2020 has been a challenging year for most businesses. For Gwalia Healthcare, it’s been doubly so. There’s been Covid-19, of course. But just weeks before the lockdown, the Valleys firm was struck by a devastating flood as a result of Storm Dennis.
In overcoming these challenges and emerging stronger and more resilient, the team at Gwalia have shown creativity, adaptability and a tenacious spirit. This is the story of how they achieved it.
It was on February 13 that the floodwaters unleashed by Storm Dennis rushed through Gwalia’s Treforest factory. At the time the company had just reached an important stage in its development, having had customers invested in new automated machinery to deliver Geko and Firefly, sophisticated medical devices designed to prevent deep vein thrombosis and treat sports injuries.
The devices would take the company, which had previously focused on making child proof tops for medicine bottles and tamper resistant pharmaceutical and nutritional packaging, into a new market. But on February 13 all that was put in jeopardy.
“All our equipment that we’d taken three generations to build up and develop, all our tooling, the new automated kit for Geko and Firefly, all that was totally wiped out,” said MD Rod Parker, grandson of one of the company’s founders.
It took four hours for the bulk of the floodwater to drain out of the factory halls unassisted, and several more hours to sweep the rest out. Then came initially two weeks followed by a further 4 weeks of lifting, cleaning and repairing the machinery to get it into a fit state. In the meantime, hand assembly units were used to ensure customers experienced no break in supplies.
Covid-19 and a new direction
After six weeks production at Gwalia was back in full swing and the company was ordering new machinery. Then along came Covid-19. It could have sent Gwalia back to the drawing board again. Instead, it brought fresh opportunity. This time the company was inundated, not with the muddy waters of the Taff, but with orders for empty bottles and bottle tops for hand sanitisers – 120 million in 24 hours.
Starting off with a borrowed machine, Rod put three of his staff to work filling sanitiser bottles, 5,000 a shift initially. Within two weeks he had acquired a filling machine and a labelling machine from Amarda Industries a south wales based business, allowing him to increase volume.
Gwalia designed and developed a new 100ml squeezable bottle. The team went from three to 10, then went onto two shifts. Contracts came from Arco, the largest supplier of sanitiser gel to the NHS and local authorities, and from NHS England. New product lines were developed, including 1-litre bottles with pumps for the NHS.
On the back of these contracts Gwalia invested in a second, fully automated line and developed a full range of bottles, from 50ml all the way up to 5 litres. The one line can produce 30,000 filled 1-litre bottles a day the other 150,000 of the smaller ones. Those numbers could be rapidly doubled with a very small investment, says Rod.
Far from having to furlough staff as so many businesses have, Gwalia took on an extra 26 during the worst of the pandemic, and still employs 26 more than before the lockdown on March. It’s testimony to the new market position Gwalia has carved out for itself as a result of its hard work and adaptability.
“We’re competitive, which is why we continued to have strong sales after the market for alcohol gel started to drop off in the summer,” Rod said.
While the alcohol-based gels met an urgent need, Rod quickly realised they weren’t the answer for everyone. Gwalia has been working with a Port Talbot-based company called Hybrisan on a range of non-alcohol anti-microbial and biocidal products which Rod describes as “95% water and 5% clever technology.”
The fully tested and certified products have a proven quick-kill rate and residual kill, and are not harmful to the skin. They will be going through clinical trials to validate any clinical claims put towards them.
As well as gels, Gwalia has also developed a range of decontamination products such as sprays with Hybrisan, which are being used by companies such as Stagecoach.
2020 has been a testing year for Gwalia, as it has for most of us. As a company it has risen to the challenge, which is a tribute to the hard work of its largely local workforce and the creativity of its management.
Without that flexibility and talent for improvisation they have shown, Gwalia might have been sunk by Storm Dennis or failed to meet the demands placed on it by the Covid crisis. Instead it has triumphed, and is poised to continue serving its community even better than it did before.