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.

Roadmap to Recovery: How the construction industry can bounce back from Coronavirus uncertainty

The impacts of the Coronavirus crisis have been profound and wide-ranging, but almost nowhere have the economic repercussions been felt more keenly than in the UK’s vitally important construction industry. Since the initial introduction of lockdown measures in March 2020, right through the ensuing slowdown and phased reopening of activities, the sector has gone above and beyond the call of duty to offer its expertise and skills in the service of the national interest – whilst all the while having to mitigate against its own losses, and advocate for the assistance needed to ensure its own survival.

In the early days of the crisis, the Office of National Statistics reported that construction activity had fallen by 5.9% across the entire sector by the close of March. In April, the Federation of Master Builders reported that 68% of their members had been forced to wind down activity, with an estimated 91% of their projects affected across the country. Meanwhile, the Builder’s Merchants Federation (BMF) reported a decline of 6.7% in sales between Q4 2019 and Q1 2020. All told, the Construction Products Association estimates that construction output will fall by 25% in 2020, with private housing and commercial construction accounting for a significant majority of the work disrupted.

This has had a significant impact on financial forecasting for the sector. Arcadis, for example, has significantly downgraded its tender price forecast, publishing a revised growth estimate of 0%, and suggesting that housebuilding and commercial development will not return to growth until 2022 at the earliest.

Despite the starkness of these predictions, it is vital that the sector begins to implement strategies to enable a recovery to take place sooner rather than later. The health of the national economy is contingent on the health of the construction sector – according to the Construction Leadership Council (CLC), construction accounted for £413bn of the nation’s GDP (8.6%) in 2018. In that year alone, this was four times greater than the output of the aerospace and automotive industries put together. As Building editor Chloe McCulloch explains, ‘getting Britain building again is going to be one of the ways Boris Johnson’s administration moves an economy that is set to shrink at an alarming rate to one that starts to grow again.’


In light of this, the results of a recent Building survey which indicated that as many as 80% of construction firms have not yet finalised their post-Covid recovery plans make for stark reading. As the CLC has identified, failure to introduce a robust blueprint for the rehabilitation of the industry could have catastrophic results, risking a lapse into ‘a longer term recession, which erodes capability and skills, and leaves a smaller, weaker sector as a legacy.’

The importance of putting into place a clear and comprehensive set of guidelines to enable a post-Covid bounce-back is therefore paramount. The CLC itself has recently published its own Roadmap To Recovery document, which lays out a three part plan for safely and effectively reactivating the construction ecosystem. The first three months comprises the Restart stage, which aims for work to resume on as many sites as possible in accordance with Government guidelines, maximise employment in the sector, and resolve contractual disputes arising from the lockdown wherever possible. This is followed by the nine-month Reset stage, which will look to resolve supply chain issues and invest in new working procedures to maximise production going forward. Finally, the year-long Reinvent stage aims to extract positive outcomes from the Coronavirus disruption wherever possible, by using it as a catalyst for long-term innovation; leveraging digital, online, and manufacturing technologies to deliver low-carbon, sustainable, and better quality outcomes and outputs across the industry.

The effort has to begin with the restarting of construction activities simply because this is the most effective way to kickstart broader economic activity in the sector. It will allow for resumed cash flow in the industry – but to achieve this, clear and comprehensive guidelines must be in place to ensure that all work is consistent with the strictures laid down by the government. Many of the key construction trade bodies have already offered strong leadership in this regard; as early as April, Osborne had issued a free industry ‘Stop, Think!’ briefing that focussed entirely on how to introduce Covid-compliant on-site protocols, and the BMF have since produced Branch Operating Guidelines to assist builders’ merchants in their efforts to reopen safely.

In addition, the adequate provision of on-site test, track and trace services will naturally be crucial to ensuring that workers can return to projects with confidence, and The Chartered Institute of Building (CIOB) has already called on the Government to set up testing stations on major construction sites around the UK so that any possible outbreaks are tracked and traced as quickly as possible. As the CIOB points out, such an approach would also do a great deal to ‘help improve… trust in the sector,’ as it would enable the wider public to ‘be sure that construction is doing everything it can to keep the virus under control.’


The CLC also recommends a phased movement away from reliance on HMRC’s Job Retention Scheme (JRS), together with the development of distance learning tools to ensure that apprentices can continue their studies during the time that they are unable to train in the workplace. Both these measures will help to ensure that the construction industry workforce can be mobilised and brought back into work as swiftly as possible for a speedy recovery.

Whilst getting personnel back onto sites is clearly essential, it is equally important that steps are taken to regenerate, secure and protect the supply chain. Simon Rawlinson, head of strategic research at Arcadis, has highlighted ‘the resilience of supply chains’ as a major risk to business recovery. In addition to measures designed to stimulate demand and create a robust pipeline across infrastructure, it is crucial that contractual disputes are avoided wherever possible to minimise disruption. To this end, the CLC’s Reset Stage recommends that both public and private sector clients commit to following their guidance on responsible contractual behaviour, and consider adoption of the Conflict Avoidance Pledge to avoid disputes and, where needed, to seek adjudication through the most cost-effective process.

