Open for business: How industry has adapted to survive the lockdown
Keeping only those who must be on-site has been key to continuing operations
Martin McVicar of CombiLift: demand from many customers in the 80 countries where it sells forklifts is growing in some cases. Photograph: Peter Murtagh
The triggering of Level 5 restrictions this week as the State battles to cope with Covid-19 has forced many businesses to shut their doors once more at what is a crucial time of year. But, while much of the retail, hospitality, tourism, and recreation sectors are plunged into crisis, a large part of the economy continues to function.
Even beyond those elements of the services sector where many can operate from home, the entire manufacturing and construction sectors are classed as essential enterprises alongside schools and frontline health and emergency care. Everyone from food processors to pharmaceutical companies are operating even while the pandemic continues to create new challenges, helping to soften the blow to the economy.
Travel is severely limited but demand from many customers in the 80 countries where it sells forklifts is growing in some cases. Covid-19 restrictions around the world have put a premium on warehouse space, partly because of social distancing requirements within business premises, and partly because more people are buying products online, adding to demand for space.
So the need for the custom-made forklifts that Combilift makes is growing. While staff may not be able to travel to meet clients to assess their needs as they normally would, McVicar says they are using whatsapp calls.
“During the call we get them to put on the phone’s video and walk us through their place, showing us the problems they want us to solve. The need for companies to implement social distancing, that’s driving demand for warehouse space, that means they need more vehicles.”
Travel restrictions, especially quarantine periods, mean Combilift staff only travel where there is no alternative. Covid also means that its 60 technical sales staff on the ground in different countries around the world, including 34 in its US office, have to stay put and avoid coming to the company’s HQ. The business has even hired overseas staff using video-call interviews.
McVicar says it has had to step up spending on sales and marketing, as the pandemic has shut down the trade shows that generally aid it in recruiting new customers. Last year, the company exhibited at 92 such events. “That has gone to zero,” McVicar observes.
The manufacturer, which employs 600 people, is one of those continuing to operate under the new Level 5 restrictions imposed this week by the Government to shield the health service from the worst impact of a second virus wave. Like most others in this situation, it has been adapting more or less constantly.
Face masks have been mandatory on site since April, while social distancing is now part of how it does business. It is also discouraging car-pooling, which helped spread the virus in other industries.
The nature of its business means that most staff work in its factory, with limited scope for people to work from home. Combilift introduced split shifts to reduce interaction and to meet social distancing requirements.
“Fifty per cent start at 7am and the other 50 start at 9am; that means we have less people coming in and out at the same time,” McVicar says.
It also controls access to the canteen where, in the spring, the company stopped serving hot food in order to prevent staff congregating. It now provides take-away meals and different groups of staff eat in their own separate canteens.
Combilift has added copper coatings to doors and other surfaces to mitigate the risk of the disease being spread by touch. Staff who can work remotely do so, interacting digitally with colleagues in production. It works, but not as efficiently as previously, McVicar says.
Consequently, the Co Kilkenny-based group behind well-known Irish products including Avonmore milk and Kilmeaden cheese, is one of those businesses that has continued operating since the pandemic struck in March.
Michael O’Leary, its chief human resources officer, says the group was on the alert weeks before the Republic’s first lockdown in March, communicating closely with its office in China to prepare for the potential arrival of the virus here.
“In February we got a really good indication of what it was going to look like in March,” he says.
Glanbia had been working on business continuity plans for several years. Although none contemplated measures as far ranging as those needed to stave off Covid, it had done some of the preparation needed.
Early on, it appointed an executive with experience of dealing with Sars in China a decade or so ago to lead this process. Glanbia rotates this role because of the pressures it involves. In common with all manufacturers, only those workers needed at its 11 plants are allowed to work there physically. The same rule applies to any contractors at those sites.
These facilities are now “unrecognisable” says O’Leary. Around 400 of its 2,100 workers, who are not directly involved in manufacturing, operate from home.
Dairy and food processing are already subject to rigorous hygiene standards, so absorbing an extra layer of precautions was straightforward. Its food service business, which supplies restaurants and catering, suffered, but the divisions that served retail proved more robust.
On the plus side, revenues in its mymilkman home delivery service trebled earlier this year.
