2020, year in review, Stephen Harrison, Chief Executive
As we progress through the first quarter of 2021, we ask Forterra Chief Executive, Stephen Harrison, about how Forterra navigated the challenges of 2020 and where its focus will be during this year.
Q: How has the pandemic affected Forterra in terms of what the business set out to achieve at the start of 2020?
SH: As soon as the seriousness of the pandemic became clear we swiftly changed our focus to the health, safety and well-being of our people and the preservation of cash. As the year has progressed, preserving cash has become less important thanks to our ability to raise further equity from our shareholders. It’s ensured we have been able to continue building our new factory at Desford which, once finished, will be the biggest brick factory in Europe. Suffice to say, the pandemic didn’t change our priorities but simply delayed them by a few months.
Q: What position is Forterra in now?
SH: I’m pleased to say that trading towards the end of 2020 was much stronger than we’d dared hope. Of course, there is still lots of uncertainty around Brexit and the UK economy generally and my belief is that we won’t know the true impact of Covid-19 until the spring or summer. At present, we are still benefiting from government stimuli such as the Stamp Duty holiday but, as has been the pattern of the last year, anything could change at any moment, for better or worse. We have to be realistic, but I am confident that Forterra has the resilience and agility to cope with whatever might come our way.
Q: What’s your perspective on the construction market in 2021?
SH: The housing market, both new build and improvement, is looking robust. There is also reason to be positive about infrastructure as a result of continued government investment in road, rail, hospitals and schools. It’s a different story for commercial construction however, with the building of new office and retail developments likely to be subdued for a while.
Q: What positives is it possible to take from the challenges of the last year?
SH: In the face of significant adversity, we have demonstrated how good we are at making decisions and delivering change quickly. It’s also helped different parts of our business to become much better at working together towards a common goal.
We have proven we can cut down on our business travel without affecting our ability to operate. In fact, we are now able to use our time more effectively than we did before and if we need to change the way we work and operate quickly we now know that we can. I think we’re perhaps all a lot less averse to change than we thought we were. Now we know we can deal with issues quickly and effectively as they arise, we should look to apply that speed to benefit and strengthen other parts of the business – there’s no reason why we can’t be that responsive all the time.
Communicating information to employees has always been important to us – it has to be in this business where the health and safety of our staff is such a key issue – but we have learnt a great deal about employee engagement over the last few months and will look to see how we can continue to improve in this area.
Q: What are Forterra’s goals for 2021?
SH: It has to be sustainability. This is such an important issue for all businesses and industries worldwide and has been increasingly recognised as such over the last year as we all take stock of what really matters.
In our 2019 annual report, we introduced our three sustainability pillars of People, Planet and Product. These will guide our future decision making and are central to our plans and objectives for 2021. I have already commissioned specific task-force groups focused on the key priorities of renewable energy investment, carbon emissions, and plastic packaging reduction. This year, we shall also begin the transitioning of our fleet cars to electric and hybrid – we have already installed charging stations at our Northampton office and will follow suit at other sites during the year.
Q: What role do Forterra employees play in achieving these goals?
SH: They play a central role – we cannot achieve them without their support. Over recent years we’ve focused on delivering volume, but we now need to focus on doing things better. It’s the skills, knowledge and ideas of our staff that make our business what it is, and we need to ensure we are giving people the support and platform that enables them to contribute in a way that is rewarding for them and for our business.