The Insert Company: Ventilators, hospital construction and retail refits during the lockdown

This year has been far from ‘business as usual’. We track the challenges of 2020’s first half with The Insert Company’s Sales Director Kevin Broome…

Before disruption hit, it was a strong beginning to the year for West Midlands‐based fastener supplier, The Insert Company (UK) Limited.

“We were flying,” explains Sales Director Kevin Broome. “It was a good start and as a company we’ve had a good 10 years, growing year‐in, year‐out. The business benefits from being diverse. We are in quite a few fields, in the furniture sector, shop fitters, mould makers. When one goes quiet then the others pick up.”

The Insert Company also serves the medical and healthcare sector, including fasteners for hospital bed manufacturers – which was to become significant as the year wore on. When the Covid‐19 pandemic hit, governments across the world imposed lockdowns. The UK government’s furlough scheme was taken up by a number of fastener businesses, including The Insert Company. With staff furloughed, The Insert Company was operating on a much‐reduced basis.

Broome picks up the story: “With no staff working and the business remaining open, I was expecting that we would have minimal orders coming in, just bits and bobs. As it turned out, new customers were using us as a lot of other suppliers had completely shut down. So, I was getting my hands dirty, packing all the pallets, doing eight to 10 hours every day for five days a week.”

In addition to keeping busy with everyday business, the Insert Company also got involved in some headline national projects, designed to combat the pandemic’s spread.

“The first project we got involved with was supplying nearly 300,000 inserts for the BlueSky ventilators,” says the Sales Director. This scheme was put together by a consortium including Red Bull and Renault, aiming to make thousands of medical ventilators as the NHS readied for an expected peak of Covid‐19 cases. After supplying the project, the scheme got cancelled just days before production began, but that wasn’t the only way the Insert Company was linked with Covid‐19‐tackling infrastructure.

“We even got involved in the NHS Nightingale hospital in London (pictured top). More recently we supplied bolts and other pieces to the Nightingale hospital they set up in Jersey. We had to fly products in from Europe.”

Despite the lockdown, business was up in April thanks in part to involvement in those projects. Did it surprise the Insert Company to be called upon for these big-name projects?

“Over the years, we have become known as a distributor which can also source from the marketplace. If I haven’t got a certain product to hand then I will know someone who has got it, from the UK to Europe. For the Blue Sky Ventilator project, we had to fly fasteners in from Germany, we used a firm in Spain for the inserts and we sourced more inserts from all around Europe. One order was for 95,000 items. Then they went down to sizes like M2s or M2.5s for 30,000 or 40,000 items. Those are not that popular sizes in volume anymore, so really as a company and for me personally, we had to dig deep and use my 20 years of knowledge.”

The pandemic also brought in business through the shop fitting sector. While retail was hugely hampered by the lockdown, those operating essential businesses – like hardware stores and supermarkets – were adapting their retail areas to allow for social distancing and reduce the chances of spreading the coronavirus.

Broome explains: “We have been supplying the shop fitters for all the Perspex screens that have been going up in supermarkets. We have been supplying boxes of bolts into them and we’ve had orders for them for B&Q too.”

Such has been the demand, fasteners for shopfitting have also been in shorter supply than usual. “We had to work hard – we’d bought all the stock from our usual sources and burned through it all.”

One of the solutions has been coming up with easier to source alternatives that customers that are still fit for purpose. The firm has also been supplying a high‐end visor manufacturer in Leicester, which has been selling tens of thousands of products to household names.

Does Broome anticipate stock shortages down the line? “Potentially, that is my concern. Especially on the furniture side when that has all opened up again, unless Europe and the Far East start producing again very quickly.

“Luckily we carry a lot of inventory so we are still quite well stocked. Certain sizes have been harder to pick back up, but as a company, I am happy with our stock levels. I have been buying stock we didn’t really need to make sure we are ready for when everyone opens again.

“I have now called a couple of staff back in and we are slowly getting indications that things are returning to normal, based on the calls we have had coming in. It looks positive.

“It’s been a bad situation, but we have been operating and supplying a need. I’d rather have not had it, of course. The government grants have helped the situation.

“It’s been a crazy month or so, really. It’s given us pleasure to have been involved in projects like the Nightingale hospitals in London and Jersey. We have a brand name in the UK marketplace. You hear about the big multinationals involved in these big projects, but they couldn’t build anything without  the lower tiers and suppliers like us.”

This article originally appeared in the June 2020 edition of Torque Magazine. Read the magazine in full here or subscribe online.