HAI CEO Annemarie Harte recently visited Classic Hardware, a leading specifier and supplier of architectural ironmongery to the housing market and facilities management sector.
I met Paul O’Brien a few hours after hearing the result of the Brexit Referendum in the UK and, in fairness, the interview could have focused on that subject alone with its range of implications and the lack of certainty surrounding its long-term outcomes. Paul noted his immediate concern was short-term business confusion in the supply of products from the UK.
On a brighter note, Classic Hardware is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. Based in Tallaght, its Directors and staff had their origins in Rutledge & Thompson (R&T), who were large providers of ironmongery to the Irish market. Paul O’Brien and James McGroary acquired the business through a management buyout from Deirdre Brennan, the founder of Classic. Although I didn’t meet James, he’s the main man pounding the streets in what Paul describes as their “hardworking but friendly sales approach.”
“James has been on the road for 35 years and has a vast knowledge and experience in the hardware trade and these days it’s not necessary for him to be in the office but we keep in regular touch throughout the day,” and it’s clear that they make a good team.
”It’s vitally important to refer to management accounts on a regular basis for effective planning and day-to-day running of the business,” he says.
They’re just off the back of a promotion last month as part of their anniversary celebrations. At this point he indulged in a position many suppliers will have sympathy with. The demands placed on suppliers can offer difficult trading conditions, he says, but Classic spread the risk of exposure for the business, he says that no customer or supplier to them would hold any more than 10% value in the supply chain.
In the 20 years since they were established Paul vividly recalls their toughest trading period: “We had been looking at new premises in order to expand when overnight in 2008 we had to start considering other adjustments to the business.”
This will no doubt be a familiar memory for many suppliers and merchants. The good news for Classic Hardware and, indeed, many HAI member suppliers, is that since August of last year business has picked up and May of this year has been the best month since 2008. Paul puts part of the company’s success down to consistently looking for new products and looking for innovation in the marketplace.
Classic are suppliers of locks, handles, ironmongery, fixings, tools, sealants and adhesives, paintbrushes and pest repellents, with familiar brands including Union, Era, Loctite, Heritage Brass, Intelligent Hardware, Everbuild, Gorilla Glue, Anza Brushes, Pestclear and Paprika Postboxes.
Paul and James are regular visitors to the Eisenwaremesse in Cologne to keep an eye out for the latest trends but they also look towards the UK market for what’s coming down the line. Paul says that the UK market can often be ahead in lever handle trends and the sector is similar to fashion, in that style preferences can change frequently. That said, we muse over his office door furniture – brushed chrome is en vogue at the moment which leaves me lamenting my door handles at home, should I be changing them regularly?
With the Brexit result still peppering our conversation, I ask about what other countries Paul trades with aside from the UK, no surprises to hear that they include China and India but interestingly enough Portugal is one that may become a bigger supplier with the British exit from the European Union. Classic Hardware is an agent for Portuguese company Urfic Door Furniture, one of Europe’s leading manufacturers of door furniture.
Classic places great emphasis on the marketing and packaging of products and ensuring the merchant is optimising the product. Handles that may have at one time been sold in a brown cardboard box are now dressed in a box that looks more like a box of Dairy Milk! And it’s working, Paul says. I agree that first impressions always count and we’ve mentioned before how, ultimately, matters of the lighter end of hardware and especially finishings are the domain of the female customer.
One of the most important things that helped Classic get through the recessionary period was the loyalty of its customers, combined with hardworking staff members. It was clear that this was highly appreciated by James and Paul.
We also talked about next year’s Hardware Show and Paul has already reserved a bigger stand as this is one of the most important events in his company’s calendar. Paul says: “In 2015, we had an extremely successful show over the two days and gave exclusive promotions for visitors, we’ll be planning more of the same in 2017.”
I finished by asking what steps Paul would take to stimulate housebuilding if he was Taoiseach for a day? “I’d implement the Swedish model of a 50% rebate on home improvements. The so called ‘ROT-avdrag’ is a tax subsidy available to Swedes wishing to make renovations or improvements on their homes. It was introduced as an effort to boost an under-pressure building industry and the tax break is on 50% of the cost of the work, up to a maximum of 50,000 kronor (approx. €5,300) per person, per year.” Pointing out that you have to have a home in the first instance to use that option, he suggests the Government should be a housebuilder on a 50% shared ownership basis. This concept isn’t a million miles away from the UK’s Help to Buy scheme where the Government lends up to 20% of the cost of your newly-built home, so you’ll only need a 5% cash deposit and a 75% mortgage to make up the rest. Under such a scheme, the home buyer won’t be charged loan fees on the 20% loan for the first five years of owning the home.
DOOR AND WINDOW FITTINGS TRENDS
According to the latest edition of the Architectural Ironmongery Journal with figures from AMA Research in the UK, the market for door and window fittings increased by around 2% following similar annual growth rates in 2013 and 2014. The sector remains very competitive with a recovery in volumes partially offset by downward pressure on average prices and margins. Locks and handles represent the two major product sectors, together accounting for over 50% of the fittings market.
Door closers were estimated to account for around 15% of the market in 2015 having grown in recent years. The sector has particularly benefited from the introduction of higher specification products, with legislation such as the UK’s Equality Act in conjunction with BS8300 helping to boost demand. Current forecasts show further steady rates of value growth over the next four years. The private sector is forecast to drive growth, with the new housing market also driving demand. In addition, the commercial sector is growing strongly, particularly office construction. As a result the trend is likely to be towards higher specification products, particularly those that offer added security features.
If you have a story to tell as a supplier or manufacturer in the Irish market, please contact Annemarie on 01 298 0969 or firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.