Aluminium & Plastics Systems (APS) is celebrating 20 years in business and during those two decades we’ve survived a global recession and are now meeting the uncertainties of Brexit head on.
CEO Gary McNeill is one of the founding directors and we sat down with Gary to go over some of the highlights and biggest challenges.
Clearly, the focus for the last 12 months has been adapting to the unprecedented change in customer needs. What that’s meant is providing a product range unlike anything we’ve offered in the past.
“Since the pandemic hit, we’ve sold a lot more home improvement products like aluminium lift and slide doors, decking, PVC showers and flooring; many of which we haven’t sold before,” he said.
Listening to our customers
It’s this kind of adaptability in the market that has allowed APS to navigate its way through a challenging couple of decades in the construction industry.
“The key has been keeping up with the latest trends in the industry,” McNeill said.
“New products or new colours become popular at any given time and it’s a matter of recognising those, keeping on top of them and working closely with (or sometimes finding new) suppliers to make sure we have what our customers want.”
Not only is the business pivoting as a result of the pandemic, but Brexit has also brought about further need for change. We’re viewing the changing political landscape as an opportunity to grow.
“We’re currently recruiting senior logistics staff to help us break further into the UK market with our aluminium systems range. With Brexit now too, we need to be more switched on with what we’re doing.
“We have products that are developed for the Irish market and we’ll need to adapt to the different trends in the UK market. That might mean making some tweaks to our existing offering, which is likely to be the focus over the next few years.
“With the planned new staff, we’re trying to improve our efficiency and delivery. That will allow us to focus on UK sales, which is when we’ll kick into gear with further product research and development.”
It’s the process of research and development and the desire to constantly move with the times that has allowed us to stay afloat during such turbulent times.
“From day one we’ve stocked a fairly basic range of products and, while a lot of our suppliers do their own research and development of their products, we’ve also done our own and it’s that development as a business that has allowed us to do bigger and bigger projects over the years.”
McNeill admits that few of the founding staff could have predicted just how many economic, political and health challenges they would have to endure along the way. However, as events transpired in 2001, they felt the time was right to start something new.
“Fifteen of us worked for Reynolds Metal Company* which was taken over by global aluminium giant Alcoa – currently the world’s eighth largest producer of aluminium. During that merger we all thought there were too many aluminium companies in Ireland, and some would surely have to close. So jumped ship before we were pushed.”
“We’d all been working together for 10 years at that time and we had a good customer base. We were a very small company compared to Alcoa and we didn’t think that they would want our existing business or even value it because we were tiny in comparison.
“We felt we had a good business, and it was a good fit for Northern Ireland but that it wasn’t a good fit for a multi-national.”
Our first 12 months in business was to prove a telling sign of things to come.
“When we opened APS, Alcoa tried to compete against us for 12 months, which meant trading against some of our old colleagues who used to work with us. They then decided to close the business down after a year and we then got all of their customers.
“Within 12 months, we were doing the same turnover as when we were part of Reynolds and within three years, we were doing substantially more than we ever did in the 10 years previously.
“Then, along came the recession in 2007-08 and being in the building industry obviously hit us hard for two or three years.
“In that time, like everyone in the construction industry, we struggled. Slowly, we have emerged out of that and we’re now at sales levels well above those pre-recession. The business is running as well as it has ever done – that is before COVID came along of course.”
We’d grown to 45 staff leading into the Global Financial Crisis and it would eventually take a serious toll on the business.
“After it hit, we shrank back down to about 30 staff. We were basically in survival mode for two or three years just to find a way to get through.
“We were carrying a lot of stock and we had a lot of business across Ireland that was badly affected by it. We had a lot of bad debt at that stage, so it was a matter of building back up from there.”
The many lessons learned throughout our journey has the business in a stable position and the view through the window into future is bright.
“While COVID has certainly hampered our progress, our outlook is pretty positive. Not being able to go and visit some new customers has made things difficult but hopefully after June that changes and COVID will largely be behind us.”
* Reynolds Metals Company, which was the second-largest aluminium company in the United States, and the third-largest in the world. Reynolds Metals was acquired by Alcoa in June 2000.