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Metal Supermarkets

Proving Themselves Essential

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MCN Editor Dan Markham Metal Supermarkets stores collect stories of how their products are being used during the pandemic.

The past few months have taught us numerous phrases and words we’d rarely encountered before: social distancing, flattening the curve and shelter in place.

For the member of the industrial economy, you can add another: essential business. However, there, the question isn’t whether the metals distributor and manufacturer qualified. Rather, it’s why there could have ever been any doubt.

That was certainly the attitude of Stephen Schober, president of Metal Supermarkets, the Mississauga, Ontario-based metals distributor that specializes in small orders. “It wasn’t that we were allowed to be open. It was that the government actually wants to be open,” he says.

The reasons are obvious. Metals producers, distributors and fabricators are crucial to keeping many vital services operating at full capacity, whether that’s manufacturing new equipment that goes into research or treatment, maintenance work for various organizations operating at the front line, or metal needed in food service and similar indispensable supply chains.

However, for the metal service center, which typically occupies that middle space between production of the raw material and the creation of a part or piece of equipment, it’s not always apparent just how the metals they sell are being used.

“Often we don’t know where the metal is going, especially with us because we’re doing maintenance, repair and operations,” Schober says. “We often send the metal to a fabricator and he does something to it and it goes somewhere else. For all we know, it ends up fixing an ambulance or some hospital equipment or a food processor so we can still eat.”

Thus, in the early days of the pandemic, when much of North America was in full shutdown mode, the proprietors at Metal Supermarkets’ franchises began inquiring of its customers just how the material was being used. The answers were reassuring to company owners and employees, many of whom were worried about coming to work during the height of the pandemic.

Among the ways the franchisees’  products were being used:
  • In Anchorage, Alaska, aluminum plates were donated to make more than 150 acrylic safety masks for Providence Alaska Medical Center, the state’s largest hospital.
  • Steel tubing was purchased by a customer in Virginia to make racks for a local hospital to sterilize personal protective equipment worn by staff.
  • Aluminum trade plate was purchased by a Maryland customer to repair out-of-service ambulances.
  • Square tubing was acquired by a manufacturing company in Washington state to produce sterilizing equipment for a local hospital.
  • Most recently, a Metal Supermarkets franchisee skipped the downstream step entirely. A store owner in Indianapolis built a protective booth for doctors at Hancock Regional Hospital to stand in while administering nasal swabs to patients to test for the novel coronavirus. The 4-foot by 4-foot by 8-foot booth features walls of Lexan, a transparent, impact-resistant polycarbonate, plus aluminum angle and assorted sheet metal for the floor and roof cap.

For Schober, the examples are immensely gratifying. “We’re actually contributing to the well-being of society,” he says. “And we think by sharing the stories internally and being willing to let other people know, it helps reinforce that we have a purpose.”

That can help, because others not connected to the metals space sometimes question what crucial function a Metal Supermarket serves.
Sometimes we’d get emails, where there’s a degree of misunderstanding as to why we’re working,” he relates. “Some people think food just magically shows up at the supermarket and medical workers magically wake up and have a mask.”

Like others in the metals sector, operating the business during the pandemic is a different kind of challenge. Social distancing in the metals workspace, even in the more retail-based environment of a metals supermarket, is certainly not as difficult as it would be in a meat-packing plant, but it does require vigilance. Keeping employees abreast of new regulations and guidelines has been imperative, as has been impressing on them the need to stay home if they were under the weather.
 
In some situations, the corporate office had to leave decision making to the franchise operators, as rules and regulations on business operations varied by jurisdiction. The company experienced more strain in its UK operations than in Canada and the U.S., where “it was more business as usual.” On the other hand, the UK operations saw more of its competitors and suppliers shut down, a fate that didn’t befall any of its operations.

That’s not to say the pandemic wasn’t felt by the company. Some of its stores were operating with short staffs due to both illnesses and a few employees choosing not to risk infection, though the majority of stores were operating at full strength. Stores were closed to walk-in traffic, with customers required to use curbside pick-up or delivery options. Still, it’s not nearly as onerous on a franchise as it is on some other businesses, Schober concedes.

“Most of our stores have six to eight employees, and there’s enough square footage there. In some of the smaller stores it was a little harder, so we put someone who was at a counter in an office,” he says. “It hasn’t had much of a detrimental effect, and the customers adjusted very quickly and very well to not being able to come into the stores.”

That’s something Schober has noticed throughout the shutdown, from both customers and employees. “Under these circumstances, people are more flexible to dive in and accept these changes. And some of these changes will probably be permanent, or semi-adapted and become permanent. It will change how we deal with customers and how customers want to deal with us.”

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