Where there are challenges there are opportunities

The fenestration industry has responded to the latest national lockdown by remaining open and continuing as normally as possible.

While prime minister Boris Johnson insisted during a televised address to the nation on January 4, 2021 that “the government is once again instructing you to stay at home” to limit the spread of the coronavirus, he also detailed exceptions that directly affect our industry, in particular construction and manufacturing, which were used as examples alongside those who work within critical national infrastructure.

The gov.uk website also confirms that tradespeople are allowed to work in people’s homes, and it has provided guidance for doing so.

In stark contrast to the first national lockdown, which left many in the industry, and from all parts of the supply chain, scratching their heads at the sometimes conflicting messages, the latest guidance is much clearer.

Glass Times spoke to several companies during January 5, the first day that the new rules come into force, and discovered a unanimous determination to continue operations without break, including some companies that were perfectly positioned to offer products and services that helped the initial response to the pandemic.

“We saw a very significant increase in demand for our glass consumables and hardware ranges last March and that tap has never really turned off, right the way through Lockdown 2.0. And now, going into a third period of lockdown, we don’t expect that change,” Bohle’s Dave Broxton said.

“The advantage that we have is that in most cases we aren’t in direct contact with our customers. We do get collections but most of the time we’re shipping product direct.”
In many cases, companies had already implemented thorough safety procedures to protect staff, suppliers and customers, so were already prepared for tougher government restrictions.

“We are adhering to government guidance of extra PPE, social distancing and handwashing,” Phil Dewhurst Jr, commercial director at the Georgian Bar Company, said. “We have added hand sanitiser stations so that when people move around the business, they can clean their hands as they enter a new zone to reduce the chance of cross contamination. We also ensure masks are worn between the different zones. In addition, we are limiting the number of visitors to the site and when they do come, we issue them with PPE and give them the extra Covid-19 safety information.”

Central’s Gary Morton also said that his company was “ahead of the curve”.

“As a management team, we had a few Zoom sessions between Christmas and New Year and produced a much more robust employee Covid-secure document,” he said. “At the centre of this is a ‘three strikes and you’re out’ policy, no visitors other than crucial maintenance engineers, and a much stricter work-from-home policy.”

Sternfenster’s Mike Parczuk said the company has had strict controls in place to protect employees since the first lockdown.

“We’ve consistently reviewed those since then to ensure that we are following government best practice guidelines and advice,” he said.

Nigel Leivers, director at Frame Fast UK, said social distancing and hand sanitation was the main focus of the company, while cleaners are kept busy throughout the day. He also said customers to the trade counter have been limited to two at a time in masks.

“Once they have been served, our counter staff sanitise the area where the customer has been,” he said. “We also clean down with anti-bacterial spray all products on an hourly basis. If customers are shown products at the time of serving them, our counter staff clean them afterwards.”

Victorian Sliders invested more than £15,000 in a series of Covid prevention systems.

“Before coming on site and at each breaktime, all staff have to be screened with heat sensor cameras, facial recognition cameras, and have to answer a questionnaire about their health and any symptoms which they access by scanning a QR code with their phone,” managing director Andy Jones said.

While keeping houses in order is one thing – and Glass Times has reported in detail the lengths companies have gone to to keep employees safe during 2020 – managing supply, generating sales and servicing customers, all while protecting individuals concerned, has thrown up challenges not experienced before the coronavirus pandemic.

Recent trends include increased digital processes, increased automation, and remote selling, all of which has often has a significant positive effect on companies’ finances.
“We took receipt of a new Schirmer aluminium cutting and machining centre and a new four-head crimper at the end of last year, while we have recruited a further 41 members to our team since the first lockdown,” Mike Parczuk said.

Sternfenster also has a retail operation, and Mike said that, even though the showroom has been closed, the business is still being marketed digitally.

Emplas’s retail arm, T&K, has also closed its showroom doors, but is still operational.

“We trialled WindowCAD as we came out of the first lockdown and that’s supporting us and many of our customers to continue to trade effectively,” managing director Ryan Johnson said. “The advantage is that as well as walking prospects through the sale remotely and showing them options against their actual property, dimensions can be uploaded and used to form the basis of an order, so you aren’t inputting data twice.”

Glass Times understands that the majority of installation companies plan to remain open during this third period of national lockdown.

This has been helped by the uptake of the increasing number of software packages that are now available, such as Adminbase from Ab Initio.

“Everything continues to be fully functional, both within our own business and in terms of the support we provide for our installer customers, and rather than furloughing staff we have added to our team since the first lockdown,” Ab Initio’s Rhonda Ridge said.

