Lasita Maja: "Our goal is to stand out".
How would you position yourself in the European garden cabin market? Do you consider yourself innovators or reproducers?
This industry – making garden cabins – in general means copying. When you come out with something new then usually the success lasts for a couple of years; often ‘innovation’ just means changing the dimensions by a couple of centimetres. " We aim to be different." This is why we initiated the competition. We are looking for improvements that others do not offer. We want to diversify our products.
Experiment with new type of corner joint.
In many countries the sales of garden cabins is based on department stores, which rely on cheap mass production. As our customer is a big organisation they think that they can dictate everything. Every year they ask for the same or even lower prices. We have to find ways to deal with this and so we need to do something new in a different way. It is very hard to say what exactly this is, but we do have high hopes for the present competition.
What kind of result would meet your needs?
Currently we do not have an architect in our team. Often people tend to see innovation as something that has to be visible and has to have the wow factor. But sometimes it just means a small nuance that has not been considered before. Every now and then we have been asked to have more glass (larger windows) in our houses – so that the constructions would be wide, light-weight and full of light. However, in reality it does not work like that - you can’t just take a house, remove one wall and replace it with glass – this is not innovation, it’s not how product development works. For us it is good when we create one product line with good marketing potential. Then we are pleased.
Perhaps you will also find yourself a chief designer?
I would definitely not exclude that option. This is the kind of question we have been asking ourselves constantly. Timber is a good material and it is possible to produce almost anything out of it. With the competition we are looking for interesting design(s) that could be industrially producible. All these aspects are covered in the contest design brief.
OptiCut production line is used for cutting different wooden parts according to desired length measures
What are currently the main channels through which you find clients and sell products?
There are horticultural exhibitions, where we have not participated recently because it is quite expensive and we have not had a significant product to present. The traditional approach is to issue annual catalogues where new items are marked out as such, indicating either new products or special design items. Labelling something ‘design’ usually brings higher sales. In addition there is our webpage, in addition to which we do sell quite a lot via online retailers. Or products are represented on 20-30 different webpages all across Europe which, when they are presented in the right way they, means they will be noticed.
- Tiit Lubi, quality assurance manager showing how Lasita Maja cabins stand together
If I were to buy one of your items from a department store or order it online, how would I receive the end product?
According to our standard the client will receive all the components packed onto pallets together with installation instructions that describe all the necessary steps, for example requirements for the foundation, etc. We do not offer installation as a service ourselves, although many of our resellers do. We can also recommend installation services when requested. In most European countries we are able to deliver our products directly to the customer.Tenon production line - the last process in the production of the wall details is cutting the tenons into logs
Is it possible to say that the preferences of Estonians differ from those of other Europeans?
This is hard to compare as only small percentage of our production is sold in Estonia. Estonians are looking either for very cheap or for exceptional (i.e. custom-made) solutions that remain out of the industrial production range. However, from country to country customer preferences are very different. The design of garden cabins is not important in France, as the majority of customers are looking merely for a storage space. The Germans, on the other hand, have diverse expectations - they are looking for cabins as storage spaces, as garages, as barbeque houses, as recreation spaces, etc. What we sell in Germany overlaps greatly with Estonian preferences.
Back when we started the majority of our cabins had wavy and carved fascias. Today, however, this has become history and our clients prefer clear lines and modern looks.
Almost end of the process in factory: packaging
How long would such a building last in our climate?
I have had a shed storage unit since 2000 and it is still up and running. I have just had to remove some moss from the roof a couple of times.
What are your most popular models at the moment?
When we look at our production output then it would be one of the models made for a French department store that sells the most. But as this department store has in total 330 outlets, and when each of them orders 3 or 4 models, then we already have more than 1000 units per order. However, this does not say anything about popularity.
From our own production range the highest sale numbers are for a modern series of flat roofed houses.Sealing process of cabin packages. Everything is included - from wall elements and windows to smaller details (even screws)
What is the situation like in Estonia - is it still profitable to produce your buildings in Estonia or are you already looking for options to relocate your factories in order to reduce labour costs?
No, currently we have no plans to expand or relocate further east. There is still a lot we can do here in Estonia. At some point back at the end of 1990s I went to a timber-related exhibition in Belgium and they were speaking enthusiastically about Estonia. Despite our 50-year black hole we have retained our knowledge and skills in treating and working with timber. This is also relevant on the level of engineering and technical solutions. We see quite often that a well-designed machine is presumed to produce wooden details with identical dimensions, but it should not be forgotten that timber is still what we call a living material.FSC in package stands for Forest Stewardship Council, an international organization which promotes responsible management of the world’s forests.The FSC logo indicates that the product comes from responsible sources, it is environmentally appropriate, socially beneficial and economically viable.
When considering current media issues in Estonia one could assume that all Estonian forests will be cut down – there are even support groups in Facebook and actions held to protect Estonian forests. How do you see that whole situation?
I think that the way the media has presented this topic has become a bit histrionic. The forests also need improving. If we talk about taking down the forests without replacing them, that of course would be an abuse, but when the trees get old they need to be taken down. Young trees will always replace the old ones. The consumption of timber in Estonia does not rely merely on Estonian forests. We do import quite a lot of material because the current chopping rates in Estonia are not enough. Therefore we cannot base our whole production on Estonian timber, as we use a lot of whitewood and not that much redwood.
Where do you get your timber?
We use around 40% Estonian timber and the rest comes from Finland and Russia.
Lasita Maja has been operating for 18 years, in which time you have become one of the largest exporters of wooden houses in Estonia. How did this all start?
I was engaged in other areas and bought windows from an enterprise called Lasita Aken for different buildings. In 1997 they invested in new machinery and were looking for extra applications for their equipment and grounds. They asked me if I would join them and establish a company producing wooden prefabricated houses. We started off in one of their factories producing both private houses as well as garden cabins.
Sealed packages of Lasita Maja cabins waiting for shipment
Recently you became part of the Dutch company Outdoor Life Group, which is one of the largest companies selling garden cabins in Europe. How was this decision made?
The Dutch have their production in the Netherlands and in Hungary, and production in the Netherlands is pretty expensive. They were looking for a solution to increase their production capacity. We had spare capacity together with a significant client base and no overlapping clients. This meant two solutions in one go. We spent almost one and a half years negotiating, and in 2014 they got the hold of 40% of Lasita Maja shares. The initial plan was to collaborate for the next 3 to 5 years and then proceed with the sale of the whole company. However, things went faster than that and already in the spring of 2016 they got hold of the remaining 50% of the shares. I kept 10% of the shares for motivation and in addition was entrusted with the development of the enterprise structure in Europe. I have to admit that they have succeeded in making the job interesting for me.
What changes were there in the Estonian factories and in your job management as a result?
Not much has changed – there is a board with one member from the Netherlands and two members from Estonia, and the Dutch do not interfere with the daily running of what we do. When the general plan is in place, then the local administration is free to decide on everyday issues. Our people, except for me, possibly do not even realise that something has changed.
Have you thought of changing the name of the brand as "Lasita" does not have a meaning?
On the contrary, the Dutch group has decided that their brand is the Estonian "Lasita Maja" as our quality is highly prized in Europe.
Interview: Liina Pulges (www.unistusteagentuur.com)
Translation: Tuuli Tsahkna
Photos: Tiit Sild