As many companies in the UK resume activity after weeks of lockdown, a large number of the medium-sized businesses that form the backbone of manufacturing and heavy industry in the country never stopped.

“Keep Calm and Carry On”, as best you can, has been the response of a broad swath of companies.

The latest Covid-19 Manufacturing Monitor, published by Make UK, the manufacturers’ organisation, shows that 90 per cent of UK companies in its sector have continued to operate, partly or fully, during the pandemic.

It is, says Make UK, a “misnomer” to believe that manufacturing was ordered to stop working when the “stay at home” lockdown message was issued in March.

But it is not just the general public who may have concluded that only medical, transport and food and drink related employees should continue working outside the home. Make UK had to ask the Home Office to issue guidance to chief constables to stop police interrogating factory workers driving to work about whether their journey was really essential.

px Group’s gas processing plant
px Group’s gas processing plant © px Group

Francis Brown, a fourth generation metals fabrication company, Wilton Engineering Group, a design and fabrication business, and px Group, an energy processor and supplier, all continued to work during the lockdown.

All three are headquartered and operate in Teesside, north-east England, an area with a big stake in sectors such as renewables, oil and gas, chemicals and construction.

Why carry on?

The companies are not cavalier about employee safety: for heavy industry, it is always a preoccupation. But they also had to weigh other issues.

Px Group, which operates the St Fergus Gas Terminal in Aberdeen, Scotland, and the Teesside Gas Processing plant, processes 30 per cent of the UK’s gas supply and, at its Saltend Chemicals Park in Humberside, it supplies major companies making medical equipment.

“It was very clear that keeping px operating, running efficiently, was going to be critical to keeping the lights on,” says chief executive Geoff Holmes.

To thrive in a highly competitive marketplace, Francis Brown and Wilton must meet deadlines. Closing meant delays, dissatisfied customers and possible long-term damage to order flow. Their workforces depend on their pay and full details of the furlough scheme were not immediately announced.

“We have contracts to fulfil and mouths to feed,” says Jamie Brown, chief executive of Francis Brown.

Nor have all sectors been hit during the pandemic; it has, for example, boosted renewables. “We’ve taken on over 50 people and we’ve got projects we’ve won during Covid,” says Bill Scott, founder and chief executive of Wilton. The new contracts have come from renewables, defence and mining. Order-chasing continues. “Our business development team are still working from home. They’re not flying; they’re using Microsoft Teams to keep in touch with clients.”

Bill Scott, chief executive of Wilton Engineering Group, has had to take on more staff during the crisis © Wilton Group

Continuing to work is not solely about money and market share. “We have a duty to use our skills to carry on, we have a duty to contribute to the economy,” says Mr Brown.

Paul Fryer, an overhead crane operator at Francis Brown

One of his employees, Paul Fryer, who controls the workshop overhead crane, was glad to be at work and not furloughed. “It’s the satisfaction of what you’ve achieved rather than being at home pulling weeds out.”

Mark Swift, Make UK’s head of communications, recognises these sentiments. “We want to be seen to be doing our bit because our sector is important. It’s not just a public health issue; it’s a massive economic crisis as well.”

First steps

“Imagine this is a war; what would you do?” asks Mr Scott. Watching the international news in January, and talking to contacts in Spain, he concluded then that Covid-19 was a significant threat requiring strategic planning.

His first question was: what is the most important thing in our business? His answer: “The finance team.” His rationale: “With money you can do anything; without money you can sometimes be snookered.”

Wilton, currently employing 250 people, bought laptops and shifted its finance team to their homes.

Px and Francis Brown moved office staff to home working too.

A steel plate girder is manufactured at Francis Brown © Chapman Brown Photography

Px operates 11 sites around the UK; it employs 500 staff, plus 500 contractors. It has a general business continuity plan but Mr Holmes concedes: “Until the scale and pace of Covid-19 became apparent the reality hadn’t really hit us.”

It assembled a dedicated focus group — effectively a resilience team, says Trevor High, managing director of industrial processes and power. It quickly divided site-based employees into teams which do not mix, moved handovers to Skype and segregated control room teams. At St Fergus, it now has two control rooms, with deep cleaning between each use.

At Francis Brown, which employs 90 people, Mr Brown stepped up ordering materials and consumables such as welding rods to forestall supply chain difficulties.

The difficulties of distancing

To prepare the workplace for social distancing some actions were easy — moving chairs out of meeting rooms at px and opening up spare offices at Wilton. Manageable changes include staggering break times, cutting numbers using “bait rooms” where workers eat and changing shifts to spread employee numbers. The companies fitted screens and hand sanitiser dispensers to walls and changed entry procedures.

At Francis Brown, where workshop employees sign in and out using the same touchscreen, the company adopted welder Colin McCabe’s suggestion that workers must use their pens, not fingers.

At Wilton Engineering Group a worker applies an industrial coating to a steel carousel © Wilton Group

Heavy industry already uses more and higher spec protective equipment than most sectors. But in workplaces ringing with clanging metal and loud machinery, communication has traditionally meant shouting, close up. Distancing can be very difficult. “With all the noise and ear plugs I’m becoming a lip reader,” jokes Mr Fryer. Getting workers together for daily “toolbox talk” briefings is impossible now. Instead, supervisors must communicate one to one.

Social distancing and ensuing communication difficulties do impact productivity, says Wilton’s Mr Scott. “It will be more difficult to hit contractual delivery dates.” Crane operator Mr Fryer sees this too. “It’s put more time on the job.” Mr Brown notes that moving more people on to evening and overnight shifts means paying extra shift allowances, increasing cost pressures.

Working from home

At px, Mr Holmes is a convert to working from home, having seen how efficient and flexible it can be. “It’s been a catalyst for change,” he says. Mr Scott has seen it can make people more efficient but some miss workplace camaraderie, so he plans to give them a choice of work location. “We will cut down on the amount of travelling we do, ” he predicts.

Mr Brown has hit one difficulty. After eight weeks of home working, he needs some employees back in the office for efficient liaison with production but some are fearful on health grounds. He is considering sending them videos to show them all the changes implemented.

Advice for companies reopening

All three CEOs agree that it is essential to talk to employees, listen to and respect their concerns and adopt their good ideas.

The early days after lockdown were stressful, says Mr Brown, but people are more comfortable now.

Mr Holmes pays tribute to his workforce's response. “Our people have shown superb commitment and flexibility in keeping going.”

So are they glad they carried on?

Overwhelmingly, yes. As others try to change, they already have. The wheel may be turning a bit more slowly, says Mr Scott, but it’s turning. “If it stops for too long, it seizes up.”

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