A feat of leadership amid uncertain times

How has Coates Hire, Australia’s largest equipment rental company, managed to keep employees and customers safe during the pandemic and still support essential industries? 

For a company that employs just over 1900 employees, with a national footprint of over 150 branches, Coates Hire’s accident free track record and zero employee infections from the coronavirus over the past six months has been a feat for the South business unit leadership team.

Sven Gade, Executive General Manager – South, which covers Victoria, Tasmania and South Australia says an emphasis on ‘care deeply’ as a core value is what has guided Coates Hire’s efforts since the pandemic outbreak.

Sven Gade

“As a company that supports so many essential industries, including roads and infrastructure, construction and manufacturing, our customers rely on us to keep their operations on track with our equipment and services,” he says. “That is why all of our branches have remained open and support customers 24/7, while putting processes in place to keep employees and customers protected.”

These processes, as Gade elaborates, cover three key aspects.

“For our employees, we have limited the number of people working from our offices and only some sales coordinators and mechanics are issued with permits to physically travel to the branches,” he says. “The customer service support and leadership teams as well as the administrative employees are all working from home, and for employees who continue to work in the branches, we have daily screening and temperature checks in place, as well as the necessary personal protective equipment (PPE), social distancing and hygiene measures to operate safely.

“The second aspect includes customers who visit our branches to take delivery of their equipment. At Coates Hire, we quickly deployed methods to collect data from visitors. Anyone who needs to attend a Coates Hire branch for a duration longer than 15 minutes is asked to log their information using a QR code system or a URL linked to a digital survey form, which enables us to contact them should the need arise due to COVID-19 tracing requirements.

“Finally, we have created guidelines for our drivers delivering equipment to our customer’s project sites and our field service mechanics working on the equipment to thoroughly clean and sanitise the machines, both before delivery to customers and after the equipment is returned to the workshops. