Focus SB’s coronavirus survival story
On 23rd March when Boris Johnson made his announcement all Focus SB staff who could work from home were sent home immediately, then on 30th March we furloughed approximately 70% of our employees, retaining a skeleton staff of approximately 16 over two sites (closed one site), with two people working from home. Customer orders dropped off as construction sites started to close down.
Despite an exceptionally good 2019 and an excellent (record) first three months of 2020 and a solid order book, we took decisive action in order to preserve the business, cash flow and protect jobs by negotiating payment holidays on premises rents, some capital finance, deferring VAT payment in April and applying for a loan via the Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme (CBILS), accessing business support including advice, guidance and webinars from Make UK and local organisation Locate East Sussex. We took this approach because at that time no-one knew how long this was going to affect us for and so the tighter we could control the cash, the better was our view.
As have many other businesses, we’ve had to find suitable ways to enable us to continue to operate, albeit limited initially, whilst protecting our employees and ensuring we comply with government COVID-19 secure guidelines. We’ve learned to adapt to new ways of working and communication, likely to remain in place over the longer term.
Safety Measures implemented by us:
• Marked out areas on the shop floor for social distancing purposes.
• Staggered tea breaks and lunch breaks and limited the number of people in the canteen areas at any one time.
• Staggered start times to avoid congestion at start and finish times.
• Re-located clocking-in machines to avoid congestion points.
• Increased the frequency of cleaning toilets, common areas, bannisters, door handles etc.
• Propped open doors (non-fire) to avoid door handle touching as much as possible.
• Installed plastic screens in areas where social distancing is more difficult.
• Blanket ban on non-essential visitors.
• Placed notices around the buildings to remind employees to socially distance and wash hands regularly and properly.
• Ceasing all face-to-face meetings unless absolutely necessary but if we do, then it is carried out in a large enough room to be able to observe social distancing.
• Increased stock and availability of PPE.
• Increased the use of technology to communicate.
• Temperature checks of all staff entering the buildings.
• Created a comprehensive risk assessment and published it to all employees and our website – all in line with government guidelines.
Our managing director Gary Stevens comments: "Our workplaces are as safe as they can possibly be as we reintroduce employees back in the working environment. We have flexed our furloughed staff in line with customer demand and are continuing to unfurlough staff gradually, and have taken extensive measures to ensure continued safety for the company's employees. We are very conscious that a small number of employees who have worked throughout the lockdown have developed a well-oiled process for safe working and we did not want to jeopardise that and compromise the safety of those employees, or the returning employees.
"We have created COVID-19 PPE packs for existing and returning staff (personal sanitisers, gloves, masks, marking tape, desk, and keyboard cleaning materials etc). A new induction process and form for all returning staff to ensure they adopt the new ways of working to preserve their safety and the safety of existing members of staff. We have developed a database of all staff to include personal contact details (email), access to transport, home status in terms of child care arrangements, and if they live with vulnerable/shielding people or key workers, and their attitude to risk of return."
In addition to our own new ways of working, we have experienced the effects that COVID-19 has had on our customer base and the construction industry in general. With many businesses having staff working from home, or protecting their own working environments from external infections, we are having to find better ways to communicate with our customer base and to be able to provide them with the tools to enable them to specify our products and services. The use of digital technology is becoming more and more prevalent and the traditional methods of selling face-to-face is likely to change for the long term.
Construction sites are working differently now and the traditional methods of flooding a site with multiple trades has been superseded by a slower, more planned approach which will have an effect on expected lead times for construction products like ours. We need to work closely with contractors in order to meet their more demanding schedules and even more precise programmes. Off site construction will undoubtedly grow even more rapidly than it was pre-Covid and again, that will present building product manufacturers like Focus SB with new opportunities and new challenges.
Gary concludes: "As managing director of a company that is 200 miles from where I live was my main initial concern as I am usually in the office from Monday to Thursday. Some of the most challenging aspects were, and still are, adopting new ways of working very quickly, managing teams and individuals remotely – most of whom have never worked from home before, communicating with a lot of remote employees who have probably never had as much time off work before and are worried about their jobs, their health and that of their families – so we have to consider their wellbeing and mental health too.
“We have continued to bring employees back to work and are now up to around 90% capacity and we recorded our highest ever sales month in our 41 year history in July! Who knows what the future has in store for us all and how the effects on the wider economy here in the UK and globally will have on our business, but we continue to manage our way through a very challenging chapter in world history and look forward to the next 41 years!”