What IS the SupaWOOD System?
It was designed from the outset to be a complete departure from traditional joinery in all but appearance. The aim was to design a system in wood that had all the benefits of aluminium double-glazed windows, and more. (In 1979, PVC wasn't even on the horizon).
The aim was to de-skill the manufacture and fabrication of wood windows, improve the finish by transferring it from site to the workshop, and to speed and de-skill the installation.
Returning to England in 1978 after starting and running a new home-improvement business abroad, I started building loft conversions as a sub-contractor. Aluminium windows were popular at the time, and I soon learned that I could easily install a big one - working mostly from inside the new room - in about two and a half hours. Sadly, the next morning (it was winter) there was usually a BIG puddle of water on the floor, and the customer was shrieking at ME, as if were MY fault. (It wasn't but I was the only one there to be shouted at.)
By contrast, if the client had ordered wood windows, there was no significant condensation, but I would find myself out on a steeply sloping tiled roof - in the snow, with dusk falling at 4pm - tapping in panel pins to secure the beads securing truly awful stepped-double-glazed units. If the hammer slipped in my frozen hands and I cracked the glass (as it did, more than once) I would have to return a few days later to repeat the job before getting paid. I soon worked out that there had to be a better way of making wood windows.
I started with a clean sheet of paper and the SupaWOOD System was born...
The Drained & Vented Double-Glazing soon followed, as I learned about the REAL issues. Much of the Competition, more than thirty years on, still hasn't got the message.
By 1980 the SuperWood Window (as it was called to start with) was in commercial production with a proper patent dry-glazing system (version 1) and a small change of name to SupaWOOD. It grew fast as a local business in the English Midlands.
Trade skills have been declining for decades. In a technological age, hand/eye skills have not been fully appreciated, and the failure to allow schools to teach vocational skills have meant that the traditional apprenticeship in the UK all but died in the latter half of the 20th Century. The cost of running a traditional joinery shop just rose, and rose again as the prevalence of good tradesmen steadily declined. I decided that the way forward was to design a framing system that treated wood as just another engineering material. Fully finished components should be assembled by fitters in much same way that a motor car production line works.
No glue, no careful trimming and fitting. Just screw and snap together accurately made and finished parts. The manufacturing process is designed by Production Engineers rather than joiners. Once the tooling and machinery is set up, repetitive production is simple in comparison with the traditional model made by skilled tradesmen.
The pre-finished, pre-glazed cassette system, correctly drained and vented in the workshop, de-skills the installation process, and sets wood windows on a par with pvc. Fitters of the SupaWOOD window need no woodworking skills, just as fitters of pvc windows need no plastic working skills, and the glazing is already done. Year-round quality where wet English winters are of little concern to the installer.
The whole range started with one small window and ended up as a complete range of interconnecting frames to form bows, bays, and conservatories, with inward and outward opening residential doors, french doors and sidelights, inline sliders, rising sashes, in almost any combination you care to use.
They all share two characteristics: The 20mm sealed units are dry channel glazed into ex 2” (ex 50mm) profile to preserve a traditional appearance suited to the vernacular architecture of the British Isles, and use no glue.
For more than twelve years, the inline sliding patio doors were supplied to more than sixty of the one-hundred and sixty Fairmitre outlets in flat-pack form – two doors, three doors, four doors, overdoor lights, almost any combination in standard sizes and made-to-measure. I am particularly proud of the low (all but zero) call-back rate. Those few call-backs out of thousands of units were mostly due to failures in the assembly or adjustment process, although until a proper piece-rate bonus system was set up in the factory, I confess we did manage to send out incomplete kits from time to time. A system of rewards and penalties for the workforce soon stopped that.
Incidentally, working from sawn boards, the initial production rate for each worker was set at just two standard made-to-measure patio-door kits per week. By the time the bonus scheme was settled properly (that's a story in itself) the best workers were producing TEN per week each - earning very tidy bonuses in the process - while the worst plodded along with just the two, despite all efforts to drag them along to do better. (The actual manufacturing process was less than twenty minutes per patio door. The time went into handling timber, straightening, sizing, thicknessing, and moving components from station to station. It was still 'joinery shop' rather than 'production line'.The low and variable volumes in that one product line never justified a great investment).
