INDUSTRY LEADERS FORUM
Steve Agar Joint Managing Director, Agar Cleaning Systems
How was 2020 for Agar? 2020 was an extraordinary year for all of us. When COVID-19 appeared in Australia, and both the consumer and B2B markets were looking to ramp up cleaning and disinfection, it was chemical products they turned to. Consequently, we saw a couple of serious spikes in demand for our products, particularly disinfectants. A highlight for me was that we were able to provide ongoing stable employment for our valued staff at a time when many businesses were cut severely or closed. I’m highly appreciative of our staff who’ve been excellent in working tirelessly, particularly at our branch sites. We had a major challenge in dealing with sudden shifts in customer demand, combined with supply issues with raw materials and packaging relevant to our products in high demand. March was especially challenging, when customers were ‘panic’ buying up all sorts of cleaning product supplies, not just disinfectants and sanitiser, presumably because they were worried that manufacturers and distributors might have to cease operation for an extended period. Eventually though the restrictions imposed by our governments and the economic slowdown certainly had a negative impact on the sales of our wider product range.
How did Agar adjust to the impact of the pandemic? To be honest, we are still adjusting. Already having products with relevance to the fight against the virus, we needed to increase of capacity to manufacture these products. In the early stages when demand for disinfectants and hand sanitisers soared, our production and dispatch teams worked a lot of overtime. 22 INCLEAN January / February 2021
We had to deal with shortages of key raw materials which are normally ordered weeks, if not months in advance. At the peak of the demand, we had to make some tough decisions about what we could supply and to whom, because we simply couldn’t supply enough to meet the total demand. Having already been successfully tested on other viruses, we selected our new CounterFlu disinfectant for testing on the surrogate viruses and obtaining TGA certification and ARTG listing with a claim of efficacy on SARS-CoV-2 (COVID-19 virus). We have recently released a readyto-use (RTU) version of this product for convenience and ease of use.
What will be the immediate focus for Agar in 2021? We’re aiming to get back to our pre-COVID business plan, albeit updated to the new “COVID-normal”. As they say, life goes on, and the direction we’ve been taking recently with product development is still relevant, especially in reducing environmental impact and improving operator safety. We released a number of new products prior to the pandemic, but these had to take a back seat for obvious reasons. We will now promote these more widely, in the context of the altered reality we’re now living in. During the pandemic, there has been much greater reliance on e-commerce and online communications, and with all of the convenience all this provides we will focus more attention in this area.
What challenges and opportunities do you see for the industry over the next 12 months? We all know the pandemic has highlighted the important role cleaning and disinfection plays in human health and protection from infection. In particular, we’ve been reminded cleaning must be frequent and thorough. How often have we seen vision on the nightly news of cleaners applying disinfectants in public places, inside train carriages and so on?
This presents an opportunity to reinforce the value of and improve the perception of cleaning services. You would expect that those cleaning service providers with the systems and technology to be able to demonstrate they have achieved the specified outcomes will win the best contracts and earn better margins. The challenge will be dealing with complacency, and to resist pressure to unrealistically absorb the cost of providing more frequent and thorough cleaning with the best methods and technology. Whilst the latter can bring better efficiency and productivity, the priority is the health and well-being of building occupants, by delivering a full specification provided by trained staff who are paid the correct wages. With the pandemic, we have seen a plethora of new cleaning products and technology launched globally. This presents an opportunity for the cleaning industry to innovate and improve their service delivery and outcomes, but within this comes the challenge of sorting the genuine advances from superficial marketing exercises simply taking advantage of the situation.
Have you seen changes in customer behaviour since the pandemic? How has Agar responded to these changes? When the seriousness of COVID-19 was realised I believe buyers turned to technology, products, and brands they knew they could trust. Perhaps ironically given the discussion around chemicals in recent years, when things became dire with the pandemic, it has been chemical disinfection technology that people have turned to and relied on. The decision making of buyers has been influenced by the various health departments and their guidance on appropriate cleaning and disinfection during the pandemic. An example is the fogging of disinfectants, which after an initial surge fell away following doubts raised about the consistency of application and the question of whether the presence of soil would negate the efficacy of the disinfectant.