Adapt or die is a well known business axiom and embracing it has proved the salvation of Washington-based commercial glazing manufacturer Fendor.
Founded in 1982, as a fire glazing business, it grew steadily working on some high profile projects in London such as Marks & Spencer’s headquarters and the Guinness headquarters.
It moved into a different league when it worked on the Waverly Gate development in Edinburgh, a project worth £2.5m to the company and which involved overcoming some challenging technical problems.
However, when the current managing director and owner Chris Duffy joined the business 12 years ago it was a fire glazing business in decline.
His wife and fellow director Sue Fortune-Duffy, explains: “He recognised this and described it as `a large fish in a small pond’ and he recognised that to survive in the recession he saw coming that it was going to have to cast its net wider and use its core skills which were steel manufacture and develop new product lines. He didn’t see the business model of remaining only in fire glazing as being viable’’
This strategic decision took the company into security glazing, developing new product lines. This was underpinned with a £500,000 investment in new equipment. Duffy bought the business about seven years ago and was then faced with the challenge of the post Lehman economic climate.
“It’s hard growing a business in a recession,’’ says Fortune-Duffy. “It’s very challenging in terms of getting appropriate funding.’’
The nature of the business means R&D is a necessity and that costs money.
“Filling a container full of new products just to go and blow it up is not cheap and for the petrochemical market, if you are dealing with Americans, you have to ship it off to Texas. You invest an awful lot of money in blowing things up. You’re basically saying, can I borrow money to blow it up? Pay back takes time because you don’t break into these very sensitive markets quickly, all of these projects have long gestation periods.’’
Some funding was secured from NEL – the first tranche of which is now repaid – and additional funding was sought just over a year ago when the company was able to move from its previous location, a 20,000sq ft former tea depot in Felling, to its current 50,000sq ft facility in Washington.
The first new market was in providing secure windows for young offenders’ detention centres. This led to work in the mental health sector and now Fendor has been specified as a preferred supplier for the redevelopment of Broadmoor, the high security psychiatric hospital. At the time the company began to move into mental health, glazing in that sector was in `a pretty poor state’ according to Fortune-Duffy.
“Windows were typically glass blocks and timber frames with very thin pieces of glass resulting in poor light transmission. Low levels of natural light and poor natural ventilation are not ideal conditions in which to convalesce in and recover from mental illness.’’
Fendor’s windows give patients large areas of glass and control over their own natural ventilation with the option for blinds.
“These are fundamentals that we take for granted but it’s not something that was possible until our technology which is a combination of glass, which is made under licence for us, the framing system which we developed and then the fixing and securing, so it’s not just one element but the whole combination,’’ says Fortune-Duffy.
Gradually Fendor built up its reputation in these markets and also provided glazing for a number of banks at a time when ram-raiding was a common threat.
The company undertook extensive consultations with professionals in the health and mental health sectors.
“We would get the clinicians and front-line staff saying, `what I need is this’ and `my patients need to be able to do this’. People will ring us up now and say, `I’ve got this problem, what can you do about it?’ That leads to R&D and working alongside people to develop new product lines.’’
Fortune-Duffy says that Fendor’s staff are key to its success in innovation.
“The most important quality they have to have apart from technical competence is the ability to listen and understand what the customers’ problems are. They have got to listen and sometimes you have to be able to read in between the lines because you can get mixed messages.
“We attended the custody sergeants’ national conference recently just to have the opportunity to talk to them, to find out what their working environment is like. It’s much easier now to talk about CellGuard Custodial window and what that can offer now that I have a really good understanding of what a custodial environment is like.’’
Fendor has three apprentices and hopes to take on another two next year. It also took on a Northumbria University student, Nicola Hall, on a Knowledge Transfer Partnership.
“She worked on particular aspects of particular projects and, with Northumbria, developed some of the innovations,’’ says Fortune-Duffy. “She did her masters and stayed on with us while she did that and at the end of her masters we offered her a full time contract. Since then, she has gone from being technical assistant to being technical manager, I’mvery proud of her.’’
Innovations included such features as window handles which continue to turn once they have reached closing point so that repeated attempts to turn will not break them and handles which can be set so that they might require anything from six turns to 60 to operate depending on the needs of an individual patient.
In the last two years Fendor has spent £300,000 on R&D developing its CellGuard window and other new products.
“CellGuard is quite a revolution,’’ says Fortune-Duffy. `Imagine if you are in a custody cell you will have a window with bars with either no natural light or very little natural light, so you have to have artificial lighting on all the time. It’s a very oppressive environment.
“It’s also better for the custody sergeants who operate in this environment day-in, day-out being subjected to low level light. It’s the same with the nursing teams in mental health, they are also behind bars, so it’s a better environment all round, for patients, people in custody, staff and people visiting.’’
The CellGuard window is made using a multilayered glass process and is manufactured for Fendor under licence and, after a three year process, it has been approved by the Home Office for custodial use and it is now being installed around the country.
Fendor also developed its Hydro Carbon window for the petrochemical industry. If a small bore gas pipeline fractures and is ignited temperatures can reach 1,000 centigrade in less than two minutes causing an immense thermal shock to the glass in any window. Failure of even fire rated windows is instant, but the Hydro Carbon window will insulate against those temperatures for 45 minutes and against flame spreading for up to an hour.
“Our target was to reach about 10 minutes to give people time to evacuate but it far surpassed our expectations,’’ says Fortune-Duffy. “It’s a phenomenal piece of kit and we are incredibly proud of it.’’
Fendor has recently been granted a patent on Clean Vent, its top-selling window for medium secure locations in mental health hospitals.
The change of strategy and of business model has paid off. Fendor now employs about 60 people at its Washington facility and a further 60 subcontractors. Turnover last year was £6.6m and this year is on course to reach about £9m and its products are beginning to be sold around the world.
A large part of its work is still in standard fenestration - windows, doors, curtain walling - for commercial projects such as hotels. It recently worked on a £1m contract at the new Dorchester in Park Lane.
But Fortune-Duffy is convinced that without the diversification the outlook for the company would have been bleak. In fact, the old fire glazing business now only contributes about £1m to turnover.
“If we hadn’t diversified I don’t think we would have survived,’’ she says. “We are now growing because we are starting to see pay-back for the investment that we made.’’
What are management’s ambitions for the company over the next few years?
“To continue to survive as we come out of recession because it’s still difficult out there is ambition number one and to grow and prosper is ambition number two,’’ says Fortune-Duffy. “Personally, I would love to work with the prison service to get rid of bars in prisons.’’