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A natural evolution

A natural evolution

Applelec has moved a long way from its origins as the manufacturer of gates and railings to become a leading trade supplier of signs, displays and lighting.   Val Hirst visits the company’s newly extended HQ to trace the path of its evolution

When I first visited Applelec’s Bradford-based headquarters nine years ago, I remember that it employed 15 people and was very difficult to find.  This time around it’s no less accessible, but the tardis-like building has, just like Applelec itself, expanded considerably in the intervening years in order to house some of the 55 people the company now employs, together with its ever-increasing product range. The one thing that hasn’t changed though, and which is immediately apparent to any visitor, is the extremely energising and buzzy atmosphere generated in its airy open-plan office.

Originally established in the 70s by the father of the current Managing Director, Ian Drinkwater, Applelec’s original core activity was the manufacture of metal gates and railings, plus housings for electrical junction boxes. However, by the time Ian joined the company in 1990 the demand for these products was already faltering and, inspired by the number of local signmakers who used Applelec’s cnc cutting facilities to make metal cut letters, Ian, together with Production Director, Paul Stothers, who originally joined Applelec as an apprentice, decided to change direction.

Ian explains: “We knew little about signs, but our experience in metal fabrication and the obvious demand for signage made us take a chance. Once we started making our own letters, it opened up a whole new market place.”

The rest, as they say, is history.  Applelec began its foray into the sign sector quite conservatively with the production of letters for local signmakers.  Now, however, it is a market leading trade supplier of flat cut and built up letters, architectural signs and poster cases, merchandising systems, LED lighting systems and, most recently, its best selling Light Sheet product, which has propelled it into another new area – the lighting sector.

Remarking on the pace of growth, Ian modestly maintains that thus far, it has been purely organic, with products following naturally on from each other.  He says: “We never had a plan as such; it’s been more a case of looking out for new things that we think might appeal to our customers and in so doing, trying to keep ahead of the curve. I’d like to take credit for the fact that our customer-base has grown to encompass other areas and applications, but really it’s been a natural evolution!”

Indeed, Ian’s eagerness to find new things has taken him to sign exhibitions around the world and lead to associations with other manufacturers.  For example, when he identified an unfulfilled demand for very small built up lettering, he joined forces with a US manufacturer that was able to supply seamless built-up letters just 50mm high. These now form part of the Applelec’s Premium Range, which in common with its Standard letter range are supplied in a variety of different metals, including stainless steel, brass and copper and remain best sellers.

However, it was Applelec’s relationship with another American company, Permlight Products Inc. a leading provider of LED lighting systems, which really helped it to acquire the status of ‘a one stop shop’ as far as letters are concerned.  Applelec became Permlight’s UK and Eire distributor, a move that enabled it to supply the now ubiquitous strip mounted LED modules in several different colours and to offer an illuminated letter option for the first time.

Ian remembers: “LED illumination was still a fairly new concept then and although many signmakers wanted to use it, they didn’t want the extra complication of outsourcing LEDs, or the hassle of a complex fitting job, so the fact that we were able to supply both letters and LEDs as one, easy to assemble unit, immediately appealed to them.”

This initial foray into the area of illumination, was further consolidated with the introduction of Light Sheet, a patented flat LED light panel that was originally introduced to streamline signage. The product is now manufactured in bespoke sizes and shapes in Applelec’s purpose built LED antistatic rooms.  The manufacturing process is a fascinatingly painstaking one, with tiny LEDS initially being soldered onto metal strips before being carefully applied to panels of all sizes to provide perfectly even and bright illumination.  As well as being available in different shades of white, ranging from cool to warm, depending on the effect required, LEDS are also available in different shades to produce an array of specially staggered or sequenced coloured light.

Recalling the product’s initial launch at Sign & Digital UK, Ian admits that signmakers initially seemed to be rather baffled by it.  He says: “In actual fact, LED Light Sheet can be used for any application where there is a need for illumination, such as signboxes, but its ultra slim profile and low energy usage makes it suitable for use in merchandising displays and decorative installations too, as well as for traditional lighting applications, which is why we’ve had such a good response from the lighting and retail display sectors.”

Ian adds that this in turn has brought the company into closer contact with a range of designers, architects and other specifiers who can positively influence end-user buying decisions.  He observes: “We only ever sell direct to the trade, whether that’s a signmaker, shopfitter or lighting engineer, but these new relationships give us a wonderful opportunity to get our products specified, while also providing us with a lot of interesting feedback regarding new trends in the area of visual communication generally, which is very useful when we are considering new products.”

As well as its Bradford HQ, Applelec also has a sales office in Tring, Hertfordshire, which is manned by another Applelec stalwart, Sales Director, Sam Armstrong, plus another manufacturing facility in nearby Leeds.

Ian comments: “Now that LED Light Sheet and our other lighting and display products are being manufactured here at Bradford, letter production has moved to our new factory in Leeds.”

As with Bradford, the atmosphere here is also very buzzy and reassuringly informal, with Wayne Ramsden, John Dunster, nd Gary Firth leading the team. On the day of my visit, the factory is filled with an array of letters of every shape and size imaginable, most of which are awaiting shipment to customers around the country, it is plain to see that this is still very much a craft lead operation.  “Where we can harness technology, we do,” says Ian, “But that still leaves a lot of hand finishing!”

It’s just as well then, that Applelec employs staff like Chris Corkett, who is no stranger to traditional signmaking, having learned his trade at Oldham Signs. Chris, who proudly shows us a photo album documenting the decades of ground-breaking signage that he has helped to shape, continues to take great professional pride in the fact that the letters he has crafted during his long career are still displayed all over the world. He is now generously passing his skills onto a new generation of young signmakers, who will continue to do Applelec proud, when Chris eventually embraces the retirement he keeps putting off.

Ian is justly proud of the company’s record for staff retention, and as he and Marketing Manager Keri Handley show me around the newly constructed showroom, where examples of Applelec’s new ultra sleek I-Sign Display frames and signage and LED Light Sheet, used in a number of innovative ways, abound, he remarks:  “Having a good team around you is vital and being able to offer market relevant products is a given, but that has to be backed up with a good marketing strategy too, otherwise how will people know what you can do?”

Marketing featured right at the beginning of Applelec’s foray into the sign sector and, under the leadership of Marketing Director Carl Eastwood, who joined the company in 2004, has continued to be an important element of the Applelec mix, with the company recently unveiling a brand new logo and a slick new website, both of which are much more reflective of its bright, creative and go-ahead ethos.

However, Ian still believes that the main reason that Applelec has been so successful to date, is the fact its customers can implicitly rely on its absolute confidentiality and discretion.

He continues:  “We do everything we can to help our customers satisfy their customers, whether that means sending our electrical engineers to site ‘incognito’, to help with the more technical aspects of an installation, being involved with the design, preparing prototypes or simply proffering advice, as and when needed. We are happy to do it all and more.  Our satisfaction comes from seeing our products being used in the stunning projects that help to win our customers further business!”

And if Applelec has a secret to its success, it’s just been well and truly revealed!

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