In This Together: Covid-19 accelerates ‘Project Unify’ as A-Plant rebrands to Sunbelt Rentals

GCS Associates speak with Andy Wright, CEO of Sunbelt Rentals UK to find out more

On March 4th 2020, industry leaders A-Plant held a company-wide conference in Manchester to present plans for ‘Project Unify’, a scheme for bringing together the various entities that operate within the group under a single unified banner with a new name – Sunbelt Rentals. As of 1st June, the entire business will move forward under a single brand with a single vision.

What the delegates at this conference couldn’t have known at the time was how drastically the outbreak of Covid-19 and the resultant pandemic would affect the UK construction industry. But A Plant’s response to the crisis has dramatically accelerated the progress of Project Unify, whilst simultaneously acting as an inspiring demonstration of many of the key values that underpin it.

Project Unify was to be about much more than simply changing the company stationery. It would necessitate a profound conceptual and cultural shift of identity, as lots of smaller parts of the business were brought together under one umbrella. In Sunbelt Rentals’ chief executive Andy Wright’s words, the rebranding was ‘the vehicle for that change.’ The process was therefore expected to take some time. But as Wright explains, the national crisis that began in March presented ‘a challenge that would bring all of this into focus and context.’ In response, the Project Unify transformation has been fast-tracked, with Sunbelt Rentals making an immeasurable contribution to the nation’s response to Coronavirus whilst conscientiously protecting the livelihoods and wellbeing of its staff and partners.

The UK government’s Covid-19 response plan has necessitated a colossal infrastructure drive, and Sunbelt Rentals has been instrumental in meeting those needs. They have introduced social distancing measures on their sites to ensure that essential construction projects can continue. They have provided the equipment needed for 98% of the new Testing Centres built in the UK. They have contributed vital and integral services during the construction of emergency NHS Nightingale hospitals.

‘The testing centres were an opportunity to display the power of Sunbelt Rentals in reality’, explains Wright. ‘We recognised our place as a critical service provider to the UK, working on a daily basis with the NHS and other government bodies. For the government to hit their 100,000 daily testing targets, they need the testing centres. We have played a huge part in that – over 95% of those sites are Sunbelt Rentals sites.’

Whilst making this remarkable contribution to safeguarding the health of the nation, Sunbelt Rentals have also taken singularly conscientious steps to look after their employees. ‘Right at the start we said to people, “Don’t worry financially: We will look after you,”’ reveals Wright. The company has delivered on that promise admirably, ensuring that every single member of staff on their payroll has received 100% of their salary throughout the duration of the crisis.

This is all the more remarkable given that Sunbelt Rentals is not part of the Treasury’s Job Retention Scheme, and has thus received no government funding to help cover this considerable wage bill. And Wright is crystal clear on his plans for retaining those who have been unable to work during this period, unambiguously stating that ‘all furloughed staff will come back.’

But the protections offered by Sunbelt Rentals have not merely been financial. ‘Our biggest challenge’ Wright says, ‘has been keeping our operations safe for everybody. Every day we have had to make new decisions, often contrary to those made the day before. We have constantly needed to think, reprioritise and change.’

‘If there is one silver lining for us, it’s that this crisis has really brought A-Plant, now Sunbelt Rentals, together as a business,’ Wright enthuses. The importance of this value of ‘togetherness’ has been abundantly clear in recent weeks – work on Sunbelt Rentals sites has very much been a group effort, with senior management team working side by side with drivers, engineers and other contractors. Hierarchies have been dispensed with, hi-vis jackets have been donned, and hands have been dirtied (before being carefully washed in accordance with government guidelines). Project Unify has, without question, been aptly named, and has been hugely beneficial for the morale of the workforce; As Wright puts it, ‘Sunbelt Rentals being a critical provider makes our people feel proud’.

For Wright, all this is just smart business practice; the resolute show of solidarity, together with the financial protections offered to staff, has deepened the bonds of loyalty and long-term staff commitment that will stand the company in good stead as it emerges from this period of powerful evolution and moves triumphantly towards its future under the new identity of Sunbelt Rentals.

That future is an exciting one. ‘In the past’, Wright concedes, ‘A Plant was a multitude of businesses working around construction and other areas, with a tremendous range of products & services, but probably unable to leverage those as well as we should have.’ The reorganisation and rebranding of the company as Sunbelt Rentals presents an opportunity to transform those disparate assets into a network of individual expert divisions, all pulling together to function as one joined-up operation. For Wright, the focus now is threefold: ‘our people, our customers, and the unity of the business.’

