As the business marks its 250th year, David Young, CEO of Bradfords Building Supplies, provides his perspective on Covid-19

In January, I was filled with excitement. 2020 is a landmark year for Bradfords Building Supplies, a proudly independent, family owned business. As the oldest builders’ merchant in the UK, we were poised to celebrate our 250th birthday and build on a successful 2019 where we had achieved a record turnover of £150 million across our South West network of 44 branches and eCommerce business. Although only a few months have passed, it feels like a lifetime ago now.

However, if any builders’ merchant is prepared for a crisis like the current one then surely, it’s us.  We’re a business that in our 250-year history has survived an industrial revolution and two world wars, endured recessions, undergone significant diversifications, made numerous acquisitions and – most critical to our resilience – we’ve always embraced innovation. We’re expert in pivoting, scaling developing and growing. To stand the test of time, Bradfords has had to evolve, while staying true to its family culture and remaining firmly part of in the communities it serves. 

2020 will still be a landmark year for Bradfords.

Staying open is the right thing to do

We now have clarity on what’s expected from our sector during this pandemic. When the initial lockdown measures were first enforced there was confusion, which understandably meant there were some initial challenges. Should we stay open? Should we close?

A letter directly from Alok Sharma provided the clarity needed. Builders’ merchants are a vital part of the construction supply chain, and we need to support tradespeople undertaking essential work.

It’s a privilege to be part of the effort. We’re supporting housing associations working throughout the region on front line projects, such as carrying out emergency plumbing work for elderly people who need to be able to seek refuge in isolation, and in so doing freeing up critical capacity in hospitals. We’ve also been providing the materials for a number of NHS trusts, so they’ve been able to continue to do amazing work like build temporary isolation units and  extend the capacity of GP surgeries.

Change can happen overnight

It’s amazing how in times of crisis, a workforce fully focused on the task in hand can achieve great things in an incredibly short space of time. From the get-go, we were of course following Government guidelines, at first by simply deploying hand sanitisers and then shortly afterwards enforcing social distancing. However, when the situation escalated and the lockdown was announced, we made the decision to change our whole operational structure overnight, and within less than 24 hours we became a collection and delivery business only. With that came the introduction of a whole host of further essential measures to keep our employees and customers safe, such as curb side drops and pre-booked collection slots only.

Looking after each other

We are all in this together, so we’re doing everything we can to keep a close eye on all 740 of our staff to ensure they’re staying in touch and supporting each other.  The obvious challenge is around physical safety of those working in our branches and ensuring that they have sufficient measures in place to prevent spread of the virus, but in fact we are also witnessing significant mental fatigue, and new challenges for those who are working from home on their own.

Mental Health UK is Bradfords’ charity of the year in 2020 and when it’s business as usual we will be launching a series of campaigns to promote its work and host in-store support. In addition, we’ll also be supporting trades charity, Band of Builders, to help spread the word, recruit new volunteers in the region, and help those in need in the South West.

Looking to the future

This is one of the greatest peacetime crises our country has come up against, but COVID-19 isn’t the first and certainly won’t be the last challenge that our sector will face. It’s far from over, but what can we learn from it so far?

Well, I believe COVID-19 will change some aspects of our industry forever. It could be relatively small alterations in-store to seismic changes in supply chain logistics or greater reliance on e-commence. It’s important we all use this time to understand and be ready to adapt to life after lockdown.

Although 2020 may not be the year that we all hoped it would be, I’m positive that in the not so distant future we can all look back on this period as a time when we all did our bit, and COVID-19 can be added to the list of historical challenges that Bradfords has made it through.

When the time is right, we look forward to celebrating our 250th birthday with our staff, customers and all our local communities which we support.