COVID-19: Our Response and Reaction

oilville warehouse personnel loading flatbed truck

COVID-19 and the Construction Industry

COVID-19 has had an incredible impact on our global health and economy. After weeks of stay-at-home orders and business closures, many states have begun a gradual reopening in the United States.

In Virginia, where our offices are located, Governor Ralph Northam issued an executive order that qualified “home improvement, hardware, building material, and building supply retailers” as essential businesses. As a master distributor to the construction, landscape and infrastructure industries, we remain open. However, that does not mean construction has not been affected by COVID-19.

Many construction businesses have modified their operations and been forced to adapt to supply chain challenges. The consequence of these changes, the closures and the economic uncertainty of the last month will likely continue to impact construction for many months to come.

We’re outlining how we have adapted our operations to COVID-19, how we plan to operate in the future and what we have observed about the Mid-Atlantic construction industry in recent weeks.

How we adapted our operations to COVID-19

Despite being an essential business, it was critical for our operations to adapt. On March 17, we implemented the following changes to protect the health and safety of our employees, customers and vendors.

  • Limited access to company buildings to only Colonial employees.
  • Restricted all sales related travel.
  • Implemented no contact customer pick ups. Customers are asked to remain in their vehicle until material is loaded by warehouse personnel. Packing lists are emailed to the customer.
  • Adjusted protocol for in-bound deliveries including limiting the number of employees that are in contact with delivery drivers.
  • Implemented social distancing in offices which means several employees began to work remotely.
  • Increased sanitation of common surfaces including equipment.
  • Limited installation division. Installations have been limited and are assessed on a case-by-case scenario in order to protect employees that travel to and from sites together.

Despite these changes, customers can still pick up material at both warehouses, order deliveries to their site and shops and receive sales support by phone and email.

These actions were implemented to protect and prevent the spread of COVID-19. Although we have the ability to control these internal changes, some things are out of our control.

Supply Chain Challenges

As a distributor to essential businesses, we pride ourselves in providing customers what they want, when they want it. Like every other business in the world, COVID-19 has certainly put a strain on our supply chain and put our operations team to the test.

Supply Chain Challenges for Construction Distributors

When COVID-19 began spreading rapidly, many people rushed to their local stores to stock up on all of the essentials. When a massive amount of people began panic buying, grocery stores struggled to maintain stock on essentials like toilet paper and paper towels.

At the same time, hospitals, governments and service providers required immediate access to personal protective equipment, testing and medicine.

These two events triggered an immediate demand for trucker drivers to move critical products quickly.

Drivers that have routinely serviced our shipping lanes began dropping loads for erosion control materials in order to pick up essential products instead. In addition, as essential workers, truck drivers are regularly exposed to the threat of COVID-19. Just by doing their jobs they risk contracting the virus. As more drivers became infected,  the number of available drivers declined.

Simple supply and demand increased freight prices.

Navigating the supply chain

Despite these challenges our Operations Team, led by Tim Branin II, has been able to successfully book and manage incoming inventory with minimal delay. The average turnaround time on a load has been extended by only 1-2 days.

How has he managed the logistical challenges? Tim proactively and consistently communicates with our trusted freight brokers. Through constant communication and coordination, they locate drivers, secure trucks and haul-in loads of erosion control materials, Geosynthetics and stormwater products from all over the country.

Additionally, we are fortunate to have partners in the industry like Pennington Seed that have maintained their weekly deliveries and thus prevented any lapse in seed inventory.

Despite the increase in freight costs, we have not passed along any of these increases to our customers. It is our hope that when we return to some sense of normalcy, these costs will correct themselves.

Furthermore, despite longer lead times in receiving freight, we have been able to maintain our standard turnaround on deliveries to our customers.

We predict the supply chain to continue to be an issue for many industries in the coming months. We are confident, however, that we have found a reliable operational strategy that prevents this from affecting our customers.

What’s next?

As many prudent business leaders would agree, we expect COVID-19 to continue to affect the construction industry even after the virus is controlled.

For starters, COVID-19 has made us all more aware of our hygiene, best practices for sanitation and our general health and wellness. As businesses begin to reopen, managers will continue to place more emphasis on these values. Businesses will also likely continue to require social distancing for the foreseeable future.

On job sites, social distancing can be a real challenge.

Construction leaders must consider how workers can effectively socially distance in difficult situations such as

  • traveling to and from the job site
  • small temporary trailers on construction sites
  • pre-construction meetings that require more than 10 attendees

We recommend contractors familiarize themselves with industry resources to define best practices. A few good options include:

Furthermore, even in essential construction states like Virginia, there has been a clear decline in Requests for Proposals (RFPs). Our estimators have seen a decline in RFPs for both private and state funded projects. Investors and owners are cautious to move forward when timelines, funding and restrictions are unpredictable.

These challenges are real Construction companies must be strategic in how they plan to adapt in the coming months.

How will our operations change in the future?

We are fortunate that none of our employees have tested positive for COVID-19. We believe that our swift and decisive action prevented the virus from affecting our offices. Our managers have always exercised extreme caution when it comes to employee health and will continue to do so going forward.

We will not return to “business as usual” until the threat of COVID-19 is significantly diminished.

For us that means we will continue to:

  • operate with no contact pick-ups and deliveries
  • require customer-facing employees to wear masks and gloves
  • frequently clean and sanitize common surfaces

Despite all the changes these last six weeks, we continue to provide our customers with the service that you expect from us. As we all continue to adapt to our new normal together, we hope that you will continue to keep us as your partner in providing on-site solutions.