“You are either fighting or you’re not”

Written by Stuart Rock Wednesday 12 May 2021
Chase Plastics has used the pandemic pause to re-examine every aspect of what it does – and, in the process, turbo-charged its performance
Employees of Chase Plastic

David Harris is one of the canny brigade. A plastics and packaging industry veteran, Harris was CFO of British Polythene Industries prior to its sale in 2016. Two years later, he bought Chase Plastics, a 55-year-old family-owned company based in Brandon, Suffolk, that makes recycled plastic pellets.

A key factor behind his decision to purchase the company was the regulatory tailwind gathering strength behind it. From April 2022, the UK government is set to introduce a tax on plastic packaging with less than 30% recycled content. The tax will add about 20% to material costs. That, in a single-digit margin industry, is a big deal. Chase Plastics stands to be a major beneficiary but it needs to be ready to seize the day. “Many businesses will be forced to change, so we have got to have the capacity and confidence on the ground to take advantage of it,” says Harris.

His ambitious growth and investment plans were hit by the arrival of COVID-19. Demand dropped when the pandemic hit. Chase Plastics’ 24/7 operations were cut to four days a week. Half of the shop floor staff had to be furloughed.

However, one year on, Chase Plastics is set to double its capacity. New hires have been made at both senior management level and on the factory floor. Customer volumes are up by 20%. Training and processes have been improved. “We have remobilised and returned to 24/7 operations but we have not lost our talent and skills,” says Harris, who is now “incredibly confident” about the company’s trajectory.

The whole team at Chase Plastics has been keen – and relieved – to get back to work. What’s more, they have returned reinvigorated. An enforced break, the protection of furlough and the ambitious growth and investment plans make for a positive convergence.

As the company has reassessed and focused on what really matters, there is now greater clarity. This can be seen, for example, in the physical movement of materials around the site, or the elimination of poor housekeeping procedures. “If you can’t afford someone to sweep the floor, why did you have a dirty floor in the first place?” asks Harris.

Harris is gradually bringing in greater formality to processes. “Simple checklists are incredibly useful. Giving people things that they have to do – be it hourly, daily or weekly – concentrates effort and provides visibility and simplicity. It may be a small step, but good checklists have a really important role to play in changing culture.”

The company has made a point of keeping in touch with its customers. “Throughout the past 12 months, we kept calling our customers,” says Harris. “We did not allow COVID to hold us back. You are either fighting or you’re not.”

And this has been a time for investment in employer branding – from the logo to workwear to how they recruit. “We must be seen as a smart, good place to work,” says Harris. Using local community Facebook pages, Chase has recruited four young people in recent months. They’ve injected freshness and change. “This is a generation that is happy to operate and adjust machinery with a joystick, not just a spanner,” says Harris. The digitisation of the factory also makes it more female-friendly and, he says, manufacturing in general benefits hugely from greater female involvement.

Of course, the pandemic has been expensive and disruptive for businesses. It has resulted in the forced closure of entire sectors. It has pushed many over the edge. For many people and organisations, it has been a period of sheer misery.

But it has also forced many management teams – like at Chase Plastics – to rethink every aspect of what they do. Lord Wolfso, chief executive of the retailer Next, summed it up well recently: “There has been much to learn from the experience. We have discovered powerful ways to improve our warehouse and call centre operations. Perhaps more importantly, the experience of having to work from home has opened our eyes to new and better ways of working, collaborating and communicating amongst ourselves and with our suppliers.”

We’d love to hear how you’ve used the pandemic hiatus to raise productivity. What are your experiences and tips? Please email us to share your story. 

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