Unox begins next phase of growth

In a market where catering equipment dealers could pretty much buddy up with a different combi steamer brand every day of the month if they really wanted to, Unox has long held firm to the belief that, when it comes to the crunch, quality always shines through.

The combi, convection and bakery oven maker, best known for ranges such as ChefTop, Cheflux, BakerTop and BakerLux, has recorded consistent annual growth since its UK operation was set up less than a decade ago by managing director Gary Nunn.

At the time, the Italian manufacturer had no UK presence but Nunn saw enough from the brand, which was founded in 1990, to know that the opportunity was huge. Today its kit is used by some of the largest retail chains and leisure operators in the land.

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2014 has been a particularly incisive period for Unox UK, with the ongoing expansion of the company’s workforce illustrating the brand’s growing acceptance in the market.

Nathan Bland came on board as sales manager from Winterhalter earlier this year with a remit to drive dealer business in the north, while Daniel Clifford has just joined the company as an executive marketing chef, assisting with sales, demonstrations and menu development for customers in the south. Unox now hopes to fill a similar vacancy in the north in the not-too-distant future.

“The expansion of the team signals our intent to take the business to the next level,” explains Nunn. “We have got a good solid base, our clients are happy with the product, the product is in a good place in the market place now, and we need to push out. This is stage two of Unox UK really — the push.”

Another development of particular significance was the recruitment of Mick Hough, formerly service engineer at Winterhalter, to run the company’s new service business, Unox Service Solutions Limited. “It is a totally separate service company that we have formed to look after the service and training and ongoing development of Unox technical,” explains Nunn.

It originally looked as though Unox would fulfill its service aspirations by making an acquisition after Nunn admitted last year that he was in discussions with a third party service firm. But after a deal failed to materialise it decided to change tack.

“There was talk of buying another company but that didn’t happen so we have gone down the route of building our own,” he says. “We looked at the market place but people either wanted too much money for what they’d got or came with some sort of baggage, so we decided to go with this.”

Nunn says the service firm will allow Unox to offer a higher level of technical support, with installation and repairs now carried out directly rather than having to solely rely on third party contractors as it had to in the past.

“It is a big step for us but I think it gives us the vision and the scope in the future to do more in-depth technical analysis on energy efficiency of the ovens with the factory and to develop ongoing things that we have got on our mind, such as extended life warranty. At the same time, it is separate to the actual costs of running Unox as a sales company. It has to stand on its own two feet and make a profit in its own rights.”

Unox now manufactures almost 90 different products and this has led it to increase the breadth of its offering in the UK. The company is well-known for its range of compact combis, which starts with 3 grid models, but it has actually introduced larger units over the last few months.

“We can now offer large manual combis that we didn’t have before,” explains Nunn. “We just had a 7 grid and a 12 grid but we have now launched a 20 grid with a rolling rack, which lists at £9,600. It opens up a different market for us — people who just want a manual combi or bakery oven but don’t want the sophistication and the technology involved.”

Ironically, although Unox has moved to fill a gap in its portfolio for larger combis, it insists the overwhelming trend is for smaller ovens.

“We have certainly sold more 7 grids this year, whereas traditionally I think they would have been 10 grids, which is interesting,” says Nunn, who suggests cost reasons remain the biggest factor behind this pattern.

“I think people are saying, ‘do we really need a 10 grid?’ and the answer coming back is, ‘no, a 7 is fine’ or ‘we have only got budget for a 7’. It is exactly the same oven [as the 10 grid] so that would suggest to me that people are getting more price conscious. And again, you see a lot of the new manufacturers coming in with 7 grids, like Giorik and others, which they have never had before.”

Other alterations to the range include a new wash system on its convection ovens and the addition of a blended chemical.

“The significance of that is we have got less moving parts in the ovens and we use less chemical to wash,” says Nunn. “We have even gone a stage further because on the software that is being released shortly we will be able to adjust the dosage of the chemical. It won’t be a fixed dosage; it will be adjustable dependent on the hardness of the water area.”

