In South Africa, the lifespan of a kitchen is 20 years plus. In Europe, the average kitchen is just seven to eight years old. That’s probably because it is far more affordable to replace a kitchen overseas. You simply buy a kitchen at retail level and install it yourself or employ a fitter.
Managing director of Pinetown based UCAN, Andrew Milne, says that the company is following a similar model and believes that, although South Africans have not been big on DIY in the past, they will soon adopt a similar value add approach. Tough economic times see people wanting more for their hard earned money and buying down. The advantage with the UCAN range is that there is no compromise on quality.
Up until now, labour in South Africa has been relatively cheap which has made custom made fitment an affordable option. However, this is changing fast. Salaries are climbing and artisans are in short supply. With higher overheads, outside fitters have to pass on costs in the form of higher prices, making it far more feasible for homeowners to, quite literally, upgrade their kitchens in-house.
Established in 1995, the Home Concept Group which owns UCAN and its sister brand, Home Concept, is well acquainted with the kitchen market from both sides of the spectrum.
Home Concept provides bespoke kitchens with a full range of kitchen products and accessories and a service that includes measuring, design, manufacturing and installation. UCAN, a far younger brand that was launched exclusively in Game stores in 2008, offers the same products but excludes the on site measuring and design service. Instead, customers make up their own kitchens with the help of in store computer design software and in-store assistants who advise on measuring and choice of fittings.
Because a retail offering requires a high degree of standardisation, it also provides the perfect platform for cost effective upgrades, adds Milne. “The beauty of UCAN is that people can simply buy new cupboard doors. It is also easy for people to come back and extend.”
Since inception, he says that they have grown their range significantly to suit a diverse market both in terms of finishes and colours and actual products.
Quality is key. “Because everything is flat packed, when the customer gets it, it has to be 100 percent,” he says.
Testament to what they have achieved so far, UCAN is now the biggest supplier of kitchens at retail level nationally. Their first outlet was in the Game store in what is now the Pinecrest Centre in central Pinetown in KwaZulu-Natal. The company now operates in 27 Game stores as a brand within a brand. The brand is bolstered by both the credibility of its Massmart owed host and its positioning in many high traffic malls.
By supplying nationally, says financial director, Wayne Heathcote, UCAN not only has more extensive infrastructure but achieves sufficient volumes to lower its cost base, enabling the company to pass on savings to its customers.
Quantifying these savings is more complex. Actual costs are variable and depend on individual choices. However, like for like, the average consumer could save up to 50 percent.
The board used to manufacture their cupboards is all sourced locally, whilst the hardware, fittings and accessories are imported from the likes of India, China and Brazil. However, this is structured so that no intermediaries or agents are used. Buying direct means further cost savings can be passed on to customers, says Milne.
However, 90 percent of UCAN products are manufactured at the company’s 2 500 sq/m state-of-the-art factory. This includes cutting, machining, edging, finishing and assembly facilities.
Although highly automated, the workforce – which has grown around 10 percent each year – now numbers 65. UCAN has also created at least 100 jobs on the retail side since start up.
To increase production and efficiencies, grow volumes, improve on wastage and provide product of consistent quality, UCAN invested R8,5 million in sophisticated equipment from Italy last year. This included a Biesse Skipper 100 computer numerical controlled machining centre and the first Biesse WNA 650 beam saw in South Africa.
This new plant enables UCAN to cut batches of board as opposed to one shape at a time with an extremely high level of accuracy.
Since the upgrade, Milne says, productivity has doubled, accuracy is as good as 100 percent and there has been a 30 percent improvement in wastage. “The crux is that the more volumes that you can push through, the more savings you can pass on to your customers. It also helps us position ourselves to serve a greater market.”
Actually pinpointing this ever changing market is far from easy, though. “Anyone who wants a kitchen is our market. It can be LSM 8 to 10,” he says.
Although initially aimed at the middle segment of the market, the UCAN brand does appeal to a broad spectrum ranging from first time, entry level home owners to residents in plush suburbs.
The gap between buyers of custom designed and DIY kitchens is also closing fast. For those who aren’t able or don’t want to fit their own cupboards, UCAN has approved fitters in each of the main centres.
They also somewhat unexpectedly guarantee these fitters’ work. Milne explains that they collect a deposit on the fitment and create a fund to support this. “It takes the risk element out of getting your own fitter. We work with our fitters and have got to know them well over the years. When taking on a new service provider, we inspect their previous work and do follow ups.”
Whilst keeping a close eye on what is happening at home, UCAN also remains focused on the latest international decorating trends, benchmarking colours and design on the latest overseas fashions. “We like to get and stay a step ahead. Staying there is key,” he emphasises.
Apart from consolidating its national footprint and growing its local turnover, UCAN has longer term plans to supply into the rest of Africa. This will plug an important gap in a market where there are very few reliable suppliers and fitment operations. Already, the company has sold kitchens to customers visiting South African outlets from Zambia, Mozambique, Swaziland, the DRC and even the Seychelles.
“We believe that, as South Africans become comfortable with the DIY route in terms of end product, we will get to where Europe is today. We are confident that we will grow along with that. In fact, we are already well on the way along that road,” Milne concludes.