience, they can always be done better.

We wanted skills from outside the sector to help us to grow and scale but do so sustainably. We’ve invested massively over the past few years in our capability, our product offer but most importantly people, because they have brought with them the impetus for change.

We’ve seen a 25% growth in turnover in the last year. We couldn’t have achieved that sustainably without changing how we did things ahead of time.

This includes major investment in our IT infrastructure, which provides a foundation for innovation throughout our operation and a step-change in customer experience.

We had to go outside of the industry and that patience has paid off in innovation including more efficient manufacturing processes through to the real-time notifications on deliveries that we launched in the summer.

This isn’t stuff that’s necessarily synonymous with the window industry. It’s about bringing new ideas from other sectors to benefit our customers.

The benefits of planning ahead

The over-looked benefit of succession planning is that you bring people into your business who are by definition, looking towards a future where they can go and what they can achieve. It creates a forward-looking culture.

This is one of the things that has perhaps benefitted us most. We have continued to invest.

With more than £1m committed to the expansion of our manufacturing capability, including the addition of two new cutting and machining centres, and the addition of new product lines, we’re also building for the future, with a relentless focus on product quality and service innovation.

Be prepared for dead ends but push through

I’d be lying if I said the succession process had been plain sailing all the way. What we have done has not always been successful and there have been moments when in the pursuit of the changes we have made we took our eye off the ball on the day-to-day.

Succession planning costs you money, and it cost you time.

On balance, however, we’re in a good place. We’re secure. We’ve got a very young, energetic, intelligent management team and leadership team.

Any customers or prospective customers can have confidence that Emplas is here for the future. We’re focusing on one thing and one thing only, and that’s providing the best possible service.