Picture above: Bradley Gaunt, Managing Director, Made For Trade

FABRICATORS, POST COVID-19, AND THE VIEW OF MADE FOR TRADE

Chris Champion, Glass News’ Editor, talks to Bradley Gaunt, Made For Trade’s Managing Director, about how the Covid-19 epidemic will affect Made For Trade’s business, specifically, and fabricators as a whole.

Made For Trade fabricates Korniche Aluminium Roof Lanterns, Aluminium Bi-folding Doors and Global Conservatory Roofs and Orangery Roofs for the trade. Did you have to close, completely, or have you managed to provide a service of any kind during the lockdown?

Bradley Gaunt: Made For Trade, like other fabricators and the broader industry in general had to close. It was, and still is an unprecedented time for all of us. There are no models, there is no previous data to draw information from and we only had a few days to understand the industries direction and intention to either stay open or close.

Ultimately we based our decision to shut the doors on three main factors. First was to understand what our suppliers were doing; if we could not secure raw materials then staying open wasn’t sustainable. Second, we considered what our customers were asking. If we were not able to make deliveries, then we simply couldn’t continue to operate. Thirdly and most importantly was the welfare of our staff. Putting people in potential harm’s way couldn’t be an option so this really was the deciding factor.

How many of your customers locked down completely? Of those that kept open, what level of service did they offer during that time?

Bradley Gaunt: As far as we know pretty much all of our customers shut up shop around the same time we did. We do supply some online merchants and some of these continued to operate. From my understanding they remained busy throughout due to their customers being able to continue with ongoing site work that wasn’t directly in the home.

Did you continue to receive supplies from your various suppliers during lockdown? Was hardware affected and was there a difference in supply according to the geographical origin?

Bradley Gaunt: As I understand it, our suppliers all closed too. However, we couldn’t have accepted deliveries had they wanted to still deliver to us as the business was not open. We are phasing in our return to business as I write this and so too are our suppliers. We are experiencing variable service levels from them but as we are all in the same boat it is completely understandable. No one really knows what the normal level of business will be once the dust settles but I believe there will be an initial surge in demand coming out of lockdown. The tricky part is going to be bringing the right amount of people back from furlough to manage both the spike in demand but also not too much for the new normal market baseline that will follow.

You offer a wide range of product and distribute it to installers nationwide. Do you anticipate that some customers may have gone during lockdown and you may have to ramp up sales?

Bradley Gaunt: It’s been on my mind that there will undoubtedly be collateral damage from COVID-19. There have already been some large companies go to the wall and I hear stories of others not being in such rosy positions either. It is understandable that investors are going to be twitchy in this climate and so if companies who were already failing to hit targets before lockdown will be under huge pressure now! However, I’m sure the industry will find its feet. Fortunately for Made For Trade, we are a family owned business and so don’t have any obligations to hit targets except for our own reasons. MFT is a strong business and we will weather the storm.

Do you think ‘the blame game’ over responsibility for starting this pandemic will influence either your thinking over suppliers or prove to cause problems from a political aspect?

Bradley Gaunt: I think the second part of your question will have an impact on the answer for the first part. If governments go down the blame game route after COVID-19 then it could result in all kinds of changes. For example if tariffs or sanctions are implemented against states that are deemed to have failed to contain the virus where our government believes they reasonably should have or at least believes they weren’t as transparent as they maybe should have been, then the result could be that they won’t perhaps be the most competitive anymore. Thus, they may not be the most viable supply route any longer. This then perhaps answers the first part of your question. Companies might look for the most competitive supply chains and due to the political outcome, it could mean that pre COVID-19 suppliers may no longer be the ones at the top of the pile afterwards.

In your opinion, will there be an increase in the amount of product purchased from Europe and less dependence on overseas suppliers or will logistics and world trade return to how it was before coronavirus?

Bradley Gaunt: I think certain people may change their minds on who they want to deal with. It might not be a ‘Europe and us’ mentality though but perhaps rather a ‘UK and the rest of the world’ one. I think if people do anything it will be to support British industry rather than send money abroad. However, this might end up being just a short lived and utopian point of view as companies ultimately need to protect profit margins and remain competitive and so they will probably find themselves buying the materials from the most competitive source regardless. Obviously I’m making a broad statement and factors such as quality and lead time will come into this decision process too.

What have been the key difficulties with returning to work? What exceptional arrangements have you made in terms of staff and customer protection?

Bradley Gaunt: As I touched on earlier, one stumbling block is knowing how much resource is required to get through the initial few weeks of work where there could be a spike in demand but being mindful enough to not bring too many people back too soon and find a surplus of resources a month down the line.