Other parts of its business changed too. Its own retail operation, which sells animal feed, fertiliser, gardening equipment and household goods, had to switch to a call-and-collect system, requiring customers to order ahead and have their purchases brought to their cars when they arrived.
In August, 10 out of 130 workers in Glanbia’s plant at Ballitore, Co Kildare, tested positive for Covid-19, contracted in the community rather than at work. This was during a period when the virus was spiking in several midland counties. A subsequent series of tests showed the workforce was clear. To date, this has been the only outbreak in the group’s Irish operations, which are continuing to apply pandemic safeguards.
“People are really, really determined to protect themselves, protect the company and protect other people and their families,” O’Leary says. “We want to look back on this in two years’ time and we want to be proud of what we have done.”Naas
Covid-19 means its customers in the food industry are facing new challenges as the pandemic changes people’s eating habits and how they shop.
The business researches and develops new products for food processors globally, including meat, dairy, bread and baked goods, and ready meals, according to the group’s chief innovation officer, Albert McQuaid. It could have several thousand projects under way at once. The work covers creating ingredients and developing them through the production process.
One big challenge Covid-19 threw up for many customers was maintaining quality in food for home delivery. So we had to make a more robust product that could withstand that time delay,” he explains.
Kerry works with clients in food production, processing and retail channels. Mr McQuaid notes that customers face different long- and short-term challenges as a result of the pandemic and its accompanying restrictions. “It varies with every customer,” he says.
Staff at the Kildare facility have to observe strict social distancing and other protocols, including the by now across-the-board wearing of face masks. Only those who need to be present on site are there. “We would normally have 900 people, today we have only 100,” McQuaid points out.
This creates challenges of its own. As a product is developed, it has to be tested through the production process and the recipe or formula adjusted as it moves from small to large-scale production. Normally, development staff work closely with those on the manufacturing side to manage this. That now has to be done remotely.
The group has customers around the world, but travel and other restrictions mean that site visits are, for now, severely limited. Similarly, travel has been all but ruled out for Kerry’s own staff. McQuaid would normally expect to be out of the country one week a month. Not now.
The US giant makes active ingredients for drugs such as a HPV vaccine and blockbuster cancer treatments in plants in counties Carlow, Cork, Meath and Tipperary, which are exported around the world. It is building a biotech manufacturing facility in Swords, Co Dublin, and also has a commercial office in the capital.
Pharmaceuticals are a key export for the Republic, responsible for much of the increase in the overseas sale of goods and services from here in recent years – and also behind the surprising resilience of the Republic’s trading performance through Covid-19.
A key precaution the company took at the outset was ensuring that only those required to work on manufacturing in its plants actually turned up to work there.
“It’s only the people that needed to be on the site to run the batches, operate the machines and quality control,” he says. Even team-leads are operating from home, as are their colleagues across the group’s global operations.
This required a big adjustment for many of its 2,700 workers, as manufacturing staff are not used to working remotely. Communication, including open digital forums, became a key part of its strategy. MSD also established an incident management team to handle any contingencies.
A second issue was getting its products to customers based outside the Republic as, in the early stages of the crisis, planes were not flying. This meant the company had to switch to transport by ship.
Work was halted on its new plant in Swords in March as construction was shut down when the then government imposed the first lockdown at the end of that month. Building restarted in May, with tough protocols designed to curb any potential spread of the virus. Brennan notes that there could be up to 2,000 people working on this site.
This involved working with external contractors doing the actual work. “Our construction timeline had to allow some flexibility into the schedule, but we are now on plan,” Brennan says.
As a multinational, travel is key to how MSD does its business. Restrictions mean that senior staff from its US head office in New Jersey cannot come here, while Brennan and his colleagues cannot go there or to the group’s European headquarters in Switzerland. Instead, he takes part in video conferences with fellow group senior managers, all of whom are operating from their own home offices.
Globally, MSD is one of those drug makers in the race to find a Covid-19 vaccine. While the signs are positive, Brennan counsels that the virus is going to be with us for some time to come. Even once vaccines get over the regulatory line, companies will then have to make enough to inoculate most of the globe.
“Covid-19 is not a nine-day wonder,” he warns.