Mike Boswell, Managing Director of leading polymer distributor, Plastribution, provides an insight on a year like no other.

Personal challenges

The pandemic has been the biggest challenge I have had to face in my whole management career. Becoming a managing director is always a big step and very much a challenge, but ultimately it’s something that you can prepare for, albeit with a little bit on the job learning. I’ve also been very fortunate throughout my career, to get involved in various management development programs. However, none of those are quite focused on the sort of situation that we have faced with coronavirus, where there was so much happening so quickly. There were long days, which if I’m honest, left me feeling mentally exhausted dealing with things that were very different to what I was used to doing before. It was a real challenge.

Overall, I think the way that we’ve gone about our business, the investment we’ve made in our management team, developing the relationships between managers and, in particular, amongst the senior management team, equipped us to work very effectively together. I don’t remember any cases where we were having long debates, or there was any politics around what we were trying to achieve. I think people understood, collaborated, supported and worked hard to make things happen.

From a sort of personal viewpoint, I’m somebody who enjoys difficult situations and challenges and trying to work my way through those is certainly rewarding. When it goes right, it’s great…it’s a bit frustrating when it all goes wrong. From a management viewpoint, I had some great support from colleagues, which was greatly appreciated, plus an abundance of support at home as well, which really helps of course.

A fast-moving situation

As the world descended into Covid-19 chaos in some shape or form in February/March this year, l think my early view of the global implications were probably a little ‘off-the-map’ initially. I only started  watching in some amazement as the situation developed – first of all in Asia than in Italy. I think like a lot of people, it seemed a little bit remote in the UK initially, until we started to see more cases arriving and then when the first Covid-19 related death occurred, the seriousness of the situation became very real.

As a business, we had never prepared for a global pandemic previously. The potential impact on the UK, its population and also the business community was concerning, so most of our early efforts prior to lockdown were focused on trying to understand the scale of the issue and then how to respond.

We are fortunate at Plastribution to have a long term experienced and knowledgeable management team, which can operate very effectively in a range of different situations. So from the outset, our collective and immediate priority was to consider the needs of the business and its personnel and, in terms of preparation, try and come up with the right solution in the circumstances for us and our business.[/vc_column_text]

Our immediate priorities were for the welfare of our staff, both in terms of their health and safety and also making sure that there was a viable business going forward so we can look after their economic welfare as well. Where we had any concerns for personnel with regard to anybody who was vulnerable from a health position, or anybody who lived in a household where members were potentially vulnerable, we got people to go home with the appropriate equipment to enable them to do their jobs.

Investment in technology a bonus

Working remotely was something that, historically, we were used to – certainly from a regional perspective. We had invested in business software systems at Plastribution, such as Oracle NetSuite, so when it came to full lockdown in March, getting people settled into a new work regime was much smoother than we anticipated. And communicating with customers wasn’t as problematic as we thought it might have been – we were able to instigate approaches that suited them.

Commercially, as we moved into lockdown, it was a case of doing the ‘checks and balances’, such as – can we continue to operate normally? Can we receive goods into the warehouses? Can we dispatch those goods to customers? Can we do all the paperwork that goes with that? Can we manage payments effectively, both to our suppliers, and receive funds from our customers? And ultimately, can we afford to pay ourselves at the end of the period?

Key to this initial phase was not to panic and to make sure that we could maintain levels of service to meet the needs of our customers and suppliers. It was important to continue to be the trusted partner of all our stakeholders and be seen to be managing the situation proactively, but also with consideration.

Implications of lockdown

Once in full lockdown, we looked very carefully at the issues of staff welfare. We had already completed some preparatory work looking at mental health support in the workplace, and training mental health first aiders. We also put our management team through mental health awareness training, which helped enormously in keeping watch on this hugely important issue.

As lockdown became a reality, we took advantage of the government furlough scheme, which we saw as being useful to the business in a number of ways. The scheme allowed us to match resources to the requirements of the business. Volumes were down by around 30-40% during May, so furlough allowed us to staff the operation to deal with demand. Furlough also enabled us to take the opportunity to conduct personal development. Prior to the pandemic we had signed up to a training portal, which gave us access to a wide range of modules suitable for the business.

The result being that while on furlough, we were able to work on staff personal development as well as training on business systems and processes. We were also embedding Microsoft Teams at the time, which enabled us to drive a number of projects and processes through the business seamlessly.

Communication is key

We were communicating far more with our teams across the whole organisation than we ever had before. Currently we have twice weekly briefings, which is a tremendous uplift from our previous meetings schedule, where company wide meetings happened every two to three months. The feedback from staff on this new system has been really positive and we are looking to maintain this meeting  frequency going forward.

I took the opportunity during lockdown to fine tune the organisation of the business, resulting in integrating logistics more into the commercial operation. This was something we were slightly challenged with prior to the pandemic, but I think during lockdown, it became apparent that we needed to make changes, so we took the right decision to undertake those changes at that point in time. I  guess it shows the confidence we had in the business, plus our ability to communicate with people that were able to do that. We also slightly adjusted some of our administration resource.

Again, this was a result of the pandemic in terms of no longer needing or being able to travel and make travel arrangements. As Microsoft Teams has become the de-facto platform for us to manage our communications, but also our various meetings throughout the business, we needed to re-shape our administration function to suit that particular shift in emphasis.

During lockdown, we instigated a series of ‘A Walk in the Park’ events in our local area, where we would encourage staff to get together in small groups (as restrictions allowed) and go on a planned walk for a couple of hours or so. This helped re-integrate staff and make them less isolated, while new members of the company benefitted enormously from the interaction.

On reflection

Internally, I think that one of the key surprises of the year was how professional the company has been overall and how dedicated all members of staff have been in trying to make things work in a very unusual set of circumstances. On an external level, I was heartened by prompt payments from customers, who recognised that it’s important to show good payment behaviour in order to maintain credit lines. Their positive actions helped us maintain cash in the business going forward.

Looking back, I think we were pretty happy with where we got to during lockdown. Financial performance went well and we have kept pace with demand. Furlough has been pretty effective in terms of keeping people involved in the business and we’ve been successful in blending the resource to meet demand. By the end of July, we pretty much brought everybody back into the business on a full time basis, which was a good result all round.

Restrictions ease

I think it was interesting seeing lockdown being eased. We still had a very strong desire to look after the welfare of our staff. Clearly, Covid-19 was not going away, so a number of people still had concerns about the risks, and rightly so; plus we still had vulnerable employees. So we wanted to make sure that they were as protected as best they could be from the risk of contracting coronavirus. As we entered this ‘slight recovery phase’, we also embarked on a process of office refurbishment and reorganisation that we needed to complete. So whilst we didn’t necessarily know what the requirements in terms of office space would be [with flexible working], we certainly felt that we had plans in place ready to accommodate whatever configuration was required and be Covid-19 safe.

On a national level, it seemed that the debate about working from home was constantly on the agenda, with many business commentators lauding the benefits of the ‘new normal’ and that home-working was here to stay. In the first three weeks in September, we were getting back to probably having 20 plus people a day in the offices, which compared to a normal situation where we would probably have around 30-35. It was great to see the reaction of staff members venturing back to the working environment as the late summer months progressed – a mixture of joy and relief! Apart from a small percentage of staff, nobody at Plastribution seemed overly keen to work from home permanently.

Looking ahead & lockdown 2.0

As we entered a second lockdown, the déjà vu seemed surreal. The business had been stress tested to the full and had coped very well under pressure. Relationships have been enhanced, both internally and externally and we have proved what we can do in difficult circumstances. If you face a challenge like this, and an extreme challenge at that, and you come out of it successfully, it has to be a good thing.

I think as a business, staff really appreciate the way we work for them, and with them – I think that’s really important. The quality and calibre of people that we have here is one of the key benefits to the business – it’s a factor that ultimately drives loyalty and motivation, which in turn places us in a great position commercially. Yes, it’s been a difficult journey at times, but I think we’ve emerged out of it in great shape to drive the business forward.

Clearly, we will want to make sure there’s always the capability within the business and a degree of readiness to be prepared to work from home again, or face similar challenges. So I think there’s a few things like that we would spend more time looking at. I think we were fortunate that many of the new technology investments we’ve made has given us the ideal platform to maintain momentum. As a business, we always had a strong philosophy that investment in systems and processes is the key tool that helps us to run the business efficiently on a day to day basis. So there’s never been any reluctance to invest in it.

With much of the uncertainty still in place regarding Covid-19, likely restrictions and the roll out of a suitable vaccine on the agenda, we edge ever closer to another, potentially larger, economic hurdle which will undoubtedly help re-focus the mind – Brexit. And as we lurch, somewhat chaotically, forward to this next challenge, it only remains for me to wish you all a very Happy Christmas and a better 2021, whatever it brings – stay safe and stay connected.

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Elastribution is Plastribution Group’s distribution business for speciality elastomers and related products.

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