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Laser & Waterjet Profiling
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The best machines, the most skilled staff and the fullest order book are all meaningless if there’s no raw material to cut or form at the start of the process. So although the humble stockholder may not take centre stage in terms of glamour, the importance of the role it plays in the overall scheme of things cannot be underestimated. A late delivery at the front end often means an upset customer further down the line. Dave Tudor reports.
There are a number of reputable metal stockholders in the UK but few have Aalco’s pedigree. Headquartered in Cobham, Surrey and with roots stretching way back to 1964, the company employs 750 members of staff in the UK. Around 95% of its business is centred around the supply of aluminium and stainless steel in plate, bar and tube formats but it also provides copper, brass and bronze to a diverse customer base.
Whilst a relatively large company by UK standards – indeed Aalco is one of the largest independently owned metal stockholders in the UK – it maintains a localised personal relationship with its customers via a network of 18 service centres that span the length and breadth of the country.
Essentially, each service centre looks after a geographical area and operates as an individual cost centre with its own manager, warehouse, sales staff, machinery and delivery vehicles. Perhaps understandably, the service centres vary considerably in size but some are sizeable organisations in their own right. The largest for example has a turnover of around £30 million and employs 70 members of staff.
From a stock perspective, whilst each centre carries its own inventory, the bulk of the most commonly used metals are sourced from a central hub based in Birmingham. This has definite benefits as Aalco’s sales development director, Clive Bush, explains.
“Because of the vast stocking capability (over 10,000 items) and purchasing power of the central hub, we’re able to negotiate very favourable deals with suppliers and this works very well with the most commonly used materials,” he explains. “Daily deliveries are made from the hub to the service centres and from their perspective, via a centralised computer system, they have access to both their own stock plus the inventory at the central hub. On stocked material in standard sizes and grades, delivery to the customer is usually within 24 hours.
“Some customers however require non-standard, bespoke materials for specific applications and in these instances the manager of the service centre concerned is empowered to buy his own stock as required. Naturally this will be dependent on demand, but effectively each service centre is customised to meet the needs of its own specific customer base. It’s a real personal service – 70% of stock will come from the hub with the remaining 30% ordered directly by the service centres for non-standard material.”
It’s a system that works well in practice. Because each service hub is responsible for its own area geographically, there’s little chance of inter-regionalised competition developing between service centres. For Aalco’s customers – it means they get focused attention, service and support.
Strings and bows
As previously mentioned, first and foremost Aalco is a stockholder of stainless steel and aluminium and according to Mr Bush there is no specific minimum order quantity. Where stainless is concerned, the company stocks all commonly used formats including sheet, coil, plate, bar and sections as well as a full range of tube, pipe, fittings and flanges. It also provides a complete range of processing services encompassing bar, tube and pipe cutting, plate processing, coil processing and high quality surface finishing.
Aluminium is equally well catered for with extensive stocks of sheet, coil, plate, treadplate, patterned sheet, tube, bar, sections and free machining bar. With aluminium plate, Aalco stocks a wide range of thicknesses and alloys, including marine grades, backed by a number of ancillary processes including plate cutting and plate processing. At its Southampton service centre there’s even a router for cutting profiles and shapes directly from a CAD model in aluminium plate.
Through a network of subcontract suppliers, Aalco can also offer a range of ancillary services to provide even more added value to customers. These include electro-polishing, heat treatment, powder coating, painting and anodising.
An additional string to Aalco’s bow is aluminium extrusion with its stock range encompassing alloys, shapes and sizes for many industries including building, marine, road transport, signage, leisure and sporting goods and general engineering. An additional skill is the sourcing of bespoke extrusions, designed for individual customers – from single shapes to full suites.
“We have established business relationships with a number of high quality aluminium extrusion manufacturers globally,” Mr Bush adds, “so irrespective of shape, size or complexity, we can select the best supplier for job. Our purchasing power also means that customers benefit from very competitive pricing.”
On the level
As a company, Aalco is all about providing added value to its customers and for this reason basic metallurgy training courses are run twice a year for sales and QA staff. Whilst Mr Bush is keen to emphasise that the courses are fairly basic in nature, they are proving to be particularly useful in enhancing customer relationships.
“The courses are very comprehensive and employees learn a wealth of useful information such as how metals are produced at the mill, basic material composition, alloying elements as well as relevant specifications and standards,” he enthuses. “They also gain an understanding of why metals corrode and how different grades of stainless steel and aluminium offer different properties in terms of machineability and weldability. This enables us to be able to talk to customers on a technical level and gives us a greater understanding of the problems they face.”
Mr Bush is realistic about the marketplace – and metal stockholding can be a very competitive business. “At the end of the day, we’re a supplier of aluminium, stainless steel, copper, brass and bronze and it’s practically impossible to establish a truly unique selling point to differentiate ourselves from the competition. That said, we have a number of elements to our business that we believe are highly desirable to our customers.
“The first is our sheer size. We have a vast stockholding capability which means we can pass material savings we make onto our customers. Secondly, we’re an established company and financially stable – we will still be around tomorrow, next week and next year so customers can be assured of continuity of supply. Thirdly, because we’re independently owned and not allied to a mill, we can buy our material from a number of sources. We only use quality suppliers but there’s a large degree of flexibility on where we source our material from. We can get the best deals.
“But perhaps the thing that differentiates us most from the competition is the way we’re structured. Because each of our 18 service centres are constrained geographically, they have a finite resource of customers so if we lose a client through poor service there isn’t another conveniently waiting in the wings to jump in as a replacement. Because of this, the company ethos is centred around building longstanding relationships with customers and providing the best possible service. For us, customer retention is our number one priority,” he concludes, “and with 30,000 customers on our books, I think we’ve got the balance just about right.”
For those readers needing more information about Aalco, the company’s website is a good place to start. There is somewhere in the region of 65 technical datasheets as well as a wealth of product literature. An additional useful online tool is the Weight Calculator. From pull down menus users simply input the alloy, form and number of pieces and the resultant weight is displayed in kilogrammes.