The CLC’s Reset Stage also incorporates a number of financial proposals to help compensate for the loss of productivity in early-to-mid 2020. It proposes delaying the implementation of the reverse VAT charge until 1st October 2021. It also suggests extending the physical completion date deadline for house purchases that qualify for support under the Help to Buy scheme, to help prop up the housing market, and calls for the government to commit £4bn of the non-ACM Building Safety Fund to the 2017 Housing Guarantees programme to support social housing, build-to-rent and SME housing delivery.

Ultimately however, the effectiveness of any roadmap for recovery will be judged on how successfully it sets up the construction industry to thrive in a post-Covid world. Investment must be made into the research and development of digital technologies that will allow operators to function in this new landscape.


For example, Jonas Biörck, an associate partner at McKinsey’s, has shown how the Covid crisis could exacerbate pre-existing problems in the labour market. ‘The industry faced a shortage of skilled labor before the crisis,’ he explains. ‘With the prospect of rolling physical-distancing measures and restrictions on cross-border movement of labour, skilled labour shortages will become even more acute. The case for digital tools that are proven to increase productivity, such as 4D simulation, digital workflow management, real-time progress tracking, and advanced schedule optimization, will become even stronger.’

Now is a time for boldly reimagining processes and procedures – shifting to remote ways of working where possible, whilst simultaneously developing tools to safeguard customer relationships. The CLC recommends that organisations commit to adopting and embedding emerging innovations from the Construction Innovation Hub. It also advocates a renewed focus on energy efficiency requirements, and a concerted push towards achieving a net zero and climate change resilient construction economy by 2050 by embedding these targets in planned new infrastructure and housing developments.

Finally, there is consensus across the industry that the manner in which the construction industry has pulled together to serve the national interest at this turbulent time demonstrates how successfully organisations can cooperate, and how effective this coordinated activity can be. It is believed that a more collaborative attitude across the sector will pay dividends going forward.

Disruptive and costly though this crisis has undeniably been for the construction industry, the message of the BMF and the CLC is that opportunities will emerge from it if only we can prepare ourselves to take advantage of them. To do so, a robust roadmap needs to be in place – one that will allow the construction industry to return to work with confidence, and begin the vital journey towards restimulating growth in the sector.

Specialist building supplies recruitment from GCS Associates

GCS Associates provide specialist business management services for the construction, engineering and building supplies industry.

The company was created in 2007 and has become a major player within the construction supplies recruitment sector, placing candidates with companies as part of streamlined, cost-effective and time-efficient recruitment campaigns.

We work on a set of core beliefs including:

  • Communication
  • Consultative Approach
  • Honesty
  • Integrity
  • Passion
  • Confidentiality

Each of these beliefs is embodied in all of our services, as we seek unique individuals who will thrive in the role made available to them, while providing added value to their employer.

So, why choose GCS Associates as your specialist construction supplies recruitment consultant?


We understand construction

GCS Associates was created by experienced recruitment consultants with one aim in mind; to provide bespoke recruitment solutions specific to the Building Supplies sector.  We understand the unique challenges involving recruitment within this sector.

That means whether you are a business that is recruiting or an individual looking for your next challenge, we have an understanding of what you may be looking for and we dig deep to fully understand and deliver what you need.

We work with talented individuals from the sector and make sure each role is the right fit for the individual.  This not only gives employers the flow of talent that they need but promotes improved staff retention to bring down the overall cost of recruitment.

Alongside this, we offer related recruitment services to the building supplies industry to meet your needs, overcome your obstacles and achieve your goals.


We know where the talent is

With National coverage, we offer a highly focused recruitment strategy with robust processes in place ensuring a service that offers results, is responsive, confidential and yet personal.

These processes are in place but not at the expense of the personal touch that we offer the candidate.   This is one of our key strengths, ensuring that we not only validate the candidate’s relevant experience, but also ensure that our selection mirrors the client’s business culture and ethos.  Finding the right ‘person’ for the individual role.


We balance people skills with cutting edge technology

The construction sector has changed a lot in recent years and so too must the way in which we address recruitment.

We are always listening to clients and looking at ways we can both improve our service, the client / candidate experience and have a positive impact on those we work with.  One of the key ways in which we achieve this is to incorporate leading technological software which promotes brand awareness, improves interview efficiencies, reduces commercial downtime and has a dramatic impact on staff attrition.


We really care

We know it’s a cliche, but we genuinely care about finding the best people for each role, and the best vacancies for the candidates we represent.

A good recruitment campaign delivers mutual benefits for the employer and employee alike, and it is in everyone’s interests for the industry to thrive, creating even more growth opportunities in the future.

GCS Associates work diligently to support this growth, putting maximum effort into every search until we are satisfied that we are able to shortlist only the very best people for the job.