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How One Peterborough Manufacturer Adapted During COVID-19

By PKED Comms
aerial photograph of Peterborough with roads and buildings into the horizon

On Wednesday, May 6, Suzanne McCrimmon, Director of Business Development at Peterborough & the Kawarthas Economic Development, chatted with Jeff Morton, National Sales Executive at Pan-Oston Ltd. to learn how their business quickly responded to the COVID-19 pandemic by creating Cashier – Customer Hygiene Guards. Below is a Q&A style summary of the Coffee Talks chat with Jeff.

#CoffeeTalks with Peterborough & the Kawarthas Economic Development is a conversation with local business owners, where viewers can participate in a fun and engaging Q&A to get some tips and ideas to achieve sustainable innovation in business. Click here to register for the next #CoffeeTalks.

About Pan-Oston Ltd.:

Pan-Oston Ltd. was established in 1977 in Peterborough, Ontario as a single-source manufacturing solution for sheet metal design, fabrication, paint finishing and assembly for all retail environments and as a contract manufacturer.

About Jeff Morton:

After graduating from Trent University in 2003, Jeff began a career in sales that included 17 years working for a large multi-national in industrial supply before joining Pan-Oston in 2019. Jeff lives in Peterborough with his wife and two young children.

PKED: COVID-19 hit globally and came down fast in Canada. What was the conversation you had at Pan-Oston to deal with it?

Jeff: One of our large customers reached out to us about sneeze guards (Cashier-Customer Hygiene Guards) and they asked, ‘hey can you do this?’ Within four hours, the push from that customer had been so great that they actually placed an order from someone else. We were very disappointed obviously, but we realized this may not be just one company looking to do this.

So, we sat down and had some conversations internally, trying to figure out what we wanted to do, what we thought we could do for our customers and how we wanted to go about it. Very quickly we started talking with other customers, looking to see what their expectations were. Most of the people we talked to, really didn’t know what they wanted to do and what was going on. Some thought this was going to pass in a couple of weeks and it wouldn’t be a big deal.

But very quickly, it just exploded. As I’m sure most of you know, if you’ve been out shopping, the sneeze guards are everywhere in a variety of different shapes, forms and styles. Everybody we deal with was looking for options.

We worked on something that we thought would be a good solution for a lot of our customers and started producing those for a variety of customers. We were installing for them as well.

The one thing we realized very quickly is that there are a lot of variations needed for it (Cashier-Customer Hygiene Guards). In our business, we typically make products, most of it from a standard catalog with some different combinations. But we’re not constantly making new designs every day for different things. That was very difficult for us.

Something that would work for a grocery store, definitely wasn’t something that would work for a convenience store. We spent some time trying to decide how we fit into this and how this is going to work for us.

The one thing we saw with the market is, pretty much anybody and everybody that had ever worked with acrylics and plastics were interested in getting in on the business.

People were speculating on the product and buying pallets and pallets of it in anticipation of getting work for it (Cashier-Customer Hygiene Guards). So, it put us in a very difficult spot and we lost out on a good amount of business because we weren’t able to secure material or because we had a supply chain that could vary from minute to minute.

PKED: Is there going to be a struggle to source, find materials and create designs for those stores with unique needs and layouts?

Jeff: On the design side, we standardized the process. We have three or four different designs for the majority of our customers. They’re non-evasive; we wanted to make sure they weren’t going to damage people’s counters or checkouts. For our customers with larger volumes, we’re working on custom solutions for them. We just don’t have the resources to do a custom solution for every person. People think that it’s just a piece a plastic, all you need to do is cut it up, but there’s quite a bit of background work involved.  

It’s been very difficult for us. We have a couple of very good suppliers. I’ll talk to them at 10 am and they have 300 sheets of material in stock and then at noon, they’ll send me an email saying it’s all gone.  

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PKED: Is there any retraining or new training processes for your employees because of this pandemic?

Jeff: We’re looking at purchasing new equipment, so that we can bring more of the process in-house. With that, there’s a whole new world of opportunity with different products that we farmed out in the past, that we may be able to bring in house again.  

PKED: Are costs going up for your product and materials?

Jeff: We’re seeing in some cases that cost has doubled in the last month. It’s hit us a couple ways. A couple of our suppliers have pivoted to producing face shields. They shifted their labour force and now we have delays on our orders.

PKED: Is this the new normal moving forward?

Jeff: We’re hearing in the most optimistic six months; some are saying two years. I’m hearing that many grocery stores and others are going to be keeping this permanently moving forward to help with flu season.

PKED: Is this a new opportunity for Pan-Oston? Has it shifted your business model? Has it created an hiring opportunities?

Jeff: That’s the way we’re looking at it. Is there a better way? We’re trying to figure out some ways to improve the process where there’s less handling by the cashier for the process. We’re looking at different ways to configure a checkout.

It’s been very interesting because we’re trying to reach out to customers. A lot of the conversations internally we’re having are the ones they’re having. Maybe they remove every other checkout or widen isles.

PKED: How are regulations being communicated to you?

Jeff: From what I can see it’s up to the Federal and Provincial government. Everything from employees getting temperature testing. A lot of it carries on, it may change once the rest of retail opens. How will a clothing store handle things?

We’re hearing things like branded face shields with ‘welcome to this store messages’. It sounds crazy.

PKED: What kind of local partnerships have Pan-Oston been focusing on?

Jeff: We’re trying to keep everything local as much as we can. We’ve got some big opportunities coming up.

PKED: What’s it been like following the social distancing protocol?

Jeff: In the office, it’s been more difficult for us. We’ve been practicing social distancing within the shop and office. We haven’t had to formally implement staggered entry.

We’re seeing a lot of our customers working from home. What used to be, people would get together in a meeting room and hash things out. Now it’s days and days, sometimes weeks. People are used to certain timelines, now it’s three to four times longer because of the communication delay.

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