B.C. 2.0.: Change seams inevitable for the manufacturing set

It was business as usual for many B.C. manufacturers, but that doesn't mean the industry isn't headed for alterations.

Credit: Article

Vancouver-based e-tailer Article has managed to weather COVID

It was business as usual for many B.C. manufacturers, but that doesn’t mean the industry isn’t headed for alterations

The COVID-19 pandemic didn’t stop most manufacturers in the province from continuing to do their jobs—many were protected under the essential service designation. But in some ways, the crisis has changed their industry, for now and for the long haul.

Some changes, like demand for certain things (masks, Plexiglas and so on), may not last forever, but they’ve allowed businesses to keep operating at close to full capacity when there was less need for their regular products. The pandemic has also shown the value of being flexible enough to pivot operations, a lesson the industry won’t take for granted.

Looking further ahead, things are a little more muddled, as always. You’d assume that a global health emergency would wreak havoc on international supply chains. That’s certainly true for makers of personal protective equipment, for instance. But for one of B.C.’s fastest-growing online retailers? Not so much.

“The supply chain globally has been under stress, for sure—it hasn’t been without complications. However, we haven’t had much, if any, disruption,” says Cristian Chavez, senior vice-president, supply chain, at Vancouver-based furniture merchant Article. Chavez credits that to the company’s status as an e-commerce-only operation and its strong, direct relationships with manufacturers in China, India, Indonesia and Vietnam, plus the fact that Article owns and manages most of its home delivery. Our suppliers have a done a great job managing through this pandemic,” he says.

“A lot of them have customers from China and Europe. They were acting very quickly up front as we got into it and it hit North America.”  Chavez says he doesn’t know what the future holds for Article in these uncertain times, but he notes that in April, sales doubled year-over-year.

“We expect that growth to continue, but looking out to the end of the year or next year, it’s a little too much uncertainty,” he maintains. “But we’re very happy with the customer response and the growth we’re seeing.”

Unlike many B.C. businesses, Article hasn’t had to deal with the shift on factory floors as companies comply with new health and safety standards. For manufacturers, those include sanitization protocols and social distancing measures.

Lisa McGuire, founder and CEO of the Manufacturing Safety Alliance of BC, a Chilliwack nonprofit that represents close to 3,000 manufacturers (about 24 percent of the province’s industry), thinks those changes are for the best and probably permanent.

“This is a global health and safety crisis. I don’t think there has ever been another example that has painted such a vivid picture of how important health and safety is,” McGuire says of the pandemic. “The well-being of your workers is paramount—you can’t possibly earn a profit without the people who work for your business.”

When the outbreak hit, some manufacturers were better than others at steering out of trouble. “Those who were best positioned to adapt quicker had systems in place, with a risk identification matrix and a functioning health and safety committee to help with that,” McGuire says. “But no one was 100-percent ready, because this has never happened in our lifetimes.”

In the end, according to McGuire, the fallout from COVID-19 could actually be good for both manufacturers and their employees. “Businesses that have better health and safety systems are better-performing, it’s been shown consistently,” she says. “There are reduced injury rates, reduced costs and improved quality. So absolutely, I would say we’re going to come out of this stronger and able to manage through crisis more effectively.”