From Westminster PPE frustration to royal approval for timely expansion - Arco MD opens up on 2020

2020 was always going to see a marker set in the history of the huge Hull family firm as it opened its £30 million National Distribution Centre and saw a new city centre headquarters start to emerge.

But those at the helm of the 134-year-old firm found themselves thrust into a frustrating and frenetic pandemic situation when they were in the box seat to deliver.

Overlooked by government despite being the UK market leader - and more than good enough for the Scottish NHS with whom it secured a huge contract - Arco, like many, also had to close one third of the business down - then restart it - while taking the extraordinary step of chartering 10 planes to bring vital items of personal protective equipment in from trusted suppliers.

While Mr Evison desperately hopes lessons will be learned in Westminster from the handling of the PPE scandal, the unprecedented events of the past year have underlined the family firm’s strength. It was also a stroke of good fortune that the huge state-of-the-art shed - vital capacity as the UK needed a master distributor - completed at the right time, even if Arco, and clearly the Department for Health and Social Care, didn’t realise just how quickly it would be put through its paces.

“Our existing customers were front-of-mind in all the decisions we have taken,” Mr Evison said. “A lot of companies sold their souls to get good contracts, we shut the business down with the intention to make sure we got supplies for existing customers.

“We have been around for 134 years, and what was really important was we could keep clients supplied when supplies were pretty short.

Our focus was to make sure we could get the supply. Food production, industrial production, are strong sectors for us, and we are the warehouse for those companies, relied upon, so it was critical to do that. Any excess was here for front line workers, yet out of it all, we were 0.07 per cent of supply. It was a whole area of frustration.”

Thomas Martin, chairman of Arco, and the position paper it has produced.

Arco’s credentials were clear - not just from the stated position, released last month - subsequently picked up in a parliamentary analysis of the hard-hitting National Audit Office review - but similar scenarios that should have acted as a playbook.

“We are able to guarantee strong supply because we own the supply chain that starts in China. We don’t just source a manufacturer, we have a team there and we make sure we understand products are ethically sourced, the workforce is treated properly and more importantly, that goods are compliant,” Mr Evison said, of the 10-strong Arco workforce in the Far East.

Laboratory services are embedded within the operation. It has published technical papers on the right equipment for the right environment, while working with the likes of London Eye, the BBC and Ericsson on service contracts.

“We don’t just buy and sell it, we use it, train it, work with it,” he said. “That’s why we can talk about safety.”

And this is where the issue with government procurement - raised in a positioning statement released by chairman Thomas Martin and then in Westminster debate by constituency MP Emma Hardy - has been tough to take.

“My biggest issue after this pandemic is that we worry the government - if it is issuing contracts with unknown entities - is not prioritising compliance and safety. Everyone asks if I’m disappointed we didn’t get the contacts, but my biggest issue for me is the health and safety of the market place being diminished by decisions made.

“It is like an MoT on a car, you rely on it to know the brakes are good. If you put a mask on you need to rely on it, the workforce needs to rely on it.

“It is critical to me that health and safety compliance and enforcement is maintained.

“We offered our resource. We wrote to the government offices, involved direct contacts with procurement teams, offered what products we had, offered our expertise and offered our supply chain - we never got a response.

“We did participate in three contracts, we’ve provided respirators for ICU and that was a really thorough process.

“We helped through Ebola, we helped through foot-and-mouth, and we helped through swine flu - it is not as if we weren’t known. We have been very public and helped support government response, yet for whatever reason they took a very different approach.

“At the time it was difficult, we had just come out of Chinese New Year, getting to speak to anyone was tough.

“We chartered 10 planes - we had a 747 with 20 million masks on board - not something in February I thought I’d be doing in May.”

The fact stock sat idle as wards relied on the likes of pivoting 3D printers irks. But the bond with customers has strengthened and the role deepened as it continually met demand.

And with such cargoes touching down at Stansted, the need for the National Distribution Centre couldn't have been clearer than the blue light it was bathed in for recognition of the key workers it served - or wanted to.

“We assumed it was to be a five to 10 year period before it was full,” Mr Evison said of the expansion alongside the A63 entrance to Hull. “It went very quickly from taking a walk around in February wondering how we would fill the place.

On the ground: Part of the first consignment of 19 million face masks ordered by Arco.

“What this has done in the short term has filled it, and in the long term we will end up holding a bit more stock. Strategic partnerships are really important for us to hold stock f