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As soon as the scale of the pandemic crystalised earlier this year, Genfitt, a Mayo-based wholesale distributor of farm machinery parts, immediately implemented a war room.

The company’s sales were substantially down in April alone. It was also anxious about its supply chain, the impact of government restrictions, and its capacity to collect debts. Both the leadership teams and the firm’s owners were anxious.

So, Ronan Egan, the company’s managing director formed a small Business Continuity Team (BCT), which also included representatives of the owners. Board meetings were suspended and the BCT met as often as required to steer the business through the crisis.

Despite serving a traditional, conservative market, it was the latest in a series of progressive moves for Genfitt, which has traded successfully for more than 40 years and now employs 65 people.

As a wholesaler, Genfitt essentially does two things; it holds stock available for immediate delivery and extends credit to its customers (agricultural machinery manufacturers, agricultural machinery dealers, and agricultural co-operatives). Products are sourced from suppliers in Europe, Asia, and the Americas, meaning it requires a smooth supply chain.

In recent years, it has been investing heavily in its brand and product range as well as developing more sophisticated sales channels. It has also been investing in staff and developing a bridgehead into the UK market.

The impact of COVID-19, however, was hard. Ambitious growth targets for 2020 were quickly abandoned and success was redefined as survival.

Meanwhile, each of the company’s three main customer categories faced their own problems. Co-operatives continued to trade, albeit inefficiently under severe restrictions, while many machinery dealers also closed. Agricultural machinery manufacturers closed, not because of an absence of demand, but because the two galvanisers on the island suspended operations.

Genfitt had been frustrated by the disappointing utilisation of its online ordering facility. In less than 2 weeks the proportion of orders captured online more than trebled and was approaching 20% of all orders.

The response

The Business Continuity Team quickly decided that protecting employees was a priority. Egan and his team believed that if the business looked after the staff, the staff would look after the business. Consequently, a decision was made to maintain the staff earnings at pre-pandemic levels, as the company also accessed the Temporary Wage Subsidy Scheme and Revenue’s scheme to warehouse liabilities. Suppliers were asked for – and gave –support.

The BCT moved on to consider how Genfitt’s way of working needed to be adapted to respect the Government restrictions and to meet the needs of the customers. Staff who could work from home were asked to work from home, while the shift system at the main headquarters was staggered – a move that protected staff and also increased opening hours.

Management also asked staff to come up with creative solutions and, despite the issues, many critical contracts -- such as the New Product Development Programme – continued on schedule.

The impact

Sales recovered in May as customers and Genfitt found a new equilibrium. By June, sales were approaching budgeted levels and have performed strongly throughout Q3.

The BCT and staff reported having been, in hindsight, ponderous, the business quickly became flexible in ways and operated at a speed which surprised everyone. The BCT reported that it felt like a start-up, rather than a mature enterprise.

Through tools like Zoom and video technology, staff – particularly in sales – confounded their expectations and showed a willingness to adapt. There was a significant increase in the proportion of orders placed via the internet. This was an aspect of performance which had frustrated management because the rate of progress never came close to what was believed possible.

Genfitt has also committed to investing in several technologybased initiatives which will enhance its capabilities to prosper in a COVID-19 world. Overall, the breadth of the customer base – and their differing fortunes – meant the business was able to quickly recover.

Genfitt believes that it has gained market share during the pandemic because it adapted better and faster than other market participants.

The outlook

Given the unexpected circumstances it found itself in, Genfitt is on track to deliver a strong performance. This is down to 2020 being a solid year for Irish agriculture but is also a result of the swift decisions taken by the BCT.

Genfitt believes that it has gained market share during the pandemic because it adapted better and faster than other market participants.

Egan feels the challenges facing Genfitt now are to consolidate the gains and build on these. It will require a huge effort to maintain the sense of a start-up and to maintain and improve on the responsiveness of the business in what is still a volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous market.

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