lintels manufacturers have certainly had to cope with some tough UK market
conditions over the past five years.
A 40% fall in prices has been triggered by overcapacity and greater centralised
buying power resulting from consolidation by the leading builders merchants
and top house builders. This within a market that is at best static and
probably in marginal decline, due to a switch from new houses to flats (which
use less meterage) and the increasing use of timber framed, steel framed
and modular building methods. Add to this mix a core product where it is
difficult to differentiate between the leading manufacturers, and the result
is very testing market conditions.The steel lintels market is succinctly
summed up as “a bear garden” by Edward Naylor the MD of Naylor.
Roy Chiverton, MD of A R Hendricks, - the UK’s largest distributor
of lintels - agrees that prices have fallen considerably over the last four
years and “the only beneficiary has been the house builder, as the
supplier is getting less for his products and we are having to pass on bigger
discounts to the house builder, which means we make a much lower margin
on a lower sales value”. Colleague John Jones – sales and marketing
director of Hendricks believes it is “the pursuit of the manufacturer’s
desire for market share” that has caused the current situation.
These trading conditions are endorsed by Roger Thomas the MD of Catnic and
the current chairman of the industry’s trade association SLMA. “Gross
over capacity , the maturity of the market and changes to building design
are there for everybody to see”
All this has driven
lintels to be regarded as a commodity by the majority of customers - A
lintel is a lintel no matter who you get it from” according to Michael
Constable, purchasing director of Martin Grant Homes.
Hughes the new Marketing Director of Expamet, whose sister company is
IG Lintels, explains that external forces have also played their part:
“There’s been a very significant move to flats/apartments,
which has had an effect of reducing the number of lintels by about 10%”
To see how the leading manufacturers are overcoming the problems Michael
Herson of The Strategy Works has interviewed the leading manufacturers
in the UK, and conducted end user research amongst their customer base
across all sectors.
The size of the UK steel lintel market is generally acknowledged to be
just under £50m nett of the deep discounts and rebates paid to merchants
and housebuilders, which are common industry practice. Buying power is
incredibly concentrated with the top 37 house builders representing 63%
of the market in value; and four acquisitive national chains of builders
merchants, Travis Perkins; Jewson; Buildbase and Builder Center dominating
in that sector. Buildbase’s parent company, Grafton, also own the
UK’s largest distributor, Hendricks, which is run as an autonomous
In contrast, consolidation of manufacturing capacity is only just beginning
to materialise with Expamet having transferred all their production to
the IG facility at Cwmbran in South Wales. Catnic, who pioneered the steel
lintels market (previously lintels were solely concrete), are now owned
by the steel group Corus; with both companies now challenged by a new
entrant into the UK market from Ireland – Keystone - who have quickly
established a major presence. Estimates of brand shares, based on 2002
data, are currently as follows:-
Mark Hughes, who recently joined Expamet from one of their key customers
- Jewson - recognises the need for industry consolidation. “We have
rationalised production and are now looking to rationalise sales and marketing
activities”. Hughes believes that Expamet / IG are able to ride
the storm better than competitors because their extended range of Expamet
building products enables them to achieve critical mass on delivery costs,
allowing smaller customers to make up the minimum order of £250.
Expamet’s building division turns over £70m in total and includes
the Metpost and BAT brands.
However there is growing evidence that prices may now have bottomed-out
with customers indicating from research it is the price, quality and service
relationship that is now more important to them than price alone
Top Housebuilders and Builders Merchants now expect proactive account
management from their lintels supplier. “I expect them to work with
us on business plans to grow the business as partners" states Peter
Hoole,business manger at Builder Center.
Keystone – who have grown to be the number 2 UK manufacturer in
just 5 years – have achieved this by responding to the need for
higher service levels - Managing Director, Sean Coyle reports Keystone
have 8 technical staff based in their new factory in the UK at Swadlincote,
giving technical advice on the telephone and conducting visits.
