Huge challenges ahead

Victorian Sliders’ Andy Jones looks at life after lockdown.

After just over two months of lockdown, the government has eased the toughest of the restrictions it imposed to tackle the coronavirus crisis.

It’s an unpredictable situation, and things change very quickly. But for now, it’s looking as though much of our industry should be back up and running.

So how will it have changed? Will it be able to successfully adapt to the challenging new circumstances it finds itself in, and could there actually be some positives in among the many obstacles to overcome?

I think it’s important to be realistic about what working while social distancing will mean for productivity in our sector.

Factories, offices and warehouses aren’t built to allow people to keep at least 2m from each other at all times. That means that many businesses will only be able to restart operations while obeying social distancing guidelines by having less staff on site.

That will unavoidably lead to a reduction in the volume of products that systems companies, component suppliers, and fabricators can manufacture, and that installers can fit.

It’s also possible that we all might have to get used to longer lead times, not just because of social distancing, but because of unprecedented disruption to the supply chain, too.

In China, Italy and Spain – three of UK construction’s biggest suppliers – they’ve been hit very hard by coronavirus. All three are now in different stages of easing restrictions, but the months dozens of factories weren’t operating will unavoidably have an impact, and they’ll face the same manufacturing challenges that we have here in the UK.

It raises another big question: as a sector, are we now overly reliant on suppliers who are often thousands of miles away? Is that a sustainable arrangement? After the coronavirus crisis, I predict we may start to see a shift back towards sourcing components more locally.

That’s just the beginning of the changes coronavirus is likely to have on the way our sector does business, however.

Fenestration has tended to be quite generous when it comes to giving customers extended credit, for example. In good times, it’s a way of building strong relationships and encouraging customer loyalty.

But in a crisis like this, cash is king. Many businesses will have to get used to their suppliers being much stricter about payment in the months to come, which will prove a headache for many. The insurance industry is far less likely to extend cover to those companies whose balance sheet has been severely affected by the enforced lockdown.

Also, we’re now inevitably heading into a recession and, sadly, some of the businesses in our sector won’t survive.

Often, it’s assumed that it’s the smaller, newer businesses that will suffer, while bigger and longer-established ones will weather the storm. That’s not necessarily the case, however.

It’s quite possible that firms with huge infrastructures will be too big and sluggish to adapt to the coronavirus crisis, and smaller, more agile businesses will be able to quickly act and change direction.

In fact, some in our industry will now be questioning the fundamental nature of their businesses. It’s possible we’ll see firms give up on manufacturing entirely, shed expensive overheads like factories and labour, and switch to simply buying products in instead.

We may also see companies who have strived to be a ‘one stop shop’ start to specialise more in their core products, rather than offer products that add little value to their business or are not cost effective to continue to manufacture.

There’s already been a dramatic rise in the use of technology in glass and glazing over the past 20 years, but coronavirus is likely to significantly accelerate that trend.

During lockdown, many in our industry have been turning to remote working technology to carry on as best they can. Apps like Zoom, Whatsapp and Facetime have allowed salespeople to keep having meetings, and this is likely to continue as long as social distancing measures are in place.

In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if this went on to become the new normal. There’s obviously no substitute for meeting someone face to face. But while coronavirus is clearly the dominant issue at present, between now and 2050 it will undoubtedly be climate change.

I expect there to be more and more pressure to cut business travel to help the UK meet its extremely ambitious carbon reduction targets, and virtual meetings may become common.

The next year will be unavoidably tough for fenestration – perhaps the hardest we’ve faced in decades. But if we can get through this challenging period, I think the long-term prospects for our industry are very good.

The UK still needs millions more houses to tackle the housing shortage, and if we’ve got any chance of reaching net zero by 2050, tens of millions of UK properties will require extensive retrofitting.

As a sector, let’s help each other get through this unprecedented crisis, then work towards the greater prosperity the next decade can bring.