Rising to the coronavirus challenge is all about flexibility

Top 1000: All around Ireland, businesses large and small have reimagined what they do and how they do it

It is no less true for being repeated often. Covid-19 is the biggest challenge that Irish business has faced in decades. No-one has experienced anything like it: swathes of shops, bars and restaurants shut, aircraft grounded across the world, whole industries halted and even the simplest transactions complicated by social distancing.

Restrictions closed a lot of businesses or sent others’ trade plummeting as demand for their products, or the cash needed to buy them, simply dried up. Some industries, notably hospitality, tourism, travel and airlines, now accept that 2020 is a write off and that it could take a year or possibly more before normality returns.

Nevertheless, businesses had no choice but to adapt. Some had to change how they operated to ensure workers were safe, others had to find different ways of serving their customers, or maintaining and managing supplies. A few even found they could contribute to the battle to stop the spread of the disease.

Bloc Blinds: From window blinds to face shields

Bloc Blinds found a solution to healthcare staff’s need for protective equipment that allowed the manufacturer to muster its own workers in the battle against Covid-19. In “normal times”, managing director Cormac Diamond says the company employs 180 people making window blinds for the local and export markets from its base at Magherafelt, Co Derry.


Diamond says that Bloc Blinds closed its operations and sent staff home in late March. Like everyone else, he was aware that a shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) was endangering nurses and doctors on the frontline in hospitals.

His colleague, engineer Kevin McCullough, realised that the company could produce the face shields, made with a transparent sheet of plastic and secured with elastic around the wearer’s head. They came up with a design deemed suitable by the National Health Service (NHS) and set about recalling staff so they could start making it.

That was not as easy as it sounds. Bloc Blinds had to re-engineer its own systems, train its workers to make the equipment and find premises that would allow its staff to maintain the recommended safe distance from each other. Enter Mid-Ulster Council, which provided Meadowbank Sports Arena.

Diamond says the company set up a marquee within the arena where it put in conveyor lines on which its workers make the shields. Bloc made 80,000 in its first week, rising to around 150,000 in the second. “With a few design changes that we have made, we could produce one to two million visors within two weeks,” he says.

Self-assembly kits

Bloc is using flexible manufacturing technology that allows it to turn on and turn off production easily, Diamond explains.

The Health Service Executive and the NHS are customers, but lots of other organisations seeking protective equipment quickly got in touch. To serve some of these customers quickly, Bloc actually designed self-assembly kits, with all the parts needed and printed instructions on how to put together the visors. “All they need is a regular office stapler,” Diamond says.

While it wasn’t easy, Bloc was able to find Irish suppliers. The company sourced the elastic from a supplier in Dublin. Diamond reserves particular praise for Xtrupak, based in Loch Gowna, Co Cavan, which provides the plastic from which the actual shield is made. DPD aided with distribution.

Diamond emphasises that the enterprise depends heavily on Irish partners rather than suppliers from abroad. The certainty that they provide is crucial. “Without the raw materials, the whole thing falls apart,” he says.

He believes that the shortages and problems with obtaining badly-needed equipment, much of which is made at the other side of the world, will make Irish businesses think again once the Covid-19 crisis has passed.

“This pandemic has made people think about normal life in a whole different way,” he says. “Even from the chatter I’m hearing now, I believe it’s going to make people sit up and notice and think about the robustness of our supplies in the future. At least with more localised supply chains we will be better prepared to deal with something like this.”

Wicklow Rapeseed Oil: Meeting demand while putting staff first

An exemption from lockdown for farming and food production meant Wicklow Rapeseed Oil could carry on trading, but its chief executive and founder Keith Symes says that Covid-19 changed the way it operated and hit part of its market.

Wicklow Rapeseed Oil sells its products, the oil itself along with the Sussed range of healthy heart oils, to more than 250 supermarkets around the Republic. Customers include big names such as SuperValu, Dunnes and Tesco. Sales from their shelves held up, even increased, he notes. "Instead of people dining out, they are going to the supermarket, so that helps us," Symes says.

The hospitality market grinding to a halt meant sales to restaurants and cafés dried up, but this sector is only a small portion of the company’s market.

Wicklow Rapeseed Oil had to adjust how its four staff worked. Just one person instead of two operated the press that produces the oil from the seed, while there could only be one person at a time in its office.

Boosting sales

This meant shifting from a five-day week to seven days, as the work had to be spread out to ensure that the company operated within social-distancing recommendations, which hold that people should stay two metres apart. “We are being super-super-careful, but staff wellbeing is foremost,” Symes stresses.

“It’s very challenging to be honest, but we have to make sure that the product is there for our customers. We don’t want to let people down.”

Wicklow Rapeseed still hopes to hit its target of boosting this year’s sales to €400,000 from €340,000 in 2019, although its chief executive concedes that this may be more difficult than it seemed at the beginning of the year.

Mentioning the company's plans to launch its new product Vegan Power Bites in Sainsbury and Asda supermarkets in Britain, Symes says that Covid-19 could affect this but hopes not materially.

He urges shoppers to stick with local food companies as they can be relied on in crises.

“Irish producers are essential to guaranteeing that products are available on the shelves,” he says.

Martin Services: Riding the demand rollercoaster

Ian Martin, chief executive of Martin Services in Bluebell, Dublin, found Covid-19 was a feast and then a famine. His company employs 14 people distributing first aid and hygiene products mainly to other businesses, so there was an initial rush for goods such as hand sanitisers as the crisis began to unfold in February.

This created problems of its own as supplies around the world fell sharply while demand rose. One difficulty was that as international companies shipped products here via Britain, those suppliers favoured UK customers such as the country’s National Health Service.

The other was a general and growing shortage of goods such as sanitisers. “That’s become an issue,” Martin says.

One solution was to limit what his company supplied to customers so it was able to provide all of them with something. “If they want six we ask if they will take three instead. Many of them are happy to do that,” he notes.

Fielded challenges

Another solution was to ensure that someone who had initially sought products was actually still open. If not, Martin Services was better able to focus on and fill orders from businesses that continued to function through the crisis.

Martin also fielded other challenges such as unscrupulous suppliers trying to charge “rip-off prices” for products, and some offering products of doubtful origin or certification.

Lockdown became the other side of the coin. As businesses closed to comply with Government restrictions, orders began drying up faster than they had increased over the previous weeks. For that reason, his company has applied to Revenue for the scheme that pays employers 70 per cent of a worker’s’ gross pay up to €410 a week if they are keeping someone in a job.

“We are a business-to-business operation and if businesses are going to close, then that is going to have a knock-on effect. That’s why this scheme is so important,” he says.

Combilift: juggling global needs and restrictions

Managing social distancing in a factory employing 600 people posed a logistical puzzle to Co Monaghan-based forklift maker Combilift. Martin McVicar, the company’s chief executive, says the manufacturer solved it by breaking up the workforce into eight different groups, according to their jobs, with their own separate canteens for extra safety.

Combilift also split the working day shifts, one starting at 6am and ending at 2pm with the other running from then to 10pm. To prevent overlapping, the first shift moved off the factory floor at 1:45pm while the second did not come on until 2:15pm. “So we ended up with 16 different segments,” McVicar observes.

However, workers grew more nervous as March went on, some because they had family members with underlying health problems or who fell into other groups regarded as particularly vulnerable to Covid-19.

Consequently, Combilft suspended operations for three weeks, ending on April 20th, keeping on a number of staff working to handle customer service, spare parts, follow up and related tasks. The company took this step before the Government tightened restrictions in the final week of March.

In fact, McVicar maintains that had the company wanted to, it could have continued to operate.

“We are keeping the employees on our payroll and we have made an application to the Revenue for the wage subsidy scheme,” he says. “If you look at the criteria, our revenue has definitely dropped 25 per cent.”

Very understanding

Its customers around the world have been very understanding. McVicar points out that many are in the same boat, as Covid-19 has struck more or less everywhere. “This is a global problem,” he says.

Meanwhile, Combilift must continue to juggle different regimes in the 85 countries to which it exports forklifts. New Zealand, for instance, where it is sending a shipment, is not letting containers out of its ports during a four-week lockdown.

Currency fluctuations are a problem for the company. Many currencies have fallen in the face of the crisis, causing the Irish manufacturer a particular problem. McVicar explains that its forklifts are shipped to customers around the world, journeys that often take five, six or seven weeks.

Thus, the value of a destination country’s currency could fall while the forklifts destined for it “are still on the water”.

This means that Combilift loses out when the customer pays for the delivery. Hedging is not an option at the moment, partly because of the volatility created by coronavirus, which has led to the value of money falling across jurisdictions.

Another issue is the possibility that the company may have to find alternative raw material suppliers as those in badly-hit countries shut up shop.

For example, Italian suppliers provide Combilift with 27 different components, so conditions there have obvious ramifications for the firm.

McVicar has no fears about Combilift’s ability to get up and running again, but is keen for the government to take even more decisive action. “Flattening the curve is not going to give everybody the confidence they need to get back to business. We need to get shut of it in Ireland,” he says.

Castleruddery Organic Farm: keeping customers fed from the farm

Restaurant closures cut off one line of business for fruit and vegetable grower Castleruddery Organic Farm as Covid-19 struck, but the Co Wicklow-based operation adjusted quickly to a new way of selling its goods to customers.

Castleruddery helped pioneer organic farming when it began trading in 1989. Founder Dominic Quinn says that it evolved over the intervening three decades according to its own needs and market demands.

Most recently the family-run business focused on selling through its own shop on the farm, the nearby Naas Farmers’ Market, and direct to restaurants.

Coronavirus shut the restaurants, while Quinn confesses that he became uncomfortable with the farmers’ market before circumstances shut such enterprises. So Castleruddery decided to sell only from the shop on its farm.

Even that had to be re-organised. To comply with social distancing, one person entered at a time. There they were greeted with what Quinn describes as an “old-fashioned” set up, with the goods displayed behind the counter and the shopper requesting what they needed from outside it. Staff then packed the goods and handed them across the counter to the customers.

However, the business knew it had to take this a step further. “At the same time we were encouraging customers to email in their orders for the following week,” Quinn says.

Learning curve

This caught on quickly, so Castleruddery soon found itself serving most orders in this way, with customers emailing ahead and then simply collecting the goods.

“That’s what we have been doing for the last few weeks,” he says.

He concedes that it has been a learning curve, and points out tracking and filling individual orders is labour-intensive, requiring both time and care.

Nevertheless, customers responded well and the business is now at a point where he and his family can manage it.

Castleruddery is a working farm, so while all this is happening, Quinn also has to manage seeding and growing crops to ensure it has products to sell in the future. The business normally takes on some seasonal workers to aid with harvesting, but there is now uncertainty over this.

In the meantime, shoppers continue to support the farm. “We have been humbled by the people who keep coming to us and by the number of new customers as well,” Quinn says.

Our definitive top 1000 companies guide, published with The Irish Times on Friday, June 12th, is also available at irishtimes.com/top1000