Sliding patio doors fell out of favour during the early 1990s, to be replaced by a love affair with french doors which continues to this day. This new line proved to be a can of worms in itself, with a whole new set of problems.
Nurcombe & Co was founded in Mallorca in 1974, where my future wife and I had ended up virtually penniless having travelled overland from South Africa to Kenya, thence to Europe via India, Nepal, Pakistan, Afghanistan etc etc. ending up in Palma de Mallorca. Starting a handyman business at that time was simple, despite the European economies collapsing round our ears, (so what's new?) and we prospered and lived well. I sold the house I'd had built in South Africa, and bought a derelict cottage to renovate a few miles outside Palma. Some years later, after the death of General Franco, the atmosphere had changed, and as we had a child to be educated, we rented out our nice village home in Son Sardina, and in 1978 started again in Solihull with hardly a pot to piss in (again).
Despite another recession (Labour's Winter of Discontent, 1979) the home-improvement business was good and we prospered. The SupaWOOD Window was born and grew fast. We moved into bigger premises, bought plant and machinery, employed more staff and life was good.
In 1985 Tory Chancellor Geoffrey Howe put 15% VAT on Home Improvements, and business fell off a cliff. In the first few days of April I took many thousands of pounds of pre-payments IN FULL, then, towards the end of August I completed the last job without having taken a single order since April. I sacked the staff and remember sitting gloomily in the empty workshop wondering how I was going to pay the rent next Quarter Day in September, when the phone rang.
"We've seen your work at the farm shop on the Alcester Rd, and want two doors made".
"Yes, of course, Madam. Whereabouts are you?"
Thinks! 'Hell, that's 40 miles. I'd have to be desperate.....
....I AM desperate.'
"Thank you. I'll come right away."
It wasn't just two doors they wanted. The family OWNED Duran Duran, and had sold a string of Birmingham bookies and nightclubs to become gentlemen farmers with a farmhouse to renovate.
So here was a timely change of direction that saw me move into high-class oak joinery. I spent almost a year tearing out the new characterless plywood joinery in this refurbished farmhouse, and replacing it with authentic 18thC hand-carved oak joinery, complete with real hand-forged ironwork made by a true craft blacksmith in Birmingham. In the meantime, Fairmitre appeared, and we were off again as the Tory medicine took effect, but now with THREE strings to our bow.
The business expanded steadily, and with a name change to Aston House, lasted until the next deep recession of the 1990's following the first Gulf War: (The 'Green Shoots' that took so long to appear).
By 1996 our daughter had grown up and left home to work abroad, so we sold the farmhouse, now far too big for us, and joined a chain to buy a nice little terrace in town, near the shops. It was also near the two-thousand square-foot factory we'd bought in Willow Lane in preparation for our looming older years.
The empty unit next door stood empty for three or four years, but we couldn't raise the money to buy it, and by the time my partner Peter Wolff came on the scene it had been sold, compelling us to move yet again when more space was needed.
The chain broke, so we put the cash in the bank and moved into our static caravan at the gliding club, and spent a leisurely summer waiting for the right house to turn up. Talk about timing: At Kites Hardwick, just 200 yards from the River Leam, our first winter in 1986 had seen the water-table rise to one inch below the surface of the garden. Our soak-away toilets stopped working and the field over the road had turned into the old village pond. Miraculously, that was the last wet-season we saw until we moved out ten years later. In 1995 we dug foundations six feet deep for an extension, and there was not a drop of water to be seen during that winter.
A year later, the view from the caravan at Hus Bos was across a beautiful field of ripening wheat. Well, it was beautiful until the weather changed. (I mean changed, as it does, from time to time). That June it started raining and just didn't stop for months. We saw that field of wheat just curl up, fall over, and die. Little were we to know that the rain was to change our lives, motivating the man who was to change the direction of the business.
Determined to have a crack at getting the SupaWOOD Window System up and running properly tooled and marketed, I advertised for an investor, and thereby found Peter Wolff.
