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’.