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There has been a tremendous level of innovation in the combi steamer market during the last couple of years, with recent months seeing a whole raft of vendors unveiling models heavy on new technology and gadgetry. Many models for sale on the market now feature interfaces that resemble iPads or other mobile devices.

Nunn, though, is not convinced that this is necessarily the right way for the market to move, and suggests manufacturers have become too obsessed with focusing on complicated control panels.

“I think it is very dangerous now that we are getting involved in an area where we are adding things for the sake of it,” he comments. “It is a bit like a modern smartphone — the majority of people use 10% of what’s available on the actual device and I think that is where we are with combis. But I think most people will go to cloud-based, internet-based loading and pre-loading of recipes and all the bells and whistles that go with it.”

Unox is quite prepared for further changes in the combi steamer landscape, but it certainly won’t be swayed by what others are doing. When it comes to cooking technology evolution and dealer strategy, it is sticking firmly to its guns.

‘The message is getting out there now’

Unox’s UK strategy has always been to sell through a small but dedicated network of distributors — and there are no signs of that changing. The company works closely with a couple of dozen distributors and while managing director, Gary Nunn, wants to develop that further he doesn’t envisage the number growing to any more than 50 dealers in the next three years.

The difference now for the company, however, is that with the addition of extra staff, such as sales manager Nathan Bland, who came on board at the beginning of this year, Unox has more capacity to nurture the relationships it makes and offer the sort of support that it might not have been able to in the past.

“We are gaining bigger clients that want to buy the ovens now,” says Nunn. “Two years ago it was maybe a case of convincing people to buy the ovens, whereas now we are finding dealers and customers are actually ringing and saying, ‘can you come and talk to us?’ The message of Unox seems to be getting out there now, which for me is very rewarding because it means we have done the right groundwork.”

Nunn admits that Unox is still under-served in areas such as East Anglia, while it has only recently opened dialogue with prospective partners in Scotland and Northern Ireland.

But it remains adamant that once it has the chance to demonstrate what it can bring to the table, it can usually convert a distributor into a long-term partner. “We find that whenever we take a dealer on and they actually understand what we are about and get past that mistrust level, and we do some business with them, then they fully commit,” he says. “Once they have had a chance to visit the factory in Italy, the relationship just seems to leap. Our commitment then is to continue on supporting that dealer, which we do as best we can.”

Tips from Toyota

What have commercial ovens and automobiles got in common? Not a lot you might think, but that hasn’t stopped Unox from basing its highly optimised production model on manufacturing techniques honed by Japanese car giant Toyota.

Unox’s factory in Padova, Northern Italy operates an impressive VIP — Vertical Integrated Production — model. “All good manufacturing factories work this way and that is not a Unox idea — that is manufacturing based on the best views in the world,” says the company’s UK managing director, Gary Nunn. “Most of our training is done based on a book called ‘The Toyota Way’.”

With eight separate factories producing components and finished products, the company’s production set-up in Italy is distinctly different from those adopted by many of its competitors, with staff on highly efficient assembly lines 10 to 20 metres long seeing the production of equipment through from start to finish.

Uniquely, 90% of the components that Unox uses are manufactured by the company in-house, right down to the individual anti-scratch screws that keep the service panels of each oven locked in place. It is this approach, it says, which helps it to maintain competitive market prices without compromising on quality. It also ensures complete, local availability of components.

“If you buy a board from Matsushita in Japan to a specific criteria it is going to be costly because you have to commit to such huge numbers to get the right price,” says Nunn. “But with our own electronics factory we have much greater flexibility in terms of price and product development.”

Numbers game

In the last three years, Unox’s activities have translated into:

25 registered patents
30 registered trademarks
130,000 oven installations
2,000 hours of technical and service training
40,000 hours of user training

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