In 30 years Peter had built his own business - SR Gent - from an annual turnover of £230 thousand to £160 million employing 26000 women in Sri Lanka, and he only had one customer - Marks and Sparks. Peter told me that, with their retail business struggling after the deep recession of the early 1990s, the M&S Chairman had rung him and said "Don't just sell the shares. Sell the business". Wisely heeding the advice Peter stuck a fat wad of money in his pocket and looked for other small businesses to invest in. That wet summer of 1996 gave him a great deal of grief with leaks in the attic windows of his palatial home in London, so when he read of industry specialist Jay Webb describing the SupaWOOD Window as "the best window in the world", he phoned me, and before long we were equal partners in a business with a proper capital base (at last). "Don't mess around" I was told. "Get on with it".
Peter wanted proof that we really had something, so, with only my small existing production facility as part of my bespoke joinery shop, we exhibited at GlassEX that year (1996?) with just a simple version of the system. Following the Fairmitre example I had seen around twelve years before, we set up an active assembly demonstration. As we hoped, we drew huge crowds and landed 500 serious trade enquiries. I recall seeing Peter peering over the backs of a large gathering, with a big smile on his face.
Alas! I failed to make it work. Trying to expand the business so fast without proper management at a time that was packed with new demands and technical problems to overcome became a nightmare.
Innovation in two key areas sank us: Water-borne finishes where painted frames stuck to each other even a week after painting, and chaotic production software as it switched from MS-DOS to MS Windows caused havoc, absorbing all the money, leaving us with insufficient to properly fund the production facility, let alone the marketing.
Instead of sticking with flat-pack kits - learning the lesson of the Fairmitre patio doors - we set up to make glazed and painted versions of the entire VAST range. Ridiculous, in hindsight, without a much larger capital base. Just to really spoil the party we got the timing wrong. By the time the factory was ready, it was November, and our trade base was telling us to come back in the spring.
Peter didn't fully understand the nature of our business, so different to the rag trade:
"M&S agree next year's range and spend the current year making it: The building trade spends four years planning the building, then wants the windows in four weeks. God help us!"
But he was a very nice man, and stuck with us way beyond the call of duty. I was very sorry to disappoint him.
All was not lost. We were being wooed by a major player who saw us at a trade show. GPE supplied around a million doors a year to the UK - most of them to Wickes - and saw an opportunity to add an innovative wood window to their range. To cut a long story short, they bought Peter's holding and I found myself in bed with a major player, 57% of which was owned by the Malaysian government. Hmm..... Will this work? I asked myself.
Just to make it interesting, three months into our Wickes project, Wickes was taken over by Focus and taken private. There was a big shake-up of directors and staff at the top, so we started again with a new lot.
Big stores carry a vast range, and are paranoid about their SKU numbers. That is, the sheer number of items they list. So straight away they missed the point of the SupaWOOD System which gives it its versatility and ease of use. Instead of selling a range of self-assembly mix-and-match items that the customer could take home in the car or on the roof-rack, they boxed complete assemblies that needed a fork-lift truck to move and deliver, and that the customer then had to take to pieces to install. Exactly the opposite of the original plan.
Ho hum! (Again).
To cap it all, we had to share the in-store window stand with a uPVC competitor, in six stores around London on a trial basis. Each half of the stand had space for leaflets, uPVC on the left, wood on the right. For reasons that have never been explained, no one I know (apart from the guy who organised it) ever saw leaflets for the wood windows: Every stand was packed with leaflets for uPVC. Even my staff, disbelieving at first, eventually agreed that someone was sabbotaging the whole thing. We will never know the truth. Although Wickes did sell enough SupaWOOD windows to keep the factory buzzing - and got good feedback from, amongst others, Terry the Window Man, who wrote a glowing trade report about us (See our Testimonial page) - Wickes pulled the project after six months and binned it. (They then spent four years trying to copy it, but we'll see that later.)
While this was going on, Wickes asked me to develop a SupaWOOD conservatory for them. They were selling a range made in the far east and I was told that Greenpeace was breathing down their necks. It seemed a good time to start afresh and update the range.
