Clevedon-based trade fabricator Seal-Lite used the challenges created by the pandemic to boost its product and service offer.
A long-standing relationship with aluplast
Starting operations in 1989 in a garage in Nailsea, originally fabricating aluminium products, Clevedon-based Seal-Lite has a long association with aluplast: the company started fabricating Plusplan before moving to Ideal 70 in 2005 when it was acquired by aluplast.
The company’s focus was originally on supplying its own installation teams, building up a familiar fleet of trade vehicles that would service the local area in north Somerset.
“We are very fussy about the quality that goes out of the door,” Co-Founder and Chairman Chris Shearn says. “That’s why we wanted to produce our own windows, and it’s also why we slowly built up a loyal trade customer base.
“Customers found us to be very flexible – in fact, we make all sorts of orders because we know what it is like to have a particular idea about something.”
Increasing focus on trade supply windows and doors
Today, trade customers make up 75% of the business, with retail taking up the remaining 25%. Seal-Lite runs a showroom from the Tweed Road industrial Estate, and Chris says that the customer-facing experiences that it has gained is often passed on as useful knowledge to its trade customers.
“We grew up through the retail side, and we really understand what makes it tick,” Chris says. “We can help our trade customers with that knowledge, such as software, online ordering, and creating reports.”
The impact of COVID-19 on PVC window and door supply
This operational strength, coupled with unsurpassed local knowledge, understandably gave brothers Jim and Chris Shearn confidence that the business was operating as efficiently as possible. Despite this, they were in the process of establishing a tighter management structure when the pandemic hit, and things started to look very different.
“When the first lockdown was lifted in the early summer of 2020, our profile supplier couldn’t keep up with demand,” Jim explains.
Changes to Seal-Lite’s operational restructure required a change in profile supply in 2011, but when demand went through the roof in May 2020, that supply came to a halt.
“We had already been told that the system we were on was going to be withdrawn from the market, and we were starting to look at options,” Chris explains. “But after the first lockdown, delivery dates were getting pushed back – often on the day of delivery – and when they eventually arrived, they were missing key elements, such as trims, so we couldn’t complete our orders. Supply went off a cliff.
“We felt very neglected, with a full order book, and we were seriously getting our ears chewed off by our customers.”
Seal-Lite was far from alone in this regard as the fenestration supply chain was stretched to beyond capacity during the latter half of 2020 and through 2021.
Security of supply key to decision to partner with aluplast
In June 2020, Jim and Chris made the decision to go back to aluplast.
“We spoke to aluplast’s owner in the UK Keith White, and we explained the situation we were in, and he initially agreed to help us with the ancillary products,” Chris says. “But we quickly decided to switch over wholesale, and within three weeks we were completely up and running on aluplast.”
Jim adds: “They acted very quickly, and between the UK and Poland they saved our sanity. I don’t think we can overstate that.”
Getting aluplast on board was one piece in the jigsaw. As Seal-Lite ramped up production – up to 500 frames a week with room for expansion – Chris and Jim paid closer attention to the inner workings of the business.
“For about four and a half months I was on the welder, while Jim was on the machining centre,” Chris says, “and between us, we could see areas of the operation that could be improved.”
Colour is key in post-pandemic window and door supply
Deciding to take a back seat and give operational control to someone from outside the business, the brothers employed Sue Biddle as General Manager. Bringing a fresh perspective to how Seal-Lite was run, she introduced a number of changes, and engaged more closely with the shop floor.
These changes – supplier and operational – have positioned Seal-Lite to take on the challenges and opportunities presented post-pandemic.
For example, colour now accounts for about 50% of all orders, and there is no sign that this is slowing. This is backed by the huge investment aluplast has made to date in foiling lines and manufacturing capacity, including a new facility that is due to come online later this year. Representing an investment of around £26m, it will include a state-of-the-art production hall large enough to house up to 100 extrusion lines, a raw material mixing plant, technical facilities and a dedicated R&D department.
Seal-Lite also uses aluplast’s Flush Casement with the Ideal 70 system, which has proven to be a surprise hit.
“We are completing heritage projects with the Flush Casement,” Chris says, “and we are also finding it specified on an increasing number of contemporary projects.
“However, we’ve found that it looks very nice in 1930s properties where the flush sash complements the original design of the buildings.”
Sustainability is influencing end user purchasing decisions
And sustainability is an element that the business has grown steadily over recent years, to the point where it is gaining real traction with homeowners.
“It’s not something that we’ve really developed a strategy for, but our sustainability credentials are looking very good,” Jim explains.
“For example: our solar panels provide 50% of the energy we use; we recycle all post-consumer waste, (our trade customers use a skip we provide in our yard); and the Ideal 70 system from aluplast is made from ecotech profile, which has recycled material in its core and a virgin PVC-U external walls.”
Looking to the future, Seal-Lite is planning to take on the Ideal 4000 system from aluplast, a 70mm, five-chamber SquareLine window and door system, and the modern slimline Smart-Slide Patio Door System.
“The pandemic was a real eye-opener for us,” Jim concludes. “We picked up some really good people, changed our operational structure, and I think we are now the fittest and best-placed as a business in our 30-year history.”