Clive Wilson, Supply Chain Director, Coca-Cola HBC Ireland and Northern Ireland
Like all businesses operating across Northern Ireland, Covid-19 created many unforeseen challenges and disrupted our ways of working more than we could have ever envisaged.
As we reflect on the last year and emerge from the eye of the storm, it is timely to reflect on our achievements and take forward the learnings for the year ahead.
As one of the largest employers in the region, we took the mantel as an ‘essential service’ to our very core. The safety of our people was, and continues to be, our number one priority. Our purpose as a drinks manufacturer and distributor also became clear: we must ensure supply to the customers and communities we serve.
Our drinks, Coca-Cola, Fanta, Sprite or Deep RiverRock offer a simple moment of refreshment to our consumers. However, amid all the challenges that the pandemic created, our drinks become symbolic of a greater role we must play in maintaining the food and drink supply network across the island of Ireland – keeping shelves stocked with familiar brands and products.
Our crisis management team met daily from the outset, assessing risks to our people, our supply chain, and our organisation as a whole. This allowed us to respond quickly to the evolving recommendations from Government, Public Health Authorities and of course, our employees.
All office-based employees transitioned to ‘working-from-home’, and with the collaboration of teams across the business we were able to ensure that everyone had the appropriate equipment and connectivity. A great example of a team who managed this well was our customer service team; they maintained service to our customers throughout, while adapting to an unfamiliar working environment.
However, our single greatest challenge was protecting our ‘frontline workers’; the employees within our Knockmore Hill plant and our sales teams who remained resolute in their commitment to serving our customers throughout. We acted with speed to introduce best in class health and
safety protocols - including measures to support the mental health and wellbeing of our people.
We invested first in equipment and technology: PPE use became mandatory in our Knockmore Hill plant and for all our sales teams servicing stores, while thermal temperature scanners were installed at all access points within our Knockmore Hill plant. We also adapted our canteen facilities, introducing staggered lunch breaks and Perspex screens with assigned seating. Of course, strict social distancing measures were also introduced, and sanitisation points were established around our locations. Crucially all these measures were enforced by our Covid compliance officers.
We also empowered our sales teams to always exercise their best judgment – never servicing stores if social distancing could not be maintained or return at a quieter time.
With Covid-19 cases rising rapidly in the early days of the pandemic, our HR team established an internal track-and-trace system, to ensure that we could act with speed, in the event that any employee developed COVID-19 symptoms. These processes and protocols have been vital to ensuring our business continuity during the year. Often acting with an abundance of caution, we ask employees to self-isolate or work-from-home if there was any recent ‘close contact’ or development of symptoms.
These measures, we’re very proud to say, have been effective. Thankfully, there has yet to be a case of in-company transmission of Covid-19, and for me this has been the greatest achievement in the last year.
One of the greatest learnings throughout this period has been the importance of communication. We increased internal communication channels and hosted monthly virtual townhalls to update all our people on the actions we were taking. These were always approached with a spirit of honesty and transparency. As a senior management team, we didn’t always have all the answers, but we were willing to listen and learn. The last year has been a series of steps into the unknown. We used all available forums to ask our people for their feedback on ways we could improve and address any concerns they had. This allowed us to take learnings early and to address any blind spots.
We introduced a dedicated newsletter for our supply chain colleagues, replacing the typical ‘huddle’ meetings, that were no longer appropriate in the new COVID reality. We also deployed regular safety talks and impactful signage around our plant, to ensure that health and wellbeing remained top of mind at all time.
The mental health of our employees was also a key consideration and remains a priority for the coming year. We extended our employee assistance counselling service to a 24/7 service and our ‘Health and Wellness’ campaign encouraged employees to prioritise their physical and mental health. The campaign encouraged our people to staying active with a charity exercise challenge and we also asked individuals and teams to redefine what their ‘new normal’ is for their working environment. Finally, and crucially, our mental health series has encouraged all our people to spark wellbeing conversations with colleagues, friends and family, to ensure that we can all support each other and stay connected.
We also sought to provide support however and wherever we could, to those most affected by the impact of the pandemic. We leveraged our supply chain to create bottles for hand-sanitiser use in care homes and donated more than 1million of our drinks to those in need and on the front-line.
What inspired me even more was hearing stories of Coca-Cola HBC employees donating their time to their local community. From shopping trips for vulnerable neighbours, or fundraising for charities, the values of our people truly shone through. We had so many examples of simple acts of everyday kindness from colleagues who helped those who needed it most.
While it has been an extremely challenging period, as a business we have weathered the storm. We dealt with the challenges of the pandemic, while also transitioning to a post-Brexit environment.
The certainty provided by the NI Protocol, in addition to extensive preparation, allowed for a smooth transition thus far, which will ultimately protect employment and future investment in our plant.
We also continued to deliver on our business priorities, most notably introducing more sustainable cardboard packaging for our multi-pack cans in 2020. This was a significant change for our plant and was managed seamlessly despite the obstacles created by the pandemic.
There is no denying that the last year has been one of the most difficult in my 13 year career with Coca-Cola HBC. The pandemic presented us with challenges we could have never foreseen and there were times when the answers were not clear. However, it was a period of accelerated learning for us all, and personally, I’m incredibly proud of the dedication, adaptability and innovation shown by so many across our organisation over the last year.