For reasons that were never clear to me (and was only resolved when Travis Perkins bought the Company four years later - at a silly price, but that's another story) Wickes had an in-house designer. Most retailers just buy-in stuff, which gives them great flexibility and an almost infinite source of new items. Their designer turned up at Rugby and produced a rough sketch of what was required. I saw a couple of improvements we could make, and to secure the future for us all, filed two patents. Instead of being pleased, the designer was clearly unhappy. That told me that he didn't have Wickes future at heart, but was probably thinking about using the designs elsewhere, later. This turned out to be true, and he spent a small fortune of someone else's money trying to circumvent the patented features, trousering a great deal of salary before new owners Travis Perkins started questioning his existence.
Of course, much of this story developed after I had parted company with GPE. The final straw - for me - came when Wickes designer told us that they planned to launch the Wickes Conservatory "in two and a half years" and that GPE would be "invited to tender". Our Commercial Director's face was a picture. I wondered if he had realised then that the company had been stuffed, or was it part of a Grand Plan. It was a few more years before the truth emerged, following the sale of Wickes to Travis Perkins at a breath-taking £940m.
I knew immediately that I needed another plan, and that neither GPE nor Wickes would be part of it, and it wasn't long afterwards that we parted company. But not before another comedy was acted out.......
By a convoluted and blatantly transparent route, I received a call from a gentleman (lets call him 'Fred') who said he wanted to buy timber conservatories to sell on. Would I oblige?
GPE declined to make them for him (they claimed the margins were too thin, but I wasn't aware any discussion on pricing had taken place) and he then offered to buy the business from GPE. After a number of meetings, I was summoned to the boardroom to watch a farce acted out.
"I'll give you a million pounds" says Fred.
"That's not enough" says Jal.
"Make it two million, then." says Fred (Jus' like that, as Tommy Cooper used to say).
Thinks.. Does he know he's buying just their half of the IP? Does that make my half worth £2m too? Will I ever see it? I ask myself. (Answers: No! No! and No! It was all a charade that left egg on faces and GPE diluted - eventually - to just a 10% holding before they were removed entirely.)
Was that the end of it then? Strangely, No! It wasn't.
Over the next couple of years, while I was building other businesses with new partners, we would bump into Wickes/GPE at trade shows as they sniffed round our stands. "Have you launched this new conservatory, yet?" we'd ask. "Not yet, but we've spent £3m on it so far."
In 2005 Travis Perkins bought Wickes from Focus for that eye-watering mega-money. The shareholders didn't like it, (the Company had over-paid) and their share price plummeted. (Ask my neighbour. He was a TP shareholder and he still spits blood when I mention it).
A few months later, I received an unexpected phone call from Jal at GPE. "Can you help us out? Our conservatory has failed in the test-house. We'll pay you, of course". I didn't tell him I'd have come and looked at it for nothing, just to find out what was going on.
As expected, the two sample GPE conservatories were virtually identical copies of mine (made by a competitor who was also being stuffed, 'cos he wasn't going to get the contract, either). But the Wickes designer had made a couple of fundamental errors which ensured failure. The simple solution was to bin his design and simply tweak my version to suit the client. And that's what we did.
But there was a mystery to solve before we could move on. We knew that the old team, now working for the competition, was bidding for the Wickes business, but where were they going to make them? A few phone calls soon established that there was but one manufacturer capable of the volumes involved: Both competing businesses were planning to have the conservatories made in Malaysia by GPE's parent company. With the team having jumped ship, my past employer-cum-new-partner needed to put a new team together to save their bacon. And I was it. (The Team, that is. Not the bacon).
We met the Wickes Range Controller (a young woman) at Harrow some time in 2005. The attitude changed as soon as she saw that there had been a previous Wickes connection. She sat up abruptly and adopted an accusatory tone of voice: "You've been selling OUR conservatory?"
"Well, it isn't actually your conservatory.....but it could be if you want it".
We agreed to meet at an installation near Rugby, so that it could be inspected first-hand. Everyone that mattered was there. I was watching Jal when the Category Controller said "If this goes ahead....".
Jal nearly burst. "WHAT DO YOU MEAN 'IF...'? It's been through the Range Review."
"Ah!" came the reply". The MD has put everything on Review again".
Of course he had. Wickes had more than 100 sites, but Travis P had more than 400. A conservatory on each....?
