How we faced our biggest challenge in 250 years

David Young

David Young

The oldest builders’ merchant in the UK, Bradfords Building Supplies was excited to celebrate its 250th anniversary in 2020, until the Covid-19 pandemic broke and it became a landmark year for very different reasons. Here, CEO David Young explains how flexibility and agility helped the company overcome one of the biggest operational hurdles in its history.

Since the company was first set up by the Bradfords family in 1770, we’ve faced all kinds of challenges – from the industrial revolution to the Spanish flu and two world wars – and have adapted our business as the world has changed.

Yet, as discussed in the recent Business Leader forum on the future of the high street, we faced one of our biggest challenges so far when the Covid-19 pandemic instigated the biggest and most sudden pivot our business has ever had to make.

One of the reasons this posed such a challenge for us is because, for the first time in our history, we didn’t have other aspects of our operations to fall back on. For example, in the Second World War, our agricultural services arm played a role in supporting this essential sector and acted as a prop for the business at a time when the supply of building materials was in much lower demand.

A major shift

When the first lockdown was announced on 22 March 2020, we decided to remain open, but to ensure control of our sites through a pre-arranged collection and delivery-only model. We knew it was the right thing to do to support tradespeople carrying out essential work, but we also knew that we would have to significantly adjust the way we did business to remain open safely.

We had to make changes in the way we operated to protect our staff and suppliers and to allow for safe trading with our customers – all of which were devised in a single afternoon off the back of the flexibility of our ERP system, which allowed us to quickly set up an effective click and collect process.

However, when we opened the morning of 23 March with our revised processes in place, we were forced to shut collections down by 10am due to the level of custom we were experiencing.

As one of the only merchants to stay open, we were in demand from those self-employed trades who needed to keep working – something that, in hindsight, was unsurprising.

We had to ensure that our branch teams had control and felt safe. A pause was essential, and we knew we had to make a fundamental change in order to keep our teams on side and be able to remain open.

By the time we opened the following day, we had a new process in place across all of our branches. We found new ways to work to ensure that social distancing guidelines and enhanced cleaning regimes could be followed whilst still getting on with the job – and, crucially, that gave our teams the control they needed.

These new processes were time consuming, physically demanding and meant we were only able to serve a limited number of customers, but soon we got into a new way of working.

The senior team met online every day in those early weeks to ensure that everything was working as well as it could be and to make any adjustments where needed.

Communication is vital

We operate over 40 branches across the South West and it was crucial to make sure that everyone across the business understood what new measures were in place and the reasons behind them.

We produced daily updates for the team while the changes were embedded, providing a consistent reinforcement of the safety and hygiene measures we’d introduced. But, with at times over 150 of our suppliers either shut or operating a hugely reduced offering, crucial to our success was keeping our branches informed on the latest supplier status. At the same time, our category teams briefed our suppliers and our sales director briefed our customers.

What this highlighted, and I think this has really been a key lesson from the pandemic, is that management of expectation is crucial. Customers were willing to wait for products, and would tolerate delays or changes, as long as we kept them in the loop. And we encouraged all team members to continue to communicate with one another while we were adapting to this new way of working.

Practical challenges

Social distancing can be really tricky in certain situations – in a corridor or when sharing the lifting of heavy items, for example – and we had to take measures to make this as easy as we could. This meant moving printers, changing office arrangements and being ruthless on a strict rota for making a brew.

Whether it’s introducing a one-way system in corridors or encouraging team members to lift items facing away from each other, it’s much better to have discussed and clarified our procedures among ourselves before realising halfway through a task that it’s not being carried out safely.

We also felt the loss of non-verbal forms of communication that we’d previously taken for granted.

At Bradfords, we see ourselves as one big family and we found it hard at first to avoid things like shaking each other’s hands or offering a pat on the back. Moving to a technically efficient system for our collect orders where there was almost no contact between customer and our teams – photographing signed receipts and the like – seemed slick, but of course with that came the loss of opportunities to catch up with familiar faces and that all-important banter which makes working life rich and fun.

We were aware of the effect these simple things have on our ability to build and maintain relationships, particularly when you’re relying on someone else to enable you to complete your work safely.

With this in mind, we reminded our colleagues to take time to communicate clearly and make sure they’ve talked to each other about how they’ll do a job differently to complete it without breaking social-distancing guidelines.

Embracing technology

Much has been said about the role of technology in supporting businesses across all kinds of sectors in responding to the pandemic and we’re no exception. Our team has adapted quickly to using collaborative software to allow us to meet online, while measures such as scanner apps have helped to promote a safer environment for our customers, staff and suppliers.

In recent years we’ve known that embracing e-commerce technology was important, but the Covid-19 outbreak forced us to ramp up our efforts in this area as it was key for working successfully as a collection and delivery-only business.

Now we have more of these tools in place, we’re continuing to embrace them as we gradually return to a more ‘normal’ way of working.

A united front

I believe the way the construction industry has come together to meet the challenges posed by Covid-19 on how we work has allowed us all to respond so effectively as a sector. We shared our new procedures with the Builders Merchants Federation (BMF) early on so that others could benefit and we’ve been open to supporting any merchants who have approached us for advice.

Similarly, our branches have always been encouraged to support the communities in which they operate and we were keen that these efforts would continue throughout the pandemic. We’re proud that our teams have continued to help local community initiatives over the past year. As just a few examples, our Newton Abbot branch supplied hi-vis jackets for marshals at the Cricketfield Surgery vaccination centre (via the local Rotary Club), while our Taunton branch delivered bulk bags of gravel to hold down temporary shelter for those queueing at a local vaccination centre and our Bude branch recently donated materials for the construction of a new multi-purpose, all-weather track at Stratton School.

Looking ahead

I’ve learned more in the last 15 months than I had in the decade beforehand and the way we do business has undoubtedly changed for the foreseeable future. While we’ve reverted back to some of our pre-pandemic procedures as government restrictions have eased, we’ve done so with the lessons we’ve learned embedded.

We know that flexibility and adaptability are key to the ongoing success of our business and the pandemic has shown us that by adapting to change quickly and collaboratively, we can be resilient and continue to grow despite a challenge on the scale of a global pandemic.

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