Around the world, businesses of all sizes had to adjust quickly to the pandemic. Here, we look specifically at how some smaller businesses in the modular construction industry have adjusted — the challenges they’ve overcome and the silver linings they’ve discovered along the way.
Almost all of the small modular companies we spoke with were used to having some of their workforce work remotely. For example, the team at Ikoniq is very distributed. “Robert [Cox] and I both manage engineering resources that are located in Rochester, New York,” says Executive Vice President, Brian Casterline. “Robert’s office is in Florida. Mine is in Virginia, and I’ve been here for 11 years. Working remotely has been in our DNA for a long time.”
Similarly, the team at EIR Healthcare has always been partly remote. “We have employees in Florida, California, and overseas. So it wasn't hard for us to make the practical adjustment to everyone working remotely,” says Chief Executive Officer, Grant Geiger.
But Geiger shares the difficulties that many have experienced during shutdowns. “I found it psychologically difficult not being able to go into the office and meet people,” he says. “During the darkest days of the pandemic, there were a couple of times when I felt trapped in my own home.”
In contrast, Amy Lewis, Director of Marketing and Business Development at Kitchens To Go says that some members of their team feel there is more connection now: “We’re used to having some employees work remotely, but in the past, meetings were typically by phone,” she says. “Now, we see one another on video. COVID has forced us to learn new ways of communicating. Thank goodness for technology!”
All the companies we spoke with responded to the pandemic by providing PPE to staff and increasing cleaning and disinfecting. Sometimes, they hired additional staff to continually clean and disinfect high-traffic, high-touch areas throughout the day. Another common experience was delayed or canceled projects.
“We were consulting on a project that was in schematic design and about to head to initial permitting — and that's been put on hold,” says Geiger at EIR Healthcare. “We also had a healthcare project that got canceled, full stop. Lots of hospitals in the United States don't have the CapEx [capital expenditure] to support any construction projects in this fiscal year.”
In addition to client finances, mandated shutdowns also caused problems.
“We experienced the full brunt of shutdowns because our facility is in New York,” says Casterline at Ikoniq. “We were allowed to stay open for a very small Navy contract. But other than for that project, everyone else stayed at home for the shutdown period.”
Employees’ stress is another factor companies have had to deal with. “Everybody has a degree of stress during lockdown restrictions — and that affects the workplace,” says Joe Helleny, President of JMO Modular. “We try to keep things light and fun, make sure the birthday celebrations with cake still happen. There are only seven of us here, so it's easy to do. We have some laughs.”
No company had yet been unable to procure construction materials. But some of them had just enough difficulty that they discovered new suppliers and developed new vendor relationships — which they anticipate will be beneficial in the long term. In one case, some supply issues actually improved:
“All our materials suppliers were awesome. Normally, it’s not surprising for it to take four to six weeks for materials to be supplied,” says Antony Kountouris, Chief Executive Officer of BMarko Structures. “But for our hospital projects, we’d say, ‘We need it in two days’ and they’d get it done.”
In the face of the formidable challenges caused by COVID-19, small modular companies have demonstrated resilience and creativity. They’ve discovered new business relationships, increased their companies’ visibility, worked on internal projects, or developed digital marketing strategies.
“Ikoniq’s sports and entertainment projects are all over the United States,” says Robert Cox, Senior Vice President, Modular Division. “Our container products tend to have embedded technology and washable surfaces that are suited to medical applications. So we’re now discussing medical projects closer to home, in New York.”
Kitchens To Go has also developed new business relationships as a result of the pandemic. They’ve connected with various companies and organizations, such as universities and colleges, that need to provide food on their sites. “They’re looking at how our solutions can help them provide meals in a safer way, allowing for physical distancing and reduced touchpoints,” says Lewis.
For Kitchens To Go, these new relationships are partly a result of reaching out to new potential partners, but also due to inbound inquiries.
The same is true for EIR Healthcare. “A lot of interest is inbound traffic — people searching online for modular patient rooms,” says Geiger. “We've done well at promoting our product online and we have brand recognition. So, it’s the power of the internet — as well as MBI — connecting us with those potential clients.”
Geiger emphasizes the significance of increased visibility. “At the height of the pandemic, in March and April, we completed over 30 proposals,” he says. “We were talking to people from as close as Philadelphia to as far away as Southeast Asia. I was even interviewed for a TV show in Hong Kong. I can't underscore enough how much the pandemic heightened visibility for us.”
The companies that experienced project delays responded by making the most of the slowdown to benefit their business in the future. “We’ve had a bit more time to work on internal projects and initiatives,” says Lewis at Kitchens To Go.
“In downturn economies or other business interruptions, it's good to rethink and retool,” says Cox at Ikoniq. “Our engineering team took this opportunity to look at our bills of material and purchasing systems and bring in a new system to manage some of our manufacturing. It's been good to have breathing room between projects to advance our manufacturing capabilities.”
Small is Beautiful
“I think small is an advantage — both in responding to COVID-19, and generally,” says Helleny at JMO Modular. “We're nimble and can react quickly. The entire staff can meet and make a decision in 20 minutes versus having an executive level meeting and then a managerial level meeting and then a secondary manager meeting.”
Agility is an advantage also emphasized by Casterline at Ikoniq. “Having a small, cohesive team means we can turn really quickly,” he says. “We can rapidly provide concepts and understand all the ramifications at every stage from design to fulfillment.”
Geiger at EIR Healthcare mentioned agility too. “I think being a smaller company made us more adaptable,” he says. “Our model is project driven. So for us to turn our business off or on is not difficult.”
Camaraderie is another advantage that smaller companies enjoy. “Because we’re small, we all know each other,” says Lewis at Kitchens To Go, “which makes it easier to face challenges together as a team.”
“Mobile and modular is key in an emergency situation like this,” says Helleny at JMO Modular. “But I'm hopeful that more people are seeing that modular is the answer not just for emergencies but also for everyday use and that it will become more mainstream.”
Based on conversations he’s having with healthcare systems, the Army Corps, and architects in the healthcare space, Geiger at EIR Healthcare is also optimistic about the future. “You can put up a tent for the short term, but if there’s an ongoing situation — if we don’t have a vaccine in 6 months or year — then you’ll want something sturdier than a tent,” he says. “My impression is that there is now way more interest in healthcare modular construction, which will benefit all of us in the modular industry.”
Zena Ryder is a freelance writer, specializing in writing about construction. You can find her at Zena, Freelance Writer and on LinkedIn.
This is an online exclusive article.