Members of the BCMPA will no doubt have stories to tell their grandchildren when asked what they were doing during the Covid-19 pandemic.
For they have found themselves on the commercial front line in these troubling times. Some have struggled and some have flourished – largely depending on whether their products are deemed essential or not.
For those operating in the retail food supply chain, business has generally increased, while suppliers of luxury goods, wholesale food & drink, and non-essential products have, in some cases, seen operations grind to a halt due to the Covid-19 outbreak.
Alexir, which manufactures 400 million cartons per year at its plant in Edenbridge, Kent, and operates a co-packing business in Uckfield, East Sussex, is one of the lucky ones. Around 95% of its business comes from the food industry, mainly in dried food. And, while its food service business – supplying restaurants, hotels, airlines etc – reduced overnight, the company has seen huge order increases elsewhere.
BCMPA members who have been able to switch or adapt production lines quickly, in response to the enormous demand for hand sanitiser and other antibacterial products for example, have also remained very busy – highlighting the importance of flexibility in our current situation.
Claire Summersby, partnership sales & marketing manager for Alexir, said: “We had a massive uplift on some of our lines, such as fresh poultry and fresh produce, but we saw the opposite effect with customers in food service, where some businesses have suffered due to retail closures.”
But she said that, despite the upheaval in traditional production flows within the industry, businesses had to get on with it: “If we don’t supply packaging, food can’t be put on shelves and people can’t eat. It’s a vital service.”
A key part of keeping that service operational is the workforce, which is why every BCMPA member consulted has fully embraced and enacted Government guidelines on social distancing and employee safety – many going much further.
Hügli UK, which specialises in blending and packing ambient, long-life convenience food products, has introduced temperature checks for staff as they arrive for work. Ashley English, key account manager for Hügli, which is still operating at its usual capacity, explained: “We need to ensure that those showing any signs of illness are sent home, avoiding the risk of potential Covid-19 carriers working with other members of staff.”
Downturn in productivity
He also said it was imperative to keep staff fully informed: “Weekly Covid-19 meetings are being held at each of our production sites, led by senior management to ensure relevant actions are implemented in what is a very fluid situation.”
But, while all BCMPA members have implemented and adhered to the guidelines, some have seen a downturn in productivity as a result.
QAS Copak, for example, which provides rework, case and carton assembly and bottle sleeving services from sites in Scotland and Warrington, has seen reductions in both order volumes and the speed of lines.
“Creating an environment where the welfare of our staff is the priority, in relation to Government guidelines on social distancing, means many lines are running inefficiently, as much of the work is labour intensive,” said QAS Copak director Derek Page. “But warehousing and stockholding remains high. However, our ‘can do approach’ coupled with our employee flexibility, has allowed us to meet demand whilst still getting orders out on time.”
He added that the introduction of the Government’s furlough arrangement had nevertheless been helpful in reducing the additional labour cost burden.
Kevin Rogers, president – sales & marketing for LGI Logistics, part of the Elanders Group, also welcomed the furlough scheme, but said it had nevertheless created challenges. The company has seen a stable, and even increased, demand for healthcare and food products, but other areas, particularly those reliant on supply of goods from China, and global shipping generally, had led to some customers closing down businesses altogether. It has meant that balancing staffing levels has proven difficult.
“We furloughed many of our employees to reflect the level of activity required by our customers,” said Rogers. “In some cases we’ve had to un-furlough due to non-furlough employees going into isolation – therefore cancelling the benefit of furloughing the employee in the first place.”
Rogers and Page both agreed that more clarity of what constituted an ‘essential worker’ or business would be helpful. Rogers said: “In the future, we’d like to see a clear definition of what is required of a key service provider to keep the economy running, and the policies they must have in place to ensure worker safety.”
But BCMPA members all appreciate that we’re all in this together, and we must all work together to ensure the best outcomes.