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Manufacturing with purpose: In Conversation with Crystal Doors

Richard Hagan, director of Rochdale manufacturer Crystal Doors, tells us about his radical plans to become carbon neutral by 2022 and what it’s like becoming a critical supplier to the NHS.

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Established 25 years ago, Crystal Doors started out providing vinyl-wrapped door units for kitchens, bedrooms and bathrooms. Today, the company has diversified into a range of vinyl-wrapped products for other markets, and managing director Richard Hagan has become recognised as one of the greenest entrepreneurs in the country.

Richard (pictured) is working closely with Rebecca Chedd, environmental business advisor at GC Business Growth Hub, to champion sustainability; not only in his own business but across the whole manufacturing industry.

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You describe yourself as “always investing”. How important is this for a modern manufacturer?

Every year tech gets better and better, so as far as I’m concerned, any company that’s sitting on a 30-year-old machine and thinking that’s acceptable is going to be in trouble. New technology brings out new efficiencies, new abilities and a better understanding of how you’re manufacturing.

Several years ago, I was lucky enough to go on a tour of Siemens’ manufacturing facility in Congleton. During the talk they explained how they were planning to redesign their factory to get 20 per cent more efficient year-on-year. I thought if the big boys are hitting it that hard, I can understand why I as an SME was falling behind so quickly. In the kitchen, bedroom and bathroom market that was exactly what was happening. The question is, how do you compete with them? You either reach their volumes, which as an SME you’ll never do, or you specialise in doing something different. That’s what we’ve done – we’re a niche manufacturer with niche machinery that allows us to do things others can’t.

The long-term vision for all of us should be a smart factory ready for Industry 4.0, and until we’ve got those factories and achieved those efficiencies, we can’t sit back and take things for granted. Even once we’re at that stage, things will have moved on even further, so we always need to be looking to innovate and invest. My guys have got used to something new coming in every year, so there’s a constant buzz in the factory.

You’ve set some truly radical sustainability commitments, including a goal to become carbon neutral by 2022. What inspired you to be so ambitious?

Our journey began a few years ago when we needed to upgrade our old biomass burner. We applied for planning permission for a much bigger 980kW burner but it was initially rejected because of air quality concerns. That’s when we picked up the phone to the Business Growth Hub and started looking at how we could ensure environmental compliance.

Our advisor at the Hub gave us a 26-point environment plan, and at that stage I really started to realise how much of an impact Crystal Doors has on the environment. We had our carbon footprint calculated, which allowed us to set our stake in the ground and see where we were, and then we started making improvements.

How have things progressed so far?

In the first year we started on the easy wins. A year later, it got a little bit more difficult, and the year after that we really had to start investing, but all the while we were making significant energy savings. By this time last year, with a new biomass burner providing all of our heating, 100 per cent sensor-lit LEDs throughout the factory and the first phase of solar PV installed on the roof, our building’s EPC rating had jumped from a D to a B.

Thanks to the expertise of Perfect Sense Energy in Wigan, who we met through the Business Growth Hub, we’ve since completed the final phase of solar installation so our entire roof space is now generating solar power, bringing the building’s EPC rating up to A+. We’re one of just over 500 non-domestic buildings in the country to have a negative rating for energy use. That’s what being carbon neutral is about: it’s not about buying carbon offset credits from the other side of the world, it’s about investing money directly and making changes yourself. Being able to say I’m potentially putting 200kW an hour of renewable energy into the grid is a positive statement that shows we mean business.

Everything we’ve invested so far has been cashflow neutral. Our solar panels are on a six-year loan that’s being paid back with the energy savings. Our biomass burner earns £80,000 a year in Renewable Heat Incentive subsidy. That money is all earmarked for further investment.

What’s next in the plan?

The next stage is to reach carbon neutrality in our manufacturing. That will require local offsetting measures, which is why we’ve become a member of the 100 Tree Club with City of Trees, and we’re also looking at opportunities to join up with others to fund a large solar farm or tree-planting exercise here in Rochdale. In January next year our current electricity contract ends so we’ll be moving to a 100 per cent renewable electricity supply.

After that, we’re onto our Scope 3 emissions – the carbon we’re indirectly responsible for through things like travel and our supply chain. This is where it gets exciting for me. Our biggest impact at the moment is transport. We have taken the radical decision to actively recruit employing anyone who lives less than a three-mile radius from the factory. If you live more than three miles away, we won’t employ you. Simple as that. Every single one of our 34 staff are local, including me.

We also have one 100% electric company car and going forward any new cars we purchase will be electric. We will be looking at electric vans as well once a suitable model comes onto the market. We have a policy of no company aeroplane flights. Personally, both directors are now vegetarian and take no personal flights either.

What about your supply chain?

We’re trying to get more and more local with our suppliers and we’ve started sending out questionnaires to find out how sustainable they are. Just like the big boys, we have a responsibility to encourage others to reduce their own environmental impact. We’re also doing a lot of R&D into the circular economy and we’re looking to engage with suppliers to make that happen.

The next thing we’re going to attempt is to engage with our customers. This year we’ve launched a new website and we’ll be using that to show our customers what we’ve done and start a conversation about what they’re doing. In two years’ time, if we think customers aren’t making progress, we won’t sell to them.

We’re basically creating our own tribe around us. We’re very fortunate that Crystal Doors is held in high regard, and because of that I feel that we can be a bit more visionary and collect companies, individuals and organisations who share our understanding of what sustainability is about.  

If you had one message to give other SMEs, what would it be?

Our journey sounds radical, but we’re showing that size or lack of money is not a reason to wait. When stronger government policies are brought in that force companies to invest in sustainability, we’ll already be well ahead. But ultimately this isn’t about making profit. We need to be in business for the next generation, and the next generation after that, so that they can be better off. This is a climate emergency and the time to act is now; I’m living proof that you can do it.

Finally, a quick word on the Coronavirus crisis. You’re now a key supplier supporting the NHS; what has that experience been like?

In March we’d started the procedure of closing our factory down and furloughing staff because orders were drying up. However, I knew we had some customers in the medical supply chain, so I did one final check-round to see if they needed any support. An email came straight back from Teal Healthcare, who needed us to produce 3,000 medical grade overbed tops (below; photo credit BBC TV) for the NEC Nightingale hospital in Birmingham. I went back to the team to ask who was willing to stay on and work night and day to get it done, and two thirds quite happily said yes.

That original order has now grown to more than 10,000 units. We’ve had some issues getting hold of vital materials, but once we explain the situation suppliers have bent over backwards to help us. It’s humbling to see the way everyone is coming together in the global fight against COVID-19, and I’m incredibly proud that Crystal Doors can play a part in that.

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