Warewashing brand Classeq has committed to a long-term manufacturing future in the UK after opening a new state-of-the-art production facility in Stafford. FEJ headed north to find out how pubs, bars and restaurants are set to benefit from the investment made by the Winterhalter group company.
They say that turning 40 can trigger a mid-life crisis, but in Classeq’s case the landmark milestone has led to a new lease of life following the launch of a wholly-owned production facility in Stafford that is set to churn out 16,000 machines in its first year of operation.
Since starting production in the UK back in 1977, Classeq has grown its foothold in the volume warewashing equipment market, supplying undercounter dishwashers and glasswashers to pubs, restaurants, hotels and caterers that need an affordable machine that won’t let them down when the going gets tough.
Now under the parentage of Winterhalter, which acquired the company in 2004, Classeq remains a British catering equipment success story. Accounts for the year to 31 December 2016 show that it made a £2m net profit on sales of £15.3m while the year before it bagged a £1.1m profit on revenues of £14.7m.
“The Classeq customer base has never changed. They are after a machine that is simple to use and that they can literally hammer”
With the new factory affording it the sort of future growth capacity that its previous facility two miles down the road couldn’t, it surely won’t be long before the company reaches the £20m turnover mark, especially with the export side of its business continuing to display solid growth.
The man in charge of this impressive operation is managing director and company stalwart Gary Jones (below), who was grateful for the opportunity to be given a blank canvas when Winterhalter chief Ralph Winterhalter decided the best way forward was to buy a piece of land and build a factory from scratch.
“To be honest we are at that stage in life where it was the right time to have our own base rather than renting a building or being part of some other existing building,” says Jones.
The new facility, which employs 40 of Classeq’s 50 UK staff, will allow the company to ramp up its production capacity by as much as 60% versus what it could do at the former site. “We are doing 15,000 to 16,000 machines per year, but we can probably go up to 20,000 to 21,000 machines in this building,” reveals Jones. “We have also bought an additional piece of land where we can extend by another thousand square metres, and that is going to take us into the 30,000-plus figure.”
Importantly for Jones, the move has allowed Classeq to become “slicker” in the way it assembles equipment. It can now essentially build a machine in one hour, which is particularly key for a UK business that is heavily focused on next-day delivery.
“Even today, pubs, clubs and hotels will wait until the equipment is desperate to be replaced and then they want the machine the following day, so we base our manufacturing process on that,” says Jones. “If it’s not in stock, all it takes is a call directly to the production line and the next machine that goes up will be for that customer and despatched the same day.”
Having a flexible, multi-skilled workforce is central to the new set-up and the introduction of mobile work stations is designed to ensure that the components being used are closest to the area where they are going to end up on a machine.
“If it’s not in stock, all it takes is a call directly to the production line and the next machine that goes up will be for that customer and despatched the same day”
Significant investment has also gone into new testing equipment. “Our machines have been electro-mechanical for several years, but we have just gone into electronics and that has allowed us to make some investment in automatic testing equipment,” Jones explains.
“The testing equipment can control the machine and take it through its functions, and it records everything digitally. Obviously assembly is always going to be a manual process, but the actual testing of the machines and the recording of data is all automated now.”
So what’s the message to end-users following all this — can they expect more reliable machines now? “We have always had very reliable machines; that is what we are known for in the market. Where they would see an improvement is in the availability. Now that we have changed the production process, it doesn’t matter whether you are after a spare part or whether you are after a brand new machine — 98% of what we sell now you could have next day.”
Although the UK market is naturally the bread and butter of Classeq’s business, it has successfully made inroads into the international market over recent years. 30% of the units it builds in Stafford are for export, with Australia — where buying patterns and electrical systems are similar to the UK — currently the largest purchaser.
Even Germany is a growing market, with the brand quashing initial fears that its presence in Winterhalter’s homeland might cannibalise its parent company’s business, while South Africa, Poland and Turkey have also proved fruitful. Countries such as the Czech Republic fall into the next tier of customers placing consistent if not significant numbers, while longer term Classeq is thinking of targeting markets such as Brazil and Mexico.
For Jones, the main thing for Classeq is keeping sight of what has driven its successes in the first place, namely the production of machines that are robust, affordable and uncomplicated. When he first took the job, he recalls dealers urging him not to over-engineer the product and he has stayed true to that philosophy. “They said that they cannot sell add-ons that nobody wants, so don’t do it, just concentrate on what the customer actually needs and get it to them at the most competitive price.”
That said, Jones is keen to point out that being competitive on price does not mean the company compromises on quality. Its machines are typically built to last for five to seven years and it places intense scrutiny on its components supply chain.
“Take the wash pump, it is such a major part of the machine and I could buy that for probably 30% or 40% less than what I am doing today, but I can’t guarantee the reliability of it so I don’t. Going for the cheapest component is not the way forward. I have been in previous companies where that has been forced upon me and I have seen what path it leads to. What you want is the most cost-effective solution for the long term.
“If we only wanted to sell machines that were good for one or two years’ use, we would have a completely different name to what we have today. The Classeq customer base has never changed. They are after a machine that is simple to use and, if I am truthful, they are after a machine they can literally hammer, so it has got to be able to stand up to that.”
As Classeq settles into its new home, it seems life really does begin at 40.
Factory door key makes epic 1,400km journey to HQ
To celebrate the opening of Classeq’s new UK factory, managing director Gary Jones cycled all the way from Stafford to Meckenbeuren on Lake Constance in Germany to deliver the factory’s door key to its HQ. After an epic 1,400 kilometres that took 11 days, he presented the key to Jürgen and Ralph Winterhalter, amidst enthusiastic cheers from the company’s employees who all turned out to welcome him.
Factory location: Stafford
Factory output: 15,000 units a year
Factory size: 3,000sqm
Turnover: £15.3m (2016)
UK/Overseas sales: 70/30