Reaping the Rewards

Much is made today of business diversification. The practice is probably best known for the agricultural industry but roofing manufacturers either lucky or wily enough to identify opportunities to branch out will maintain and grow financial collateral in today’s challenging economic climate. Welsh Slate is one of those.

The company has recovered from a rock fall in April 2012 by winning approval less than a year later of its application to extract some of the world’s finest, densest natural roofing slate from a 20-acre extension to its Penrhyn Quarry in Bethesda, North Wales. This additional capacity should see reserves lasting at least another 20 years.

At the same time, an area of the quarry that is no longer being worked was leased to Europe’s longest, fastest zip line operator, combining the thrill with a history of the site which recounts how zip lines were first used there 100 years ago but to carry rock, not adrenalin junkies.

The slate itself has also found new uses in more recent years. The Slateware range of high-end dinnerware is now endorsed by Michelin star chef Michael Caines and graces the tables of restaurants in hotels as prestigious as London’s Café Royal.

And the roofing slate that was first shipped around the world almost 200 years ago partly as ballast (because unlike other roofing materials it was unaffected by the salt water in the holds and was perfectly usable when it arrived) is now covering the roofs of buildings as prestigious as the New South Wales Supreme Court and historic as Unwin’s Stores, both in Sydney Australia, as well as the Arts Centre in earthquake-hit Christchurch, New Zealand.

Exports have grown to become a very large proportion of Welsh Slate sales, with several containers being shipped every month to Australia alone. As it takes approximately 45 days for a shipment of Welsh Slate to be transported from quarry to Australian port, the company is more involved than normal in ensuring the client plans well in advance to allow for the longer lead times.

Welsh Slate‘s managing director Chris Allwood said: “Outside influences such as currency fluctuations can have a major impact on export sales volumes so we try to have the broadest market possible and as well as the Antipodes that includes Russia, America, continental Europe and the West Indies.”

While a building dating from 1850 in London or Manchester is unlikely to have any listed status, so re-roofing it can be with a wide choice of materials at varying costs, in Melbourne or Sydney a building of a similar age would be a listed heritage building and re-roofed in Welsh Slate to match the original.

It is Welsh Slate’s durability, with a life expectancy of over 150 years (guaranteed for 100 years) in most cases, which dictates that many heritage, Georgian and early Victorian buildings in the UK that now require re-roofing, will now be refurbished on a like-for-like basis.

This is not typically reflected in the housing and commercial sector where developers take a shorter term view, looking at lower-cost alternatives such as fibre cement slate even if the life time analysis over a 100-year period would actually make natural slate more cost effective.

Lead times for overseas projects and specification for UK projects are not the only considerations however. Like any producer of natural slate, the company relies on skilled roofing contractors to deliver a roof capable of performing for hundreds of years.

“Having the best slate put on badly will give you a poor quality roof so we are keen to see more young people get into the industry and learn the skills to become the master slaters of tomorrow,” said Chris.

The company is also magnanimous about the continued challenge from imported slate.

“Quality imported slates are a benefit to the market in every sense but poor quality imports can destroy it as failures on roofs are seen as failures of slate generally,” said Chris. “The adoption of the European Standard and CE Marking will help the specifier and roofer choose the quality products.”

The first slate quarry in the UK to win IS0 14001 for its Environmental Management Systems, back in 1998, Welsh Slate is equally equable about the increasing need to specify environmentally friendly roofing materials.

Chris said: “Natural slate has a very low level of embedded carbon, especially when compared to concrete-based products, and obviously Welsh Slate in the UK requires only limited transport to get to market. Even our exports around the world score well as sea freight has a low carbon footprint.”