The COVID-19 pandemic has gripped the world in 2020 and while some businesses and sectors have benefitted from the crisis, others have fallen by the wayside.
The media talks a lot about how major corporations have fared, but what about SMEs? How have smaller businesses, often called the backbone of the economy, coped during the pandemic?
We sit down with our company directors Tom, Nik and James to discuss the effects of COVID-19 on The Truelux Group in the UK and the UAE.
How did 2020 start for Truelux in the UAE and UK?
Tom (UAE): We came into the year feeling very positive with a nice selection of projects in the pipeline and funding already in place. But it was around the time of Chinese New Year that we started to notice the effects of the emerging Coronavirus situation. Factory workers in China had travelled to their hometowns for the celebrations and were unable to return to work because of the lockdown. Some of our suppliers are based in the Far East so it became a logistics and planning issue as we couldn’t finish production on time. As a result, the delivery of some projects got slightly pushed back.
James (UK): Like the UAE, we were looking forward to a positive and productive year in the UK with significant projects in the pipeline and a number of live installations. It was around early February when we realised how much COVID-19 was going to impact our work.
Did you lose any projects or have to forfeit any work due to the situation?
James (UK): The three projects we were working on at the beginning of the year were all based in Europe. The first one, in France, was held up when our lighting manufacturers in China couldn’t return to their factory. We turned to another supplier which incurred extra cost for us, but thankfully not for the client and we managed to stick to our timelines on site.
The second impacted project was in Monza, Milan. Our Italian installers were not allowed site access due to restrictions and subsequently the project went on hold. On a follow up call days later, sadly a family member of the lead installer had passed away from COVID-19. At that point we realised how real and serious the situation was. It took an extra five months to complete the project but with the help of our contractors this was completed successfully.
The third project in the South of France was also hit by a roadblock. Our UK installer was due to fly a team over to complete the work but they are based in Leicester which became the first city in the UK to go on a regional lockdown. As a result, we sourced a French installer to complete the work during the site’s summer shutdown.
Nik (UAE): None of our UAE projects has been stopped due to COVID, thankfully. Some of them have been pushed back slightly and there’s always the concern that if the economy struggles, they could go on hold for a long time or be cancelled. But we see delays in huge projects all the time regardless of COVID.
How did you keep the business functioning?
Tom: (UAE) We started working from home at the end of March. The biggest thing we had to do was to move some of our team into a new apartment where they’d be able to set up their workstations and stay together in a Truelux bubble. Normally they live in shared accommodation with lots of people coming and going, so in their new place they felt protected and could get on with their daily work. If we hadn’t taken that call early on, we’d have ended up with a month where nobody could do anything.
James (UK): Unfortunately, by the 1st of April, we noticed a significant drop in demand from our customers. We had no choice but to put most of our staff on furlough (a UK government scheme to help businesses subsidise their employee costs). Thankfully by late May/June, things started to pick up, especially in London with high-end residential developments. With the significant change in UK building companies and contractors getting back to work, subsequently the enquiries started coming in , shipping goods commenced and things began moving in a more positive way.
What have been the challenges of working from home?
James (UK): Every call and meeting is typically a tech nightmare! Everything has gone online and we haven’t had any face to face meetings for a while. We managed to get two guys back into the office safely now, and everyone is now back at work on a part/full time basis. It’s still difficult to manage our clients because they need answers at all times of the day and if my project managers are not working due to furlough, it falls on me to pick up the pieces.
Nik (UAE): Even though we were at home, we were all still working full time. Not being able to visit our projects and clients at the drop of a hat actually gave us some time back. We were all logged on to Teams every day from 8.30am and everyone worked really hard. But it was difficult when we needed to work with each other on things like procurement documentation, designs, sharing concepts and ideas etc. That’s all better face to face.
How did you keep morale up?
Tom (UAE): We were in constant contact with our team on WhatsApp and on Teams. It was important to keep everyone connected. We sent the occasional case of beer to their houses to say thanks! And we did a couple of quizzes and happy hour sessions online.
James (UK): At the beginning, I made sure I told everyone to take a well-earned break. The whole country was locked down and there wasn’t much else we could do! Luckily we had really great weather in the UK so people felt like they could enjoy taking some time out albeit it no one could go far.
Are there any practices or new ways of working that have come out of this?
James (UK): We’ve introduced hourly time sheets which is helping us to determine how long we’re spending with clients, how long it takes to complete certain projects and how profitable they actually are. The chance to step back and look at what we are doing has actually been beneficial in some ways.
Nik (UAE): Most of our staff wanted to get back to the office as soon as they could, which was great. As a small company we’re all pretty close and I think people missed those interactions. To get everything done in a day, we need to be together.
Tom (UAE): It’s shown us that work from home is possible on certain occasions. You can’t look at samples and lights on a computer – we still need a primarily face to face working model, but it’s shown us there are other possibilities as and when needed.
What’s next for Truelux and how do you see the next few months unfolding?
James (UK): We see the private residential market being an area of opportunity going forward. People are still investing in their own residences. Our number one goal is to keep our staff in a job. They’ve always invested their time and hard work in us and now it’s our turn to look after them.
Nik (UAE): This has shown us all how important it is to never take your foot off the gas when things are good. In fact, when things are good you should be going doubly as hard after other jobs and capitalising on it. The second thing is to have a large and diverse pipeline. It’s important that while some jobs are finishing, others are starting.
Do you see any opportunities for Truelux as result of the changes to world due to COVID-19?
Nik: It was the same in the financial crisis, you get a downturn in mega developments in the UAE but people do start investing money in refurbishment works. It encourages older hotel properties and F&B outlets to re-establish themselves and take a bit more of the market. The two big projects I’m working on at the moment are refurbishment projects. These are the kind of projects we love to get involved in…extensions, restorations, refurbishments.
James: At the start of lockdown, we had quite a few friends and customers asking us if we could source PPE for the NHS frontline workers which I think really demonstrates our diversity. People knew we were good at logistics and through our supplier network in Europe and the Far East, we managed to start supplying masks and visors in the UK for a good 5-6 weeks. That was purely down to our experience in logistics, shipping, and foreign exchange. It wasn’t a money-making scheme for us but it kept us busy and reinforced our relationships with customers. We were in a position to help people out and we were more than happy to oblige.