During the early days of the first lockdown, much was made in the mainstream media as to what the ‘New Normal’ might eventually look like and, while seeing its order book returning to a similar level as before the pandemic, steel window specialist, Associated Steel Window Services (ASWS), is now able to identify a number of key differences to its business model, and the wider market.
Back in March 2020, the London-based family company, which offers a unique expertise in the repair and refurbishment of metal windows of all types, had just removed a number of large format steel windows from the Battersea Power Station complex, ready for full restoration. But, within days, ASWS was forced to furlough 80% of its workforce as construction sites closed, and its management set about examining how operations in its Croydon workshops might safely be resumed.
ASWS’s Laura Mercer reflects: “Looking back at what happened after previous recessions, our order books picked up again quite rapidly with refurbishment jobs and, although the pandemic was a very different situation to those downturns, the same has been true. However, clients’ concerns about going full tilt into projects is giving us more time to carry out thorough surveys, and to get the scope of the work fully agreed.
“There is also the fact that basic materials – especially different types of glass from Europe – are taking so long to reach us that customers are often opting for repair and restoration rather than replacement. In respect of repair, we have virtually everything we need on our premises including a large stock of salvaged fittings and, therefore, unlike our competitors, we are able to hold our prices for a period of weeks or months rather than just five days. In fact, some customers have told us that nobody else had actually offered them refurbishment as an option which gives us a real advantage.”
Laura confirmed that as well as finding more consultants and local authority planning and conservation officers are getting back to into their offices, the management team at ASWS has also felt there is new sense of camaraderie with its client base.
She explained: “Covid brought a lot of changes, not just in having to test every week and maintain safe distancing while working, but also you found yourself communicating with different people at your customers, perhaps unusually right up to director level when previously you spoke to the QS or an engineer. Then, as well as asking about how people were, you’d find out how their families were coping, or where they were working that day, in a way you never did before. I think most of us in the industry now have a spirit of having got through something very tough together.”
Those everyday measures which kept the ASWS workforce safe included having staff travelling to sites in central London and elsewhere using separate vans, staggering shifts in the workshop, and ensuring everyone had the correct facemasks or other PPE. Efforts were also made to ensure that operatives were on site at the times required by main contractors to take part in testing programmes. Only one member of staff contracted the virus and has made a full recovery.
Summing up Laura said: “There’s no doubt the Government furlough scheme was a lifesaver for our industry, and meant we were able to bring people back in stages as work got back to normal, and we haven’t had to lay anyone off permanently. So many of the people in our core team have 20, 30 or more years’ experience of this work, which is invaluable for a business like ours. It’s a very special skillset; and the feedback we’ve had about our performance during the pandemic tells us that our brand identity has had a boost.”