Cokebusters and COVID-19
15 July 2020
Back in the Spring it seemed as though almost every website and social media page presented a prominent announcement following the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. These announcements varied in their concentration from the implementation of social distancing and successful acquisition of hand-sanitiser, to the often devastating consequences for business. We admit we have been slow to share the Cokebusters experience with our colleagues and clients in the industry. Frankly, we were busy; occupied with more pressing concerns… the world had ground to a sudden halt and like everyone else, we anxiously wondered where we go from here.
In February we were handling expansion in all departments, pushing on full steam ahead with R & D projects and planning a significant renovation of our UK Headquarters. 2020 promised to be an exciting year of growth and adventure for Cokebusters; we would continue to nurture our existing client relationships whilst expanding into regions which were new to us.
By late March we watched as one by one the jobs which had filled our schedule boards dropped away, including imminent operations across Europe and the Middle East. In fact our crew bound for Turkey were on the M25 motorway outside London heading to the English Channel when they received the call from our office to turn back as the job had been deferred indefinitely. Cokebusters USA in Houston was experiencing similar reactions from its clients as jobs were postponed. International borders began to close and back at Cokebusters HQ our hero of the hour, Janet Mottrom, was working furiously to secure return flights for the crews whose site works were still ongoing. We had three men stuck in Saudi Arabia after successful completion of decoking operations at ARAMCO.
To say this was unsettling would be an understatement. In the energy industry we all learn to expect a good degree of elasticity in the market. Come what may, people will always need fuel won’t they? Well not if they stop flying, stop driving, stop using public transport, stop ferrying the kids to and from school, stop meeting friends for coffee in town or visiting family on the other side of the country, begin shutting down their offices, start working from home and only venture out to the nearest supermarket once a week for essential supplies. The very idea that any of these things could become a reality felt surreal and like everyone else, we struggled to come to terms with this new world of lockdown.
With such total uncertainty, it wasn’t sensible to be hasty in any judgments. The first concern was to keep staff yet send most of them home, but our office remained open as usual. Directors began devising plans to enable Cokebusters’ key employees to work from their kitchen tables. Meanwhile, staff with high risk family medical issues were a priority. Like everyone else, we had no idea how long the “lockdown” would continue so we learned there was no use trying to formulate a plan. We reacted on instinct, drawing on 25 years of business experience in this industry to navigate this unprecedented situation as best we could.
On 20th March the British Government announced its plan for a Job Retention Scheme, which would allow employees whose work could not be carried out within the restrictions imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic to be “furloughed”. Those eligible for the scheme would remain on a sort of official standby, in employment but held safely at home with 80% of salary paid by Government. We remain very grateful for this rapid and generous initiative. Without the Job Retention Scheme, Directors would have been forced to make some very difficult decisions, placing dearly valued members of the Cokebusters team and their families in a very tough financial situation.
With the ability to be able to retain our employees, we turned to our clients. How could we assist them? We received our first appeals for help in April; furnace process tubes needed cleaning, there were some blockages and process upsets so we were called into service. We consulted Government who stated emphatically that Cokebusters must respond, confirming key worker status providing essential service to maintain the energy infrastructure. It was stressed that European allies must be supported at this time of emergency. As travel became a special challenge, we are grateful for all the assistance provided by senior authorities in Spain, Portugal, Germany, France and Italy where embassies and consulates gave valuable and practical support to these activities.
New procedures were very quickly put in place ensuring social distancing wherever possible along with issue of appropriate protective PPE to keep employees safe at times when it was difficult to keep their distance. Having taken the decision not to fly, the company quickly secured new crew vehicles to transport decoking operators & inspection technicians to their European destinations. Yes, travel was difficult and costly but our staff stepped up, protections were put in place and we met the demand. Cokebusters USA took a similar approach, swiftly putting health protections in place and safely continuing to look after clients, ensuring continued flow of refined products.
Now in July, the Summer looks to be quiet as usual. We remain in close contact with our clients and look forward to Autumn/Fall in anticipation of a moderate surge in demand. We are taking the opportunity to continue our R & D projects, press on with our exciting premises renovation and ensure our bespoke machinery is firing on all cylinders ready to meet our clients’ requirements.
This has been a hugely challenging period and we know we are not alone. Although of course health concerns are paramount, the COVID-19 pandemic has placed so many businesses under immense pressure and no doubt caused anxiety for employed people of all ranks across all industries. None of us could have foreseen this, but we remain optimistic for the future.
We are exceedingly grateful to those employees who have volunteered to work in difficult circumstances and for their patience and understanding of those who remain on the Job Retention Scheme. We look forward to a time when we can all work closely together again to ensure that Cokebusters emerges stronger than before.