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The 10,504 mile customer drop

Posted on September 14, 2018

When your supplier is on the other side of the world, On Time In Full (OTIF) takes on a whole new level of importance. (This article first appeared in the July 2018 issue of Glass and Glazing Products magazine in the UK.)

“I remember when we opened up our very first shipping container”, says Craig Johnson, Managing Director of Ecostar, Melbourne. “We’d with hindsight, stupidly tried to transport frames unglazed with glass units simply stacked on an A-frame.

“We opened the doors took a look at each other and I said ‘I think we better get a brush’, it was just a mess. The learning curve has been massive”

Ecostar was set up by Craig in June 2011. Role forward less 7-years and Ecostar is now one of the largest home improvement businesses in Australia, employing more than 80 people and with a turnover in excess of $15m.

“There was a little bit of luck involved at the start. We’d received an approach from an ex-pat who was looking for a supply partner. The long and the short of it is that the deal didn’t work for a host of different reasons – not least that our contact was moved out of the business”, explains Craig.

“Ryan [Johnson, Managing Director, Emplas] and I however, decided to fly out to Melbourne in January 2011, really for two reasons. The first to try and understand the market’s potential for ourselves and the other because the Ashes were on!”, he quips.

“It wasn’t entirely straightforward. Most of Melbourne shuts down in January, which is high summer over here, so it was difficult to get an understanding sense of the potential but we saw enough to see an opportunity.

“I remember flying back with Ryan. We were flying premium economy so we felt we had really arrived. I was excited but if I’m honest, scared about launching a new business on the other side of the world and I was looking for a bit of support from him.

“What I got from Ryan as he finished his scotch and pushed his seat back was ‘if you go bust you can just come home’ and he just went to sleep for the rest of the journey while I sat there awake for the whole flight!”

Craig cut his teeth in the window and door industry back home in the UK working as Sales and Marketing Manager and later National Sales Manager for Emplas. “There are things I don’t miss but there are others I do”, he says, “there’s an honesty about the people and trade sales, a sort of community.”

This also gave him exposure to T&K Home Improvements and a retail environment, modelling Ecostar on it and the front-end sales strategies of leading national retail businesses.

“The reality was there was no one targeting the replacement market. There was no model to follow, we had to create our own”, says Craig. “Ryan had done a great job at T&K and I took that as the back-end of the business – the control on costs, the focus on installation, quality & customer service – and the front end and direct approach used by national retailers.”

Having started with a single unit in Melbourne’s Thomastown, the company grew rapidly. “It was just me and a desk to begin with. Then we got an operations manager and signed up some chippies. Then we invested in a second unit”, Craig says.

The 10,504 mile customer drop

He highlights a number of distinct differences between the UK window and door market in ‘Oz’ and that at home in the UK. The first is the dominance of small new build and almost non-existent replacement sector.

The second is the way homes are built, which for the most part are timber-frame and brick or timber frame and weatherboard. “You get a lot of movement in houses in Australia which you don’t get in the UK and that can make installation very difficult because you aren’t fitting in to a solid structure”, he says.

Craig continues: “The window industry as far as it existed didn’t want to touch the replacement window market. It’s something that I’m quite proud of in that all we do is replacement work, we don’t do new build.”

Ecostar’s willingness to take on the harder-to-treat replacement market drove it’s continuing growth. This saw it move to a new distribution hub in Kilsyth in 2013, giving it the space to house 700 frames plus glass. It also expanded its’ fitting and installation capability, which grew to include six fitting teams and three surveyors.

This means that from a standing start in 2011 Ecostar now employs 82 people. “Getting the right people has been important. Employment laws in Australia are far more stringent than in the UK and wages are higher” Craig continues.

The Australian home improvement specialist will move to new premises in Melbourne’s Dandenong South district in July this year, doubling its warehousing and office space again to 1,500 frames. “It gives us more space but also better connection to the freeway system plus space to build”, says Craig.

“It’s our ambition to grow turnover to £30m in the next five years”, he adds.

This growth has been underpinned by Emplas. From its first forays into export and the learning curve that has accompanied it, Ecostar now takes receipt of 5, 40ft containers per month, each carrying up to 150 windows – now packed and shipped fully glazed!

“We also airfreight if we need to”, says Craig. “Shipping used to be 10-weeks on the water via Singapore and then one or two-weeks in quarantine. Australia has some very strict quarantine laws.

“I remember we had a shipment that was delayed because it had been dispatched as ‘Light Oak’ and they thought we were trying to import timber, which is almost impossible to bring in.

“We’re now much better at export and import. We ship direct from Southampton so we’re now only six weeks on the water and perhaps a week in quarantine. Our paperwork is right and we don’t tend to get anything stopped. It’s taken a lot of work, however, to get to that point. The paperwork alone is immense.”

Windows are manufactured by Emplas in Kommerling’s UV stabilised C70 system, with colours and woodgrains supplied in UV stabilised foils from Renolit. “You need the right system to withstand the extreme UV in the Southern hemisphere”, says Craig.

“Emplas has also supported us in the development of solar reflective IGUs and has adapted manufacturing processes to allow us to supply larger windows with bigger sashes and doors than in the UK.

“Probably for me where it’s added most value is in the support offer. We use and order through EVA in the same way as other Emplas customers do. We also use it’s point of sale literature and access it’s marketing support.”

He concludes: “The other critical factor is clearly the OTIF. When you’re this far away it has to be right and Ryan and the team at Emplas do a really good job of making that happen – although don’t tell Ryan I said that!”