Questions and Answers with Ultraframe

What is the biggest issue affecting the conservatory industry at the moment?

Clearly the industry is having to adjust to lower volumes than it’s been used to over last few years. The bigger problem for me is that some retailers have lost their confidence, and are getting into a rut over the marketing of what is still an aspirational product want for huge swathes of the population.

What have Ultraframe’s customers been looking for from the company over the last couple of years?

Over the last couple of years the company has had a lower profile, its priority has been to get the manufacturing and delivery spot on – reliability of delivery had been an issue in the past, but not anymore. So our customers are looking for the same things they’ve always wanted – value for money, back up, marketing support that comes from the leading brand.

Is the market in general being driven by price or are customers still looking for marketing support and innovative products?

15 years ago the over 50’s were the mainstay of the market, buying branded products at decent prices – 10 years ago the emerging and fast growing family market became the dominant segment. This latter segment had a limited budget and wanted the maximum space for the minimum outlay – so price became an issue. Right thoughout the last 20 years, Ultraframe has serviced the mid to upper end consumer and the type of retailers who served this market valued marketing support, innovation and service above pure price based ‘here today, gone tomorrow’ system companies and fabricators.

Where does Ultraframe draw inspiration from for its products?

Inspiration comes from various sources. We have a very creative Director Andrew Thomson who looks after the R&D effort, in particular the ‘big ideas’.

We undertake focus groups with consumers on a regular basis, feedback from which is set alongside that obtained directly from retailers.

In addition, our technical support department – renowned throughout our industry – gains feedback every day from fitters, and we have a deep empathy with the guys on the tools, as all of our tech support guys have migrated from hands on shop floor and site roles too. This type of feedback further feeds our evolutionary developments.

Our product development – we like to think – is a combination of steady small steps, fixing things brought to our attention by the trade

As stated above, the feedback from site and from our fabricators is vital. Just in the last two years alone we have…………………some examples

In February’s issue of CI you stated that: ‘high interest rates mean that loans are not as readily available as they once were to pay for high ticket home improvements such as conservatories’, has this seen companies look to diversify into different areas and if so how will this affect the market in the future?

The truth is that…its difficult to call. Homeowners are staying in their homes and not moving – moving has in the past been a major stimulus to conservatory installation. The other major stimulus has been MEW ( mortgage equity withdrawal), and of course peoples equity has gone down and its virtually impossible to re-mortgage. Given this background, one could argue that to do 100,000 conservatories this year is no mean achievement and it clearly demonstrates that the fundamentals of the product we offer are sound.

Having said all that……we think that there is an emerging market for ‘crossover’ products like Orangeries and some companies have started to offer these. Apart from this, I’m not aware of any other major diversification.

What have the recent big developments been for Ultraframe?

Our focus for the last two years has been operational improvement…in other words, getting lean!! We were very pleased to start the journey long before the real ‘crash’ hit – this has enabled us to improve our service and delivery performance at a time when other system companies and their fabricators have struggled.

For the last two years we have been developing the Classic Plus roof. Due on general sale in January 2010, it consists of internal tracks built into the roof that enable the fitment of Clitheroe made one piece or two piece sliding screens made in fabric or natural wood weaves. Dappled light, improved solar control, better thermal performance and of course privacy are benefits of the product we call Shades.

Where did the inspiration come from for the company’s new roof shading offering?

At strategy meetings, we had looked for ways to improve our share of the value cake without compromising our key strengths. Detailed consumer research followed as did a brief dalliance with a traditional pleated blinds brand before we decided our new Shades solution offered superior features and benefits yet at a much lower price point. Our research indicates substantial numbers of consumers will buy the Classic Plus roof and Shades.

What has the reaction been to it?

Given that we have only been marketing it on a ‘beta trial’ basis to a handful of retailers so far, reactions have been overwhelming. The detailed consumer positioning data we have from a third party agency also has helped to show retailers what price they can achieve in the market. We also have a 3 year contract with one of the major nationals who will ramp up to 100% conversion to the Classic roof sometime between March and September next year. Successful adoption by this national retailer will also stimulate other retailers to follow suit .

However, at this stage it can only be my best estimate - ask me the question again in March 2010 when the product has been on general sale for a couple of months!!

Is the consumer more knowledgeable today, and if so, what part has the Internet played in helping companies reach consumers, are companies making the most of the online opportunities available to them?

WOW…how long have you got? I could write thousands of words on this sub ject. Consumer interest and knowledge is massive, due entirely to the internet. That’s why for the last two years we have invested well over six figures in the internet. When a consumer types ‘conservatory’ into Google there are over 10 million pages!! Through our efforts we are on page one – ie top 10 – but we cannot be complacent.

This year 100,000 conservatories will be built….and there are THREE MILLION existing ones out there… guess where we see the future visit

What do you feel will be the future big changes for the conservatory industry?

Perhaps one of the biggest changes – certainly since conservatories came out of building regulations in 1985 – is their anticipated involvement again next Autumn. The government has just finished formal consultation on whether Part L should apply and how…..some kind of ‘light touch’ inspection regime could be another consequence.

This move means that conservatories are soon to be classed as mainstream, and this opens up a host of other possibilities. Our conservatory that juts out into the garden is the perfect solar collector – think Photo voltaics. These are coming down in price and the conservatory could be a prime place to locate them…and there are THREE MILLION of them out there.

Ultraframe has made the decision to exhibit at Glassex after an absence of three years, what was the reasoning behind the return? is it because the company has a lot to talk about?

We touched on this earlier – the last two years have been about low key operational improvements. Not glamorous but necessary .But during this time, we have landed some major accounts such as Advanced in Scotland and Omega Overall- despite the decline in absolute volume – our share has improved significantly.

And yes- we have a lot to show at Glassex….radical new conservatory styles and products to solve fitters issues and other innovations too numerous to mention.

Can the industry look forward to a less turbulent 2010?

Our thinking at Ultraframe is that the market will probably be about the same volume in 2010…..we think there will continue to be consolidation at every level.

Should retail banking/lending bounce back combined with some modest house price inflation and we could look forward to some growth in 2011/12.