Canadian Contractor

Rob Blackstien   

I felt overwhelmed

As part of our cover story for the May/June issue, we solicited input from a wide variety of contractors across the country to talk about how Covid-19 was affecting their business. Steve Barkhouse, President of Ottawa-based Amsted Design-Build gave us some fantastic stuff, and while we couldn’t cram all his nuggets into the main story, we’re going to share some of it here.

Canadian Contractor: How are you making out?

Steve Barkhouse: I had a tough day on Wednesday (April 22). I didn’t really realize it until Thursday, but I felt overwhelmed, scared, helpless and stressed. I had the weight of the world on my shoulders and I felt sorry for myself. And my support, both at home and at work, saw me through that day. I realized that it is okay to feel that way, even to feel sorry for yourself – for a day or two. We are in survival mode and all that we are working toward is survival – and that is hard. It is hard when your entire life you have worked toward success, improvement, progress. But, by the grace of God and the help of my team, I am lifted back up, energized to power through and to count my blessings of which I have many.

CC: Did you have to lay off anyone?

SB: We laid off everyone including me, for two weeks (54 people). We have a skeleton staff back now trying to keep the work that we have, running smoothly.

CC: What’s changed specifically in the office?

SB: Thankfully we have no new work coming in so the phone has been very quiet which supports the fact that we are down to a skeleton staff in the office (sarcasm). We are constantly cleaning the office and washing our hands and we are dealing with one issue after another – cabinet company shut down, get another one, now they have shut down; multiplied by every trade… twice!

CC: What’s changed specifically on the site?

SB: Tons of protocols which hampers efficiency and increases costs, workers are distracted and lonely. That said, there is a sense of teamwork and perseverance like never before. A strength that is palpable. We will get through this together.

CC: Have you developed a company policy? If so, what does it consist of?

SB: We have a lot of new policies from distancing, washing, cleaning, working… to communication, signage, and core values.

CC: What are your main concerns right now?

SB: Mental health. I don’t want to be naive or ignorant to the obvious crisis of the virus but, honestly, my greatest fear right now is mental health followed by economic (which goes hand-in-hand).

CC: How has the supply chain been affected?

SB: What supply chain?! Quebec shut down which is 50 per cent of our supply chain. Many other companies have closed or slowed significantly. There are some brave souls doing what they can and they are saving us.

CC: Did you have workers choosing to stay home?

SB: Yes. I have older workers that are high risk, I have one that is caretaker of a parent who has just had an operation, I have others that are too anxious to work under the current situation. It is our workers’ choice and we support them.

CC: Have you tapped into any of the government funding programs? If so, what’s the process like?

SB: We have not qualified for any funding yet. The government chose to penalize companies who choose to self-perform work instead of subcontracting. Our payroll is over the $1.5M (threshold) so we can’t get the $40k loan. We hope to qualify for the wage subsidy but, it does not open until April 27th. So far, I have found the government programs difficult and confusing and changing regularly. It is a full-time job keeping up with them – and I have a full-time job.

CC: What income is coming in now?

SB: We are down more than 35 per cent month over month and these are the months that we should be getting to work. We have just come through our lean winter months, the cupboard is bare. Add to that the costs that have increased due to COVID and you have a perfect storm.

CC: How are you handling cash flow?

SB: Clients don’t want to pay because everyone is feeling the cash crunch and jobs are slow in reaching payment milestones. All while, subs and suppliers are in the same boat we are, if not worse, and so we have to keep them paid. It is tough, it is hugely time consuming, it is stressful – for everyone.

CC: Anything else you can tell us about how you’re dealing with this all?

SB: I am working with my (Home Builder Association), Government representatives and City officials to get our message out. That we are an integral part of the solution and they need to support us and allow us and allow us to lead the recovery. The recovery of: safe back-to-work protocol; mental health; of community confidence; and of our economy. We are also watching every penny closely.


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