By SunSkips managing director Mat Stewart
It goes without saying that the COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc for a lot of UK businesses.
From staff absences to companies that were forced to close their doors altogether, the impact has been devastating to the nation and many are still suffering the knock-on effects.
This has been deeply upsetting to watch, with so many people at their wits’ end not knowing what new restrictions could pull the rug from under them next.
But with all the hardship it brought, it’s also true that along with the devastation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, opportunities have emerged…
We’ve seen businesses pivoting into profitable new directions, individuals finding the time to start the business they had always been putting off, and new companies realising their business plan was as relevant as ever during the pandemic.
Despite launching in May 2020, right at the height of lockdown, SunSkips managed to weather the COVID-19 storm and saw dramatic growth across East Anglia, with a third site in Haverhill due to open in June after just two years in business.
Of course, we had our doubts before launching the business at such a turbulent time, but the last two years have vindicated the decision and we haven’t looked back.
So to cut through the doom and gloom with a little ray of sunshine, I thought it might be worth sharing a bit about what it was like to found SunSkips during a period when many investors and business owners were battening down the hatches…
While we had already decided it was the right time to acquire a skip hire firm before the pandemic had become a reality, there’s no denying that the news didn’t make the decision to pull the trigger on a huge investment all the more daunting.
COVID-19 was already controlling how we lived our lives: lockdown restrictions hadn’t been lifted at that time (May 2020) and there was no word of a vaccine on the horizon.
But when the opportunity to acquire Stowmarket Skips came along, we weren’t going to let the pandemic stop us from doing what still made sense. We were convinced there was a better way of doing waste management in Suffolk and Cambridgeshire and while there were a few more things we had to take into consideration, the fact remained that waste doesn’t really go away, no matter what crisis the nation is facing.
Of course, taking over another business came with the benefit of getting a look at their books and seeing that people in Suffolk weren’t shying away from skip hire. In fact, it was quite the opposite.
Stowmarket Skips was receiving more orders than ever! Recycling centres were closing to the public, local authorities were struggling to keep up with collections and people were stuck at home with nothing to do but finally get round to clearing out the garage.
So as it turned out, the biggest impact SunSkips felt when we launched was actually an increase in demand. We needed to order a lot of additional skips and quickly built up a stock of more than 1,000 containers. New lorries were brought in and before we knew it, we were already in talks to acquire another site in Cambridgeshire to boost SunSkips’ reach in the region.
And this wasn’t just down to inheriting Stowmarket Skips’ growing demand and client list. Since acquiring the first site, we have implemented a series of new initiatives to make the business more efficient. This has been a combination of rolling out a fully automated system for driver navigation and order management, a strong focus on customer service and increased shed configuration to double the throughput.
That being said, it’s not like COVID-19 hasn’t thrown a few spanners in the works…
SunSkips is a customer-facing business, so we had a lot of work to do to make sure both our staff and the people we serve were kept safe.
Of course, we invested in PPE and ensured that all our staff were adhering to social distancing rules, keeping the cabs of the lorries ventilated and making use of the disinfectant provided. We did our own risk assessments and also had visits from the health and safety executive to make sure we were doing everything we could to keep things running smoothly.
But waste management is an industry that already involves quite a lot of health and safety requirements: from extensive staff training to wearing hard hats and reflective vests onsite, we had already factored in the need to keep a close eye on operations.
The government did loosen certain requirements for waste transfer notes, but because of how much we automate and digitise things at SunSkips, we didn’t find we needed to take advantage of it. We don’t need to collect signatures or even get that close to anyone – all the paperwork is sent over in one handy email.
We did suffer a little surge in absences due to COVID-related self-isolations, but our efficient systems for managing drivers’ workload was able to bear the brunt of the impact on our workforce.
Essentially, our investment in the automation of how we deal with customers and drivers meant we weren’t severely impacted by the challenges the pandemic posed to many businesses – even during this latest wave.
Just when it looked like things were on their way back to normality, news of Omicron hit in October last year, followed by a new wave of restrictions and fear seizing the nation.
By this time, the SunSkips team had already been through a lot worse and fortunately, the autumn/winter period tends not to be the busiest for us anyway.
All signs point to things being much better by the spring, so we used the time to prepare for what we predict to be an especially busy 2022 and focused on getting all our systems in place for our growth further south to Haverhill.
I’m excited to see how people’s habits change as restrictions are lifted and what fresh opportunities this will bring for our business moving forward.
Many people are likely to turn to DIY rather than calling in the professionals for home improvements, as well as making other big changes to their living/workspaces to offset a higher cost of living (while real estate businesses take advantage of it).
Other industries will hopefully return to pre-pandemic levels of trade, with events and hospitality welcoming guests at full capacity again (which comes with a surge of waste to be managed).
But, of course, not all businesses will enjoy a second wind post-pandemic…
I suppose lauding SunSkips’ growth might sound a bit insensitive considering how much people have suffered over the past couple of years.
Even in the waste management industry, it’s not all been plain sailing. In London, for example, commercial waste management saw a huge drop off in spring 2020, with fewer people in offices creating commercial waste.
Hospitality was one of the biggest casualties of the economy, which had a knock-on effect for waste management firms for whom it makes up a large part of their core business, sadly leading to redundancies.
And you’re unlikely to have missed the impact COVID-19 had on the public sector, with widespread reports of delayed waste collections (although this wasn’t entirely down to the “pingdemic”, as the shortage of drivers was caused by a perfect storm of multiple factors).
However, skip hire tends to get the lion’s share of its business from the construction industry. While building firms have had their own trials and tribulations recently, the industry wasn’t shut down to anywhere near the levels of some.
So while it might seem counterintuitive to launch a new business at a time when it’s difficult to predict the future of the economy, history has bore out that it’s not necessarily the time to be conservative. Some of the world’s most successful companies launched during times of hardship:
There’s never a perfect moment to follow your enterprising dreams. Launching a business is going to present a myriad of challenges whichever way you look at it.
It’s heartbreaking to see so many people brought to their knees by the pandemic – including people close to me – but my advice is that if you want to succeed in business, it’s important to look for the opportunities where others only see risk.
SunSkips continues to take precautions against COVID-19, allowing both customers and staff to rest assured they are safe in the hands of a conscientious waste management company.