‘Without companies like ours, the country would grind to a halt’

J brand director Dan Little tells Metro how the firm kept on working through Covid...

Evolving: Dan hopes the changes J Brand has made will see them through these torrid times

ELECTRICAL contractor J Brand is nearly 100 years old, but despite having existed since World War II has seen few more challenging periods than the last two years. The company installs everything from digital networks to fire alarms and, in common with UK firms has had to deal with Covid isolations, new Brexit rules and staff shortages, while ensuring its customers were able to work in an ever-changing world.

‘Put frankly, without the work of companies like ours the country would grind to a halt,’ says J Brand director Dan Little.

‘Hospitals, banks, supermarkets, petrol stations, retail outlets — we work in all of these settings. The public just expect their systems to be fully operational but that doesn’t happen by accident.’

Dan says that the electronic and data network industry has proved ‘remarkably resilient’ but, with 125 staff spread all over the country, carrying out installations, the need for many to self-isolate due to Covid made meeting expectations difficult.

‘For some industries it presented no problems, for the electrical and data network industry it couldn’t have been more disruptive. An electrician can’t fix a fire alarm or install a new till system from their sofa.

‘At times we were stretched, but contingency planning meant that there was sufficient spare capacity across our national network to cope.’

Training staff to do many jobs within the business helped carry it through. ‘Engineers are capable of completing a variety of tasks. This flexibility was crucial in avoiding the disruptions other firms experienced,’

Even though the challenges have lessened, J Brand is still facing other issues when it comes to operating as a successful business, as Brexit is exacerbating a skills shortage.

‘We’ve been fortunate to experience fairly rapid growth over 2021 and finding the staff to match that demand has been difficult,’ Dan says. ‘It’s clear that not nearly enough is being done to train homegrown talent to the level required and that’s storing up huge problems for the future.’

Dan believes that apprenticeships, championed by the government to give school leavers the skills they need, are the ‘silver bullet’. He says: ‘Help young people into the industry at an early age, provide training at school and companies will be far more likely to take them on.’

Supply chain issues in recent months, due to Brexit and pandemic recovery, have also impacted the contractor. ‘For electrical and data network installations, much of the material and hardware is imported from all over the world, so any global supply chain issues can result in significant programme implications and delays. We have not been immune to disruptions, but constant communication with both the client and the supply chain has meant we’re able to keep all projects on track.’

The company has already made changes to deal with expected continued disruption by changing its processes. Where networks are being installed, engineers progress some installation works while they wait for the hardware. ‘We can then revisit quickly to install the hardware thus keeping the overall project delivery schedule on target,’ Dan says.

‘If 90 per cent of the job is installing the infrastructure required to get the end product working, it’s far more efficient to lay the groundwork first and then complete the project when the hardware is delivered.’

Dan says the company has also made other changes ‘by being bold in employment’. He explains: ‘With the labour market in its current state, if there is a suitable candidate available, we are not hesitating to offer them a role. Utopia doesn’t exist in business, so we are taking steps now to fortify our workforce to ensure we are prepared for whatever may come.’

Dan is positive about 2022, with order books looking strong, but he’s worried rising prices could make life difficult. ‘Sudden inflationary spikes could ruin any long-term stability and it’s vital that business can plan for the medium to long term. Volatile energy prices, uncertain inflation pressures and more, complicate that picture. If the price of materials rises, expect a significantly more difficult time for the entire economy.’

Dan hopes that the changes they’ve put in place will ensure that J Brand rides out the next few years, despite expected difficulties. ‘Operating a successful electrical and data network company during the pandemic has not been easy. As we complement so many services across the public and private sectors, if our industry is performing well then that’s a good barometer for the whole economy. We’re hopeful that 2022 will bring better news.’

Dan is hopeful meeting face to face again will make business smoother. ‘Video conferencing has its place and we will continue to embrace the technology, but nothing can beat meeting people without a dodgy video connection, dogs barking in the background or the usual struggles with the ‘mute’ button. A key aim for J Brand is to re-engage more regularly with customers, suppliers and staff face to face. It may be old-fashioned, but people need people in business.’

While volatility will continue, Dan believes companies that can change will still be able to flourish. ‘I don’t believe companies can hide behind Brexit and Covid forever. Successful businesses have adapted and evolved and will continue to do so.’