Industry Leaders Forum: Steve Agar, Agar Cleaning Systems

Steve Agar, Joint Managing Director, Agar Cleaning Systems

How was 2021 for Agar? What were the highlights? What were the challenges?

A highlight for me has been the commitment and loyalty of our team right through the pandemic. As a manufacturer of essential goods, we have remained open throughout, and our production, operations, technical, sales, and admin teams have worked tirelessly through some very busy periods.

They’ve been cooperative in observing our COVID-safe plans, and flexible when demand has surged and eased.

Sales remained strong across our range from the beginning of the year, however, with simultaneous lockdowns in Victoria and NSW starting in July, sales were subdued during the third quarter of 2021.

Our disinfectants remained strong sellers, but other product categories suffered at times with the reduced economic activity around Australia.

Whilst we’re obviously Australian family-owned, and continue to manufacture in Australia, we can’t escape the global supply chain issues which have become even more challenging in 2021.

The sourcing of some key raw materials which are no longer manufactured locally was affected by supply/demand issues and impacted our costs.

Despite these challenges, highlights also include expanding our range of products licensed by GECA and releasing some other new products and improvements across several categories.

Is there an achievement you’re particularly proud of from the past 12 months?

Firstly, we managed to navigate our way through the peaks and troughs in demand and logistical challenges to provide stable employment for our team while maintaining consistent supply to the market.

We also reconfigured our Preston manufacturing and warehousing facility early in 2021 to improve operations and again, did so without any interruption to supply. Finally, our customers have continued to demonstrate their trust in our products, and we remain ever appreciative of that support.

What will be the immediate focus for Agar in 2022?

We’re still working our way through the pandemic, so we’ll be working to raise awareness of our developments with our range of disinfectants. CounterFlu has been very successful, and we have now provided an alternative form of chemistry with Virattack, which utilises hydrogen peroxide.

With states having different ‘roadmaps’ out of the pandemic and COVID yet to infect the community to any significant degree in some states, COVID safety protocols and infection control will continue to be very relevant, and so the supply of our disinfectants will remain a key focus, along with further R&D in this area.

Clearly COVID and the related issues have dominated our attention, but our ‘normal’ business along with life in general, goes on.

We have several other new and improved products that were released during the pandemic which we’ll be promoting over the coming months now that lockdowns and restricted operations are easing.

We will also focus on promoting our expanded range of green products licensed by GECA as the market reenergises post-COVID.

What are the opportunities and challenges you see for the industry in 2022?

We’re entering the vaccination booster phase, and the high vaccination rates should allow our economies to remain open and for life to return to something more normal, including staff in offices, shoppers in retail centres, crowds at sporting events, patrons in venues, and so on.

There will be ongoing demand for anti-viral disinfectants as the campaign against SARS-CoV-2 continues while we go about our daily life. The presence of the virus provides the ideal climate in which to reinforce the value of an effective hygiene program incorporating cleaning and disinfection, with achievable productivity rates and adequate hours in the specification.

Whilst the pandemic has sat in the foreground of the news for a long time now, in the background the issues of climate change and the environment more broadly haven’t gone away.

The leaders in the cleaning industry have already been very savvy in tapping into this movement. There’s an opportunity for the broader cleaning industry to make a greater contribution, by playing an important role in reducing carbon footprint, managing waste streams, and improving the sustainability of their operations. The facility management sector has a strong interest in this area.

For all that, the ever-present challenge of competitive price pressure will be there, especially for those property managers who are recovering from lean times during the pandemic.

A major challenge arising during the pandemic is the shortage of cleaning labour, due to among other things workers moving to other industries, a shortage of international students available to work part-time and the curtailing of immigration which has long been a source of cleaning labour.

Perhaps the difficulty in finding labour will prevent operators from quoting sharply for growth, and instead will maintain higher pricing to cover the labour resourcing issues.

Even as labour does become more available as these factors ease, it’s likely that new people will enter the industry and will lack the required skills and knowledge. So, there’ll be a significant need for training, especially online, as well as products, equipment and methods of application which are user-friendly and simple to learn and use.

How will the impact of the pandemic re-shape the cleaning industry in 2022?

Whilst COVID-19 cases continue in the community, regular disinfection will be important, and a significant portion of cleaning resources will need to be devoted to this requirement.

At the same time, with cleaning labour harder to find, automation will be introduced wherever possible to free-up the labour required for ongoing disinfection and other manual tasks.

That said, more efficient methods of applying chemical disinfectants and other forms of disinfection which can be automated or can cover large areas quickly will become more widespread.

More broadly, we’re seeing some reluctance from people who’ve been able to work at home, return to the office, and people re-thinking their careers and lives altogether.

The flow on from this will be changes to what we know as offices and to other facilities and venues, and the cleaning industry will need to adapt to these changes with different cleaning and hygiene programs and potentially different methodologies.

How has the public’s expectations of ‘clean’ changed as a result of the pandemic?

There’s an expectation that, when there is COVID-19 out in the community, commonly used surfaces will be regularly disinfected as well, not just cleaned.

There is now more of an awareness on the difference between cleaning and disinfecting, with the expectation that a cleaned surface also means a disinfected one.

Cleaning was previously judged on visible soil, but now the public better understand the risk of the invisible; bacteria and viruses which can be life-threatening.

This means the public will rely on brands, products, and service providers they can trust to deliver an outcome they can’t actually see for themselves.

What impact will these new expectations have on the industry, in terms of cleaning standards and processes, in 2022?

Cleaning standards will prioritise infection prevention while the processes will focus on efficiency and outcomes. Cleaning schedules must allow sufficient time to carry out thorough and frequent surface cleaning and disinfection of all ‘touchpoints’ and other risk areas.

Given the current scarcity of labour, together with the requirement for regular ‘manual’ touchpoint disinfection, cleaning service providers will need to explore every viable labour-saving technology so that their labour resource can be deployed where it’s most needed and/or irreplaceable.

Efficacy, efficiency, and outcomes will be stronger considerations when selecting processes and purchasing products and equipment.

Is there a message you would like to share with the industry?

Firstly, congratulations to the cleaning industry in general on a great effort in demanding and uncertain times.

And secondly, I sincerely thank those organisations and individuals who’ve chosen to rely on Agar’s chemical products to provide the cleaning power, disinfection, and hygiene they required.

High quality chemicals, machines, hardware, and consumables will help to deliver the best hygiene and productivity outcomes.

This article first appeared in the January/February 2022 issue of INCLEAN magazine. 

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