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COMPANY

Long-established company Union has changed its image radically with a range of exciting new products and new services aimed at architects

Today's world is one in which 'brand' image counts for a great deal. On the high street, for example, shoppers now base their decision-making as much on brands as on the individual products available. But, as Marks & Spencer's recent history shows, if a brand loses favour it can be extremely difficult to regain customer loyalty.

Ultimately, though, the success M&S had in repositioning itself and its brand image has provided a template for other traditional British companies that may have been resting on their laurels and losing out in new markets. One such company is Union, a Midlands-based manufacturer with a history dating back 150 years and a reputation for supplying high-quality, durable locks to the building industry.

About 10 years ago, Union's name would have been first on the list for most architects when it came to specifying locks, but that changed with the arrival of cheaper competition from overseas and changes in the way doors and door furniture are procured.

Craig Sellers, Union's commercial director, admits the company took its eye off the ball.

'We as a manufacturer had become very much distanced from the client and the architect, ' he says. 'There could be as many as five or six intermediaries between us and the specifier - contractors, joinery people, locksmiths and architectural ironmongers. That meant we were allowing the trade to decide the direction we were going in and which products were being utilised.'

This exhaustive supply chain militated against the company promoting products other than locks to architects and clients, despite having a wide portfolio of door furniture, cylinders and controls. At the same time, cheap imported locks meant Union was also being squeezed out of its traditional markets on the basis of price. In addition, the company failed to pay sufficient attention to changing requirements in the marketplace.

This was the situation in August 2000 when Union was acquired by Assa Abloy, an international company boasting 10 per cent of the world's lock market and an annual turnover of Eu3 billion (£2.13 billion). With the financial backing and stability of this parent company, Union has been able to undertake a major restructuring that has allowed it to develop new products, services and routes to markets that were not previously possible. It also gives Union access to a product range that encompasses every aspect of door furniture and door controls through sister companies within the Assa Abloy group.

Crucial to the company's future is the creation of a Union brand identity, building on its traditional strengths but consistent over a wide range of products.

'The brand had gone from being strong to being tired and old, and only related to locks and cylinders, ' explains Sellers. 'Our objective two and a half years ago was to take the brand, breathe life into it and energise it in such a way that the products are a secondary issue. The products have always been good and have been trusted by specifiers, so we wanted that to extend beyond the individual products to the brand itself.'

The task, then, is to take the core values associated with Union - value for money, quality, product durability - and associate them in the minds of specifiers with a brand that delivers a far wider range of products and services. Key to achieving this is a new policy of 'crashing down' the supply chain and dealing directly with architects and end users to provide either individual products or, ideally, a complete package.

The construction industry's leading representative bodies have been calling for supply chains to be tightened up in order to improve efficiency throughout the building process.

'It's something the Construction Products Association has been calling for over many years, but I don't see many other companies leading the line, ' says Sellers. 'We looked at the product offer and found that we were in a position to supply everything you needed on a door - including the door.

'We can deliver to architects a complete package and service from cradle to grave. If you come to us and say you need 400 doors and everything associated with that, we'll deliver that package to site in a completely seamless manner, with a managed supply chain in-between. And you have the reassurance that comes with the Union brand.'

Sellers likens the process to buying a new car. Most people choose a car based on their perception of the brand, and go to that brand's supplier to get it. They don't decide on a car body they like and then buy the clutch, engine and gearbox from different manufacturers and expect them to fit together. 'Why take a door from here, a hinge from there and a door closer from over there?' asks Sellers. 'As the manufacturer we can take control of the whole process and ensure the products are tested to work in harmony with each other as an integrated package. Some people will still fit in with the supply chain, but our aim is to control our relationship with the architect or the client.

All these links in the chain don't add value, they just add cost. Cutting down the supply chain reduces cost, speeds up the process and eliminates waste.'

Sellers says that by relying on the traditional route to the market both the architect and client risk failure or even litigation. 'In such a complex supply chain there is the risk that one person or company will not have the necessary professional backing, training, knowledge of standards or financial standing. With us you get a company that has been here for 150 years and is part of a worldwide group whose core competency is the delivery of architectural solutions. When architects talk to us they are effectively underpinning their decision with a secure solution and not putting themselves - or their clients - at risk.'

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