The COVID-19 pandemic is the biggest change order the contracting industry has ever faced. While many businesses made the prudent choice to cease operations for the safety of their employees and clients, in various regions of the country, contractors were deemed essential services, and it remained business as usual (or as close to that as possible given the situation).
Necessity really is the mother of invention, and these special circumstances required some very special solutions in some instances. Take Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan-based Amil Construction, for example. Owner Arthur Landry says that because his company does many jobs in smaller communities within the province, accommodations and meals are a problem. “We plan to deal with this by using an RV and bringing food along,” he says. Jobs in seniors’ homes, he says, will have to be put off for the time being.
There are businesses that have been hit extremely hard, and we can only hope that government packages have helped them in this challenging landscape. Ellen Brightman, owner of Orillia Natural Gas, said her company was only dealing with emergency projects. And even then, she conceded, “We all know there is no guarantee of anyone’s safety.” The company’s business had dropped 95 percent by early April. “I hope we are still standing after this one,” she said.
Still, others took a more holistic approach to the situation, understanding that industry sacrifices are necessary for the good of humanity as a whole. Concord, Ont.-based Viacon Masonry owner Lino Vitorio said it best: “We are not an essential service. We do not have the necessary conditions, facilities and equipment to ensure the safety of construction workers. We are putting them and their families at risk if we don’t stop now.”
It’s really difficult to argue against that logic, isn’t it?
Here’s a look at how four award-winning firms have managed their operations during the pandemic.
Evolve Builders Group
COVID-19 has had a significant impact on Evolve Builders Group in Guelph, Ont., according to president of the company Ben Polley. “Most of our work-in-progress has been idled while our staff remain home to ensure their safety and to contribute to the societal demand for isolation. Two additional significant projects that were due to start imminently have now been deferred by the clients indefinitely,” he says. He adds that out of financial necessity, Evolve Builders has had to lay off all of its field staff; some of the office support staff have been laid off temporarily. The company is re-engaging some of the laid-off staff to work part-time on performance improvement procedures, standardize more construction details, or get ahead in organizing its imminent new work. “Essentially, we are looking for every opportunity to top up our furloughed workers with as much earnings as permitted,” says Polley.
One of the main concerns Polley currently has is that Evolve Builders will have fewer concurrent projects to return to than its ordinary capacity would allow. This could have a medium-term impact on the company, though Polley is not worried about its viability. “I expect some of our ordinary competition will not survive and thus, the short-term impact of reduced work will very possibly be later offset by greater demand due to less remaining direct competition,” he explains.
The firm is currently using its retained earnings from past years to cover current and projected continued monthly operating losses. A relatively strong balance sheet has helped it to weather the storm better. However, the possibility remains that Evolve Builders will exhaust much of its reserves and growth capital before the pandemic ends. “We remain confident that this will be a hurt to each of us individually and to the company, but that we will emerge otherwise intact,” remarks Polley.
At Eurodale Developments in Toronto, Ont., only owners Brendan Charters and Jim Cunningham have continued to work from the office since the beginning of the pandemic.
“Our sites had remained operating as an essential service, with additional safety protocols on site including splitting persons working in a site by floor, or focusing on exterior work, when possible.
After careful review of the infection rates across Toronto, Ontario and Canada, we decided that effective April 13, all Eurodale project field sites will be suspended until further notice,” explains Charters. One of the main concerns he has is how to make it safer than when the company ceased operations while maintaining profitability and timeliness.
Eurodale is seeing considerable disruptions in the supply chain due to the pandemic. “Products from U.S. are delayed at least twice the normal lead time while local suppliers are closed except for online order and lot pick up, which is challenging and much more time consuming,” notes Charters.
He adds that the firm has continued to maintain connections with everyone to deal with the situation. “Communication is key – soft contact with clients, team members, trades, prospects and the office group as well as with our friends and fans through social media,” he says.
To fellow contractors, Charters advises keeping everything as regular as they can. “Start your day at the time you would regularly start, shower, get dressed and get to your task list, quitting at the time you would typically quit. Discipline in that regard will serve you well as we come out of this as the return to routine will be easier and will keep the business gears lubricated.”
Steve Barkhouse, president of Amsted Design-Build, Ottawa, Ont., has had ambivalent feelings regarding what needs to be done during the pandemic. “Should we work or should we stay home? I have gone 360 degrees in a month from thinking we must keep working (for all the right reasons), to shutting down the entire company for two weeks (for all the right reasons), to being back to work but limited by the opportunities,” he says.
Recognizing that these are unprecedented times, Barkhouse notes that the industry has proven to the government and community that the businesses can work safely, that they do follow protocols. “I have received letters of gratitude from our clients who see how hard we are working to stay safe and to complete their projects. Now is the time for the government to step out and support our industry,” he adds.
At Amsted, Barkhouse has been witness to the mental fatigue on all its staff during the pandemic, whether they are laid off or working. “We are running out of work quickly because permits are not being issued and there are no new clients calling. We are working twice as hard for half as much accomplished. We are losing about $25,000 per week right now,” he says.
However, all is not bad. The Amsted team members have not only supported Barkhouse but also each other. “We have had core values for 30 years but we are really living them now. We are getting very creative in how to do business. We are learning to communicate differently: we are kinder, gentler, more thoughtful, and more appreciative. Our clients really see what we do for them, that we put them ahead of ourselves, and they appreciate it. We will survive but our business will never be the same,” says Barkhouse.
Marie Soprovich, founder of Aquarian Renovations in Edmonton, Alta., is also the current president of CHBA Edmonton. COVID-19, she observes, has slowed down the business for Aquarian but not stopped its work.
“Health and safety are primary concerns. Some clients were not comfortable with continuing projects at this time, other clients understand and are comfortable with the physical distancing and safety protocol and were okay letting carpenters continue,” says Soprovich.
Staying busy, having enough work, concerns about work slowdown and the long-term impact of economic slowdown are some of the major concerns that Soprovich has at present.
Her suggestion to fellow contractors is to preserve as much of their cash as possible and plan as best as they can. “If you need to downsize, do it. It may be painful, but you will at least save the mothership, and when we get back in a new groove, you can hire back. Stay brave! Take care of your mental health and be empathetic for those who slide into fear. Your courage and resolve will help others to stay stronger and find their way through,” she says.
Soprovich also suggests building relationships homebuilders’ associations as this is a time to belong. “This is where you can connect with other builders, renovators, suppliers and trades. We really must pull together, share experiences and what works … we are not alone in this. We will find our way through. Keep learning, use technology effectively (or you will be left behind) and take care of yourself.”