“In fact, our web-based version launched early in 2020 allows businesses to continue to operate as normal, with full uninterrupted, functionality of their AdminBase system. This has been crucial for installers as they manage installations safely for their customers and employees.”

For the majority of companies Glass Times spoke to, communication was key to managing the difficulties faced in 2020, and this will continue during the latest lockdown, particularly as demands on supply have an impact.

“We have tried to keep ahead of stock ordering and have found some products more difficult to purchase than others but all in all it’s been all right,” Frame Fast UK’s Nigel Leivers said. “Some lead times have been a little tight and truth be told we have let the odd order run over slightly on lead time.”

He also said that customers are kept informed “even when it’s bad news”.

Andy Jones said that investment in Victorian Sliders’ self sufficiency has insulated it from the impact of the pandemic more than other fenestration businesses.

“Due to major investments over the past ten years, we’re a uniquely self-sufficient manufacturer,” he said. “We extrude our own profile, make all our own IGUs in-house, and even own the facility that supplies our hardware.”

Edgetech’s Charlotte Mercer also said communication has been key, and that stockholding was increased where possible.

However, she highlighted the importance of the European trade deal following the UK’s exit from the European, which will help “ease supply constraints”. Something which Bohle’s Dave Broxton agreed with.

“The bigger headache has been adjusting to the 11th, almost 12th hour, trade agreement with Europe, particularly future trading arrangements with Northern and the Republic of Ireland,” he said. “We had scenarios planned right up until the last point of last year.

“With clarification as to how we needed to move forward we have been able to implement those strategies, secure our supply chain and our own ability to supply our customers, and I very much hope put Brexit behind us once and for all.”

Furthermore, businesses are not only promoting ‘business as usual’, but also continuing with expansions plans, as is the case for Veka Recycling, which has opened its new plant in Wellingborough, albeit without a grand party.

“As installations are continuing during the latest arrangements, we will also be open to receive old PVCU windows and doors following their removal from homes and other buildings and we will also be collecting off cut material from fabricators,” Simon Scholes said.

Despite the challenges faced by all companies since March 23, and as we enter into the third national lockdown, Glass Times has noticed an altruistic and sometimes philosophical response from business leaders.

“It is what it is,” Central’s Garry Morton said. “We have to get on with it. By doing so, we have to take every measure conceivable to protect employees, customers, suppliers and ourselves.”

Georgian Bar’s Philip Dewhurst Jr argued that we are part of an essential industry.

“From what I’ve seen so far the industry has very effectively and efficiently put in place a range of measures to combat Covid-19 to ensure to the greatest extent possible we are operating in a safe and responsible manner,” he said.

“The bigger challenge is how we support parents who need to arrange childcare,” Sternfenster’s Mike Parczuk said. “Schools were closed at short notice and that’s left many parents struggling to find support… We are however, in a strong position. Things aren’t hugely different today to how they were yesterday, and I am confident that we and our customers will rise to the challenges and opportunities that come our way.”

Victorian Sliders’ Andy Jones said: “As is the case for every business, another lockdown poses challenges, but thanks to the professionalism of our staff and our legacy of far-sighted investment, we managed to make 2020 the most successful year in our history. We know we can do the same in 2021.”

Emplas’s Ryan Johnson said: “What I’d like to highlight are the continuing opportunities and also learning points from the last lockdown, the first of these is that despite the challenges that we are seeing business does go on, even if life is very different.”

Bohle’s Dave Broxton said: “The personal suffering that Covid-19 has caused has been immense and my thoughts and best wishes are with all those affected.

“From a business perspective, as much as Covid-19 has caused disruption, it has also generated opportunities where companies have been adaptable, agile and driven.”

Quickslide’s Sandra Berg said: “A national lockdown will prevent the entire supply chain from doing our job to the same degree as usual, but it’s absolutely vital that we do not rest on our laurels and leave the future of our industry and the UK economy to hope.”

Edgetech’s Charlotte Mercer said: “Our industry has proved its resilience many times in the past, and more recently too when demand far outstripped most people’s expectations during the first lockdown. I’m confident that we have the products and tools to allow us to adapt to the changes required and by working together we can continue operating in a safe way throughout the supply chain.”

Fame Fast UK’s Nigel Leivers said: “It’s been a very worrying and stressful time for anyone in business; the uncertainty of Covid-19 has hit us all hard. I have never faced anything like it in my lifetime, and cannot wait until it’s part of history.”

Glass Times will publish responses in full in the February issue.