How construction companies are continuing amidst COVID

5 Gen Construction is paving the way to clarity in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic

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Coraley Letcher and Dave Thomson smile next to each other.

The wife and husband team of Coraley Letcher and Dave Thomson are the owners of 5 Gen Construction in Fernie. — Photo courtesy Coraley Letcher

The COVID-19 pandemic has thrust nearly every industry into uncertainty. Construction companies are no exception to the ever-changing circumstances.

To get an inside look at how small Kootenay construction businesses are faring amidst this rocky situation, we caught up with 5 Gen Construction in Fernie. Coraley Letcher is the manager of 5 Gen Construction and owns the business with her husband and on-site partner, Dave Thomson. Here, Letcher gives us an in-depth look at how COVID-19 has disrupted operations and how 5 Gen Construction has been proactive in tackling the challenge.  

How has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted your business?

At first, we had a few immediately scheduled jobs cancel. That was followed with uncertainty around whether several builds would still happen that we were scheduled to subcontract. When the dust settled, we only had about six weeks of work lined up (we’ve usually got about four to six months of jobs stacked up at any given time.) We decided early on that we were not going to lay off our permanent crew unless we were not able to continue running.

Before we opened 5 Gen, Dave had worked for a few companies where job security wasn’t the best. It’s important to us that our employees have good job security. We have continued to keep our full-time, permanent crew working.

How are you and your business adjusting to COVID-19?

Toward the end of our six weeks of booked work—when there weren’t many other new jobs lined up—we started working part-time weeks to stretch out the work. That was a first for us. We’re known for our efficiency on-site and don’t normally drag out jobs.

On site, we immediately implemented policies to increase our worker’s safety, including only attending job sites where there were no other people and no inside work. We have morning check-ins with employees to make sure everyone is up-to-date on any new guidelines. We provided extra opportunities for communicating whether they still felt safe continuing to come to work. When the provincial government laid out specific changes to construction sites, we implemented the required signage, wash station, and disinfection policies right away.

Three men stand six feet apart to maintain social distancing practises.

The 5 Gen Construction crew adheres to all social distancing protocols. — Photo courtesy Coraley Letcher

Currently, the biggest challenge has come from delays in supply and changes to the ways our suppliers do business. It has meant changing the way we order and receive materials and has added an extra unknown into our ability to give an educated guess when we will be arriving at the next job.

How has COVID-19 impacted your interaction with other local businesses that you work closely with?

The largest noticeable change is with suppliers. Closed storefronts lead to differences in the way orders are placed, either picked up or delivered, as well as delays in shipping of materials.

Having to order via email has actually been a good change for us as there’s less chance for confusion or mistakes when a virtual paper trail exists that both sides can look back on. It also frees up Dave’s mornings. Instead of being in the hardware store putting through a stack of quotes for materials or double checking and placing orders, he’s on site or meeting clients. Putting together estimates and invoices and dealing directly with the materials from the quote phase on makes more sense for us too.

We subcontract a lot to builders and there have been some changes there too—mostly in how payments are received—and of course in cancellations of work.

The most difficult change has been watching other companies have to scale down, lay off entire crews, or lose a whole season’s worth of bookings. There’s already a lot of financial stress involved in running a business, especially in an industry where you’re always juggling large amounts of money in and out like construction. We were lucky to not have any large amounts out in material on cancelled jobs when everything shut down. It’s difficult to watch others struggle with navigating through financial stresses and to see a lot of people in the industry out of work.

How has COVID-19 impacted your interaction with customers?

Other than initially navigating the cancellations early on, very little of our day-to-day dealings with customers has changed. As a construction company, the first contact with a customer is usually via web form, email or phone anyway. Meeting to discuss and measure outdoor jobs doesn’t require close contact. But when Dave goes out now, he and customers practice social distancing. Before we start a job, there’s discussion around how to keep our crew safe—social distancing from them if you have to be outside or just staying inside while they are there, if it’s possible.

There have been some customers who have contacted us hoping that the pandemic means our schedule is wide open. That can create difficulties in meeting people’s expectations. In addition to the material supply delays and other unknowns, Dave and I have been working more than usual throughout this pandemic. Because we’re committed to keeping our crew working, we have had to put in a lot of leg work to make new contacts, communicate with companies that are still building (to ensure we’re capturing opportunities as they become available), and prepare estimates. We’re definitely not able to make one job a priority above others or get there immediately.

Has demand risen or fallen for construction projects?

Initially there was a definite drop in work. In the last few weeks, though, we’ve been inundated with requests to estimate jobs, both from private clients and builders. I’m not sure if this represents an actual increase in demand, or if it is because we’ve made new contacts and gained new exposure through the actions on our end.

Kyle Born

Kyle Born is a writer for Kootenay Business and his initials match that of the magazine—it must be fate that brought them together. View all of Kyle Born’s articles

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