And the Internet had arrived.
So that was the end of it. There was a brief consideration of setting up Regional displays, but eventually word came down that SupaWOOD conservatories were 'out'.
So endeth the Wickes connection.
Now, all of this took place some years after I left GPE. I hadn't been idle in the mean-time. I left GPE with a one-day per week consultancy for a year, and spent the other four or five days rebuilding my connections. The softwood door-frames for the Wickes Newlands range were being made by Lennie J in Rugby, whom I had plugged into the program when GPE asked me if I knew someone who could do it.
I rented some office space in his workshop and kept my ear to the ground. It wasn't long before something turned up. David C - a past colleague at GPE - put me in touch with a developer in Cornwall with a BIG project in progress. Lennie and I shot down there and picked up a modest contract for starters, with the promise of another £1.5m if it went well. It did, so Lennie expanded the manufacturing into a new unit and invested in plant and machinery. We were up and running. He manufactured the SupaWOOD System under licence, and we shared the marketing. I developed new lines, and business boomed in 2003 and 2004.
It was not without problems. American White oak turned out to be a poor choice, and we had plenty of issues to deal with. That said, I am still in touch with two house-owners with external joinery using that oak, and they both tell me they love it. One of them has just ordered some more. (The pictures are on the website).
Just to show you can't please everyone, another owner of one of those show-sites tore them out and replaced them with uPVC.
It's a strange old world.
In 2005 Lennie was faced with some insuperable problems of his own and lost control of his business. To keep it all alive, I found new investors and took control again. Not really my cup of tea, running factories and staff. I regret not having found a proper MD, but there we go.
In 2006 the markets wobbled. China was booming, and buying timber Futures two years ahead. The Finnish softwood market was chaotic - Timber Trades Journal described it as the "Wild West...". We lost £20k two months in a row buying timber for the Wickes door frames. The building business had reached bursting point. I then lost nine key staff members in six weeks, lured by building sites offering the prospect of £1000 per week for good chippies. (Within months, most of them were back on the dole.)
I no longer understood what was going on, didn't like what I was seeing, and, just about ready to retire anyway, decided to pull the plug. I thought I had failed, but, for once, I had got it right. Not Spot-On, but it could have been so much worse. At least I still had my shirt, and the CRASH was still to come, not long after.
We have new arrows in our quiver, and the internet means that markets World-Wide are again ready for SupaWOOD windows doors and conservatories in Flat-Pack for self-assembly. No trade skills required.
The photos on the right ....French Doors in France... show the expanded market potential.
the greenest option
Inside installation is easy, even on the fourth-floor in the snow.
A complete range, starting as prefinished flat-pack
High-class oak joinery got us
through the VAT drought in the 1980s
Flat-pack patio doors for Fairmitre
added another string to our bow.
Scores of installations Nationwide,
all from factory-finished kits.
The Wickes in-store offering:
"Every so often in life something comes along out of the blue that totally turns your beliefs upside down and puts your head in a spin......they are superb..."
Terry the Window Man, Basildon 2001
One of the many prefinished flat-pack conservatories
that Wickes let slip from their grasp.
"The most innovative British Timber window seen in years"
Wickes brochure, 2001
Glass and Glazing Products magazine
"Integral Window Systems of Rugby would have taken the show's innovative Award had one been offered. You would think timber windows had been developed as far as possible - until you saw Keith Nurcombe's new wood window. It is integrally vented and drained and dry gasket glazed with slim pleasing lines; its sealed units need no packers because they are locked onto milled shoulders while the sash clicks into its outer frame to make the installation or changing a sealed unit a matter of seconds. It's the kind of imaginative engineering which once made the UK a world- beater and is a product to watch. With its microporous finish it makes a real competitor for PVC. Congratulations, Keith."
Terminus, writing about GLASSEX at the NEC
Window In a Box developed after the Wickes connection
A second bite of the cherry in 2005 came too late!
Wickes changed hands yet again.
French doors shipped to France in flat-pack.
Assembled with just a spanner and screw-driver, glazed with local glass and installed by the householder.
A second bite of the cherry with Wickes
Sash windows as well as casements