Other issues surround staff that are stuck with childcare or are in the vulnerable category. Even though companies aren’t obliged to let staff dictate if they come off furlough or not, I believe it is important to be compassionate in these circumstances and tread carefully. As far as safeguarding employees is concerned we acted very early on by putting up hand sanitiser points throughout the business, implementing and policing social distancing measures by various means and releasing regular updates via memos to staff to inform employees what we were doing and why as well as the latest government advice. As we return to work, we will enforce these measures again and go further by risk assessing all working activities, changing SOP’s, providing PPE to those who we feel need it and looking at one-way walkways where possible amongst various other considerations. We have also risk assessed deliveries carried out by our own drivers and made changes to the terms of delivery along with the changes to the procedures of unloading product.

Relationships are bound to change following the pandemic, particularly if you have had customers who have been slow or reluctant to pay what they owe you. Has that been an issue for Made For Trade and, if so, is there a way to repair the damaged relationship?

Bradley Gaunt: I think any company who offers credit accounts will find that payments have been slow coming in. In my opinion there are several aspects to this. Firstly, most companies have been closed for the lock down and so there physically isn’t anyone at the other end to make the payments. Another reason for not paying could be due to companies’ ring fencing their cash reserves to keep it in the business. As the old cliché goes; cash is king’, although perhaps that should now go even further under the COVID pandemic and as such should be rephrased as ‘cash is emperor’! Obviously though there are going to be those that just don’t have the funds available. I think these ones are the real cause for concern as It is likely that both the other aforementioned types of customers will ultimately pay in a reasonable timeframe. However, they may cause undue strain on the supplier’s cash flow when going outside their payment terms. Fortunately, we have not had much of an issue so far. For those of our customers who have found it hard to pay for whatever reason we have worked closely with them and are working though each one on an individual basis. One thing is clear though: that customers that are struggling with payments must be transparent and keep the communication channels open.
If people just bury their heads in the sand, then it is likely that business relationships will be significantly damaged. Trusting relationships take time to forge but can be very fragile so companies should be careful not to push too far by withholding payments for long!

Looking at timescales, have you re- opened for business or, if not, how long do you anticipate it will be before you are fully operational?

Bradley Gaunt: We are currently in a phase of reopening. We are bringing back staff
in keeping with demand for our products. First, we are re-establishing the quoting and processing departments along with sales and some customer services. Based on the subsequent sales we are re-establishing manufacturing and logistics to handle it. We are doing our best to quantify each phase based on the information at hand but there are occasions where one’s gut feeling still has to come into play! In terms of being fully operational, we are already in a position to take orders and will manage the changing demands on each department as they arise.

Have you started to receive deliveries from your suppliers and, if not, when do you expect those deliveries to commence?

Bradley Gaunt: Deliveries have started to arrive. However, we always carry a significant amount of contingency stock to safeguard ourselves against blips in demand or delays in raw material deliveries. It would be fantastic from an inventory control point of view to work to a just in time model but its not always realistic and as it turned out we have ended up in a fortunate position where we are still well stocked and able to meet customers’ expectations.

Do you think we are talking about months or, perhaps years, before Made For Trade can say that you have returned to the same financial position as you were prior to December 2019?

Bradley Gaunt: We had a great start to the year which will have had a nett positive
effect on turnover up until the March 23rd compared to last year. By being essentially shut since that date though, of course there will have been a financial impact but whether or not we end up at the end of the year in a worse position to where we were last December will be down to the next few months. Personally, I think fenestration is one area that will be less impacted over some other industries. People have been cooped up in their homes for the last 6 weeks. They have probably done all the DIY they have the stomach for and may decide that after coming out of lockdown they want to improve their homes further or perhaps want to add more space. After all, people are unlikely to be spending their money by going abroad this year so perhaps they might invest in their safe spaces, their homes.

Finally, what is your vision for the future? Will Made For Trade have changed substantially? Can it be as successful as it once was? And do you think the market will return as it was and, if so, how long do think that will take?

Bradley Gaunt: I think that certain areas of the market will contract. For how long is difficult to predict. On one hand we will be in a period of financial uncertainty where people will naturally be more careful with their money and what they spend it on. But on the other hand, perhaps people will be used to spending more time at home with their families. They may have found that being home where it is safe is something people find more precious and therefore the desire to improve or expand what they have there might be further up the pecking order as it once was before lockdown. Another point to mention is the size of the industry.

Unfortunately, companies have already disappeared and for those who aren’t financially secure the effects of COVID–19 could be long lasting. Ultimately though, I think that not only will the size of the market contract at least in the short to medium term but also the industry too. Therefore, there may be less business to go around but for fewer companies. For these reasons I am truly confident Made For Trade will continue to stride forwards even in a more challenging environment. We will continue to develop well engineered products and we will endeavour to keep improving our customer experience. I still believe we have a very bright future.

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