Having become managing director of Apex Stainless almost 18 months ago, Willy Einungbrekke is now firmly embedded within the UK fastener market. Editor Will Lowry visited the company’s head office in Rugby to find out what steps have been taken to further integrate the business into the Bufab Group, as well as crucially what has been kept as indelibly Apex Stainless.
Willy’s career in the fastener industry started in 1989 before joining the Bufab family in 1996. “Bufab entered the Norwegian market and as part of the Group’s expansion it acquired the company I was working for as a sales manager,” points out Willy. “As part of the acquisition the previous managing director left, and I was nominated managing director at the beginning of 1997.”
Willy immediately set about making his mark, with the Norwegian company delivering an excellent performance from 2001 and onwards. From 2012 to 2015 he further extended his general management responsibilities, adding the role of regional manager for Bufab North. In November 2015 Bufab acquired Apex Stainless, with Willy joining the board from that time onward.
“Bufab’s strategy has always been to develop step-by-step to become a stronger company – through both acquisitions and growth of the business,” explains Willy. “The acquisition of Apex Stainless was a special one because the company is focused on the distribution industry, whereas Bufab’s concept is mainly end users. However, we realised that to grow in the UK market you needed to have a portion of distribution control. Once we saw how Apex Stainless was performing; how it had been built; and the people involved with the company; we knew it would be a perfect fit.”
Adding Apex Stainless to the group also enabled Bufab to expand its knowledge within the stainless steel sector. “Within the Bufab family there is already the experience of the stainless steel market via the BUMAX® brand, which is known for high-quality customised stainless steel fasteners,” mentions Willy. “We have been able to add to that knowledge and help them with projects regarding standard stainless steel parts and also where to source them.”
After the acquisition, there was a lot of discussion on how to incorporate Apex Stainless into the Bufab Group, whilst keeping the essence of what made the business special. “Bufab is very flexible as a company and only looks to introduce changes that will offer real benefits. We are always very careful not to push the Bufab style onto a company,” mentions Willy. “With Apex Stainless being involved in distribution – where close contact with customers and tight service are essential – we are very aware any integration has to be done slowly and at the right time for the business.”
An example of Bufab not rushing into making significant changes at Apex Stainless is the decision to continue with the same ERP system that has traditionally been used – rather than moving to Bufab’s system.
“We reviewed the existing ERP system and decided we would continue with it for the next three years,” explains Willy. “In our market a quick response to customers’ needs is vital and the current system we are using is working perfectly well. Changing systems is not always an easy process and the last thing we want to do is disrupt the service to the customer.”
Investment in the future
Apex Stainless has five sites across the UK in Rugby, Bilston, Leeds, Teddington, and Leicester, with the latter also housing the manufacturing operation for the Aerotight® nut (pictured left). “Last year we invested in a new machine to boost the manufacturing capacity of the Aerotight nut and we have recently added a second machine to help us further increase our production capabilities,” highlights Willy. “The Aerotight is an all metal self-locking nut that has built a reputation over many years for quality and reliability. It has a well proven design that has been established in all types of industry – where there is vibration and loosening of nuts. This investment will help us to increase the efficiency of production and guarantee we are providing customers with a quick supply of a high-quality product.”
Another area where significant investment is being made is in Apex Stainless’ employees. “The people have been at the core of what has made the company successful and that is why we are investing both time and money to enable them to further develop in the future,” states Willy. “As part of this process we have introduced a new management team and decision making structure. This will bring more employees into the day-to-day running of the business and ensure our people continue to develop their skills and knowledge within the industry.”
Willy continues: “The people we have and the service we are able to provide customers is really impressive. I don’t think there is anything like it in the market. Our aim is to have 98% of the orders delivered the following day – all over the UK and Ireland. It is a high service, but thanks to our employees we are able to meet these demands.”
Willy believes the combination of experienced staff, a first class service, and an in-depth stock of inventory, makes it easier for customers to decide where to buy their fasteners. “We are truly a ‘one stop shop’ for customers for stainless steel fasteners. They know we keep a large stock and they can get it quickly. If you can only give them half the products, they are going to go elsewhere. At Apex we can answer the full demand straight away. There are 20,000 different items in our warehouses from 1mm up to M64.”
In addition to stock, Apex Stainless also provides customers with a first class support service. “We are always looking at how we can help customers, we want to solve their problems,” explains Willy. “The market demands a high service level and you need to make sure you are always developing your service to meet their needs. Over recent years customers’ ordering patterns have definitely changed to a point where we are now their stock warehouse. They are buying what they need on a weekly or even daily basis – rather than ordering pallets of products.”
Apex’s strategy seems to be paying dividends, with the company experiencing strong growth – close to double-digits – so far in 2019. “The beginning of the year was very good for us, but we believe that was boosted by customers building up their stock in preparation for BREXIT – which has obviously been delayed,” mentions Willy. “There is no doubt the uncertainty around BREXIT has been a concern and we can see a small sign that demand is a little slower, not dramatically, but a little bit. BREXIT will continue to make things complicated, but it is difficult to say what will happen in the end. I am Norwegian and we are not in the EU, but we are playing within the same rules as the EU. Other countries outside of the EU also have their deals, so it can be done. I think the most important thing is that a decision is made either way, because the uncertainty is not helping anyone plan for the future.”
Export currently accounts for 15% of Apex Stainless’ business and is something the company may look to increase in the future. “The competition in stainless steel is very tough on the continent, especially standard parts,” points out Willy. “That is why we will continue to look to specialise where possible on niche products, as well as materials such as duplex and super duplex. Another opportunity to increase business is the total demand of the Bufab Group. This is an area we have started to grow, but we have not rushed into it. However, we know we can grow our market share if that is the route we want to go.”
Willy concludes: “Since the acquisition we have kept the core of Apex Stainless, whilst adding Bufab touches where it is beneficial. It is in our DNA to be a specialist in stainless steel and we will continue to provide products and a service that meets our customers’ needs.”
Will joined Fastener + Fixing Magazine in 2007 and over the last 12 years has experienced every facet of the fastener sector - interviewing key figures within the industry and visiting leading companies and exhibitions around the globe.
Will manages the content strategy across all platforms and is the guardian for the high editorial standards that the Magazine is renowned.