Keystone also recognise the importance of ‘backselling’ on
behalf of the merchant. Their sales representatives target contractors
which Coyle feels is fundamental to their strategy - “We go out
to the end user, promote the product and bring the business back to the
This approach is endorsed by Catnic who have traditionally advocated backselling
to support their merchant only policy.
One area where lintels
manufacturers can profitably differentiate themselves from each other
is the sector of the market known as ‘specials’(non-standard
lintels). The demand for specials is being stimulated by new building
regulations that require 1 in 3 houses to be differently designed within
a new development.
Thus there is increasing pressure on architects to design unusual features
which require bespoke lintels, which has persuaded companies like Expamet
to build up their technical departments in order to advise architects
on the type of specials they can produce and influence the specifier.
According to Hughes,
“It has increased the demand on technical to produce more varied
schedules”. This practice is confirmed by Roger Thomas of Catnic
“ We’ll schedule the number of lintels that actually go into
a house – for all of us it is an overhead that we bear”
The research confirms ‘Specials’ are indeed a ‘front
of mind’ issue to customers – two thirds of the sample believe
their availability to be ‘important’ or ‘very important’
"There seems to be more and more bespoke business out there"
confirms Peter Hoole of Builder Center
'Patrick Kennedy-Sanigar, Chartered
Designer at Space Shuffle adds “We’re a design practice and
do a lot of unusual properties - we have very few which don’t have
some specialist demands”
This view is endorsed by Mike
Rolph, purchasing manager, at major developers St. George “We build
large blocks of flats and it is very important for us to be able to purchase
large blocks or heavy gauge lintels”
Keystone help architects
to design specials by providing an AutoCAD facility enabling them to put
their drawings directly onto PC. According to Coyle “architects
can carry out their dreams” - Keystone’s strategy is based
on the specials “providing the inroad into the new work and the
Although essentially a concrete
lintels manufacturer, Naylor confirm the trend towards specials which
have doubled as a proportion of their business to 26% in the last 18 months.
Naylor produce (concrete) products such as Fairfaced (exposed) lintels
and ‘Fire Resistant’.
Customers increasingly require more advanced IT support from their supplier.
To meet this demand, commercial director Helen Firth reports that Naylor
have a ‘lintels selector’ feature on their interactive web
site which will specify a lintel based on the characteristics of the building
The building sector has not traditionally been an ‘early adopter’
in terms of new electronic ordering methods, and fax remains the preferred
method of choice to 52% of the sample. However there are signs that EDI
is increasing its penetration and for 14% of the sample it is the first
choice method, with Builders Merchants Travis Perkins leading the way.
Others intend to follow with EDI - “Within 12 months we’ll
definitely be doing it” states Alastair Barton, procurement manager
of Halena Housing.
Some have taken a pragmatic view and are taking steps to reduce their
dependence on standard lintels. Roy Chiverton reports that Hendricks sells
over 50,000 steel and concrete lintels per month but, in order to protect
their overall margin, Hendricks have deliberately reduced their dependence
on lintels as a proportion of their total t/o to less than 30%, although
not reducing their lintels sales value, and increased their ‘Heavyside’
business to over 70% - a complete reversal of the company’s product
mix 5 years ago.
The inventor of Catnic
lintels –Brian Robinson - who formed the company 34 years ago by
using an abbreviation of his children’s’ names – Catherine
and Nicholas - created for lintels what Hoover became to vacuum cleaners
– a generic brand. Now Roger Thomas reports the company must adapt
to changed market conditions - “We have got to look elsewhere -
we will shortly be launching Catnic ‘Litetile’ which will
utilise our current route to market via merchants”
< back >
With the research confirming that only 39% of customers single source
lintels from one manufacturer; market volatility is set to continue, especially
amongst the 61% who dual source. It is clear that those suppliers with
the best service offering who meet their customers technical and delivery
requirements will succeed.
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