The new name will also allow the company to align itself more concretely with the North American business of Ashtead Group Plc (already trading under the Sunbelt Rentals brand), and this will maximise opportunities for moving into new markets and territories. Ashtead Group Plc’s CEO Brendan Horgan has indicated that Project Unify will allow the UK business to ‘mirror the growth’ of the US division (which generated annual revenues of £4.3bn from 835 locations in the year to 31st January 2020) whilst also allowing it to ‘capitalise on cross-selling opportunities.’

The Covid-19 pandemic has presented unprecedented challenges and difficulties to many organisations and individuals across the country. But in taking it as an opportunity to accelerate its Project Unify transformation, Sunbelt Rentals has shown that positives can be extracted from these troubled times, and that the company can live up to Andy Wright’s noble ambition of moving forward as ‘specialists with one heart and soul’.

Unity in the face of crisis: the construction industry comes together to confront Covid-19

In the closing weeks of March, the United Kingdom was plunged into a state of emergency the likes of which had never been previously experienced. Tackling the threat to public safety posed by the Covid-19 pandemic required an infrastructure drive of unprecedented proportions, all of which had to be achieved within the limitations and restrictions of social distancing. As many sectors were forced to shut down indefinitely in order to weather the storm, the UK’s construction industry stepped up to the plate and helped our government and public services tackle the crisis head on – demonstrating an extraordinary capacity for partnership and collaboration in the process.

For every organisation in the construction industry, safeguarding the health and well-being of employees has been of paramount importance throughout. The Builders’ Merchants Federation have produced Branch-Operating Guidelines to provide safe operating procedures for builders’ merchant operations while Covid-19 restrictions continue, and Osborne’s free industry safety briefing ‘Stop Think!’ in April was entirely devoted to coronavirus, and included guidance for site teams, information on First Aid and Covid-19, together with site protocols and posters. The pace of innovation on the ground has been swift; according to Bradfords Group CEO David Young, the operational changes that were required to protect staff and allow for safe trading were devised within the space of a single afternoon; ‘we opened 23rd March under a revised process, but we had to shut down collections at 10:00am as we were inundated and it was getting dangerous. By 7:00am the next day, we had a new process launched across all branches.’

Once in place, these kinds of procedures have enabled the construction industry to be of essential and integral support to the National Health Service’s efforts to control the unfolding public health crisis. As Graham Watts, chief executive of the Construction Industry Council, strikingly illustrates, ‘the NHS and social care workers are on the front line, but if that wartime analogy is continued, it is construction that is backing up these vital services, akin to the Royal Engineers, building vital logistical and infrastructural support’. Since the very earliest days of the Coronavirus lockdown in late March, there have been countless examples of the construction industry offering up this kind of indispensable backup.

During the ten-day emergency construction of the Nightingale Hospital in the ExCeL Centre in London alone, Sunbelt Rentals provided valuable equipment, Naylor oversaw the construction of the ventilation system, Keltbray finished the car park, and The Clancy Group‘s team worked around the clock to ensure that the electrical supply to the centre was upgraded and resilient enough to support the demand it may face. Efforts such as these have been underpinned by the tireless work of builders’ merchants like Bradfords, who fast-tracked the opening of an account for builders working on Birmingham’s Nightingale Hospital at the NEC, with the final signature on the account received only moments before the first lorries began loading up. Travis Perkins, meanwhile, offered similar support for the construction of NHS Grampain in Aberdeen. Aggregate Industries have provided the full concrete specification for the NHS Louisa Jordan hospital in Glasgow free of charge, and VINCI Construction UK has had its supply chain working day and night to help create temporary Rainbow Hospitals in Wales. All of this is merely to scratch the surface of the full extent of the tireless contribution made by the construction industry in these efforts to open up emergency healthcare facilities.


In addition to providing such essential services at this difficult time, the construction industry as a whole has donated vast quantities of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) to front-line healthcare workers – particularly in the early days of the Coronavirus response, when this vital safety equipment was scarcely available and sorely needed. Again, the roster of companies that have contributed to ensuring the safety of those at the sharp end of the crisis in this manner is extensive. Travis Perkins have provided 34,000 disposable respirators and 640 pairs of protective eyewear to NHS Trusts around the country. Toolstation delivered 30,000 items of PPE to the Nightingale Hospital in Bristol. The Carey Group’s donation took the form of 1,000 masks, goggles, gloves and face shields, delivered to St Mary’s Hospital in Paddington in early April. After carrying out critical maintenance at the James Cook University Hospital in Middlesbrough, Tolent (one of the North East’s biggest construction companies) donated four boxes of FFP3 respirators to help cover a shortfall of available face masks. To date, Magnox has now donated more than 130,000 items of PPE across its 14 sites. The list continues.

All of these organisations have been alert and dynamic in their efforts to identify and respond to need – for example, Bradfords made several of their donations to both regional council services and local GPs surgeries after seeing requests put out on Twitter and Facebook. To ensure that this valuable procurement drive continues, Demolition services provider Cantillon and contractor DE Group have launched the Contractors Appeal, an industry-wide initiative that reaches out to competitors, peers and partners alike for donations of masks, overalls, glasses and gloves.

In the words of Lords Group CEO Shanker Patel, the Covid-19 crisis may have ushered in the BMF’s ‘finest hour’, and nowhere has this been more apparent than in the general holistic support offered by construction industry stalwarts to their local communities throughout the UK. Galliard Homes has donated the use of one of the company’s substantial warehouse complexes in Essex, which has been transformed into an emergency local community facility storing essential supplies. Barratt and David Wilson Homes West Scotland have donated all their defibrillators from live developments and head offices to St Andrews First Aid. In Bristol, BAM FM came to the aid of the City Council, who were struggling to deliver the required amount of free school meals to local children in the area; a team of five FM engineers rose to the challenge by clearing their vans of equipment and delivering four thousand school meals to sixty six schools.

As BAM FM South West Operations Manager Neil Porter explains, ‘This was not part of the engineers’ day-to-day activity, yet they adapted and stepped in, so that vulnerable school children could still receive their free school meals and to ensure no children in the city went hungry.’


However, this conscientious approach to supporting communities and essential services at this challenging time is not confined to local-level activity alone. BMF members including Jewson, Travis Perkins, Buildbase and PTS, in addition to a number of other independents, have all pulled together to set up a task force under the banner ‘Trades Against The Virus’. The scheme will signpost tradespeople to support those in need by creating a national network of drop-off points for trade customers to donate store-cupboard basics.

‘The idea is to boost the stocks in the nation’s food banks during this time of crisis,’ explains Ray Stafford, MD of Williams & Co., who first proposed the project. ‘Many food banks have already run out of items, and others are struggling to help their clients, who are among the most vulnerable in our society. Recent supermarket shortages are also adding to the pressure.’

Meanwhile, the A14 Integrated Delivery Team (which is comprised of CostainSkanska, and Balfour Beatty working on behalf of Highways England) have provided pedestrian barriers and traffic cones to help create one-way systems in supermarkets, allowing communities to shop for vital supplies whilst maintaining social distancing.

‘We wanted to keep the public sector moving,’ says David Young of Bradfords. ‘NHS, Care Homes, social housing… and finally, to keep our self-employed customers going too. We have had an outpouring from [them]. If we weren’t open, they would not be earning.’


Indeed, the difficulties presented by lockdown have offered a stark illustration of just how essential the construction sector is to the nation’s wider economy. As Build UK’s Chief Executive Suzannah Nichol MBE puts it, ‘Construction contributes at least 6% of the UK economy (GVA), directly employs more than 7% of the total UK workforce, and supports a further 10% indirectly.’ The construction industry is vital to ensuring that the country is able to cater to the housing and infrastructure needs of its population – not to mention the many smaller independent businesses that rely upon nationwide supply and service networks to be able to operate.

Controversial though it may have been for merchants like Bradfords to remain open at the very start of lockdown, those decisions were taken with clear precautions to protect staff in place, and have been vindicated by the government’s expressed desire to keep construction open, and by the enormous benefits provided to society at large. David Young is rightly proud of his company’s efforts; ‘Bradfords is a business that is 250 years old… we’ve been through world wars, famine, and more, and I am proud Covid-19 has not shut us down.’

Young believes that the way the construction industry has come together and unified has allowed it to respond so effectively to this crisis. ‘I firmly believe we’re stronger together,’ he enthuses. ‘I’ve offered all the details to the BMF, and any merchant can call me, and I’m happy to show them what we’re doing.’ His hope, he explains, is that sharing information will allow merchants, suppliers and construction sites to feed off of each other’s efforts and ‘snowball’ back into action. Shanker Patel echoes these sentiments; ‘this isn’t the time to make decisions based on pure finances. It is a time to make decisions based on empathy. We’re all in it together.’

David Young’s mantra – ‘we’ve got to keep our builders going’ – is hard to argue with, given the fact that, during this time of unprecedented national crisis, it is those very builders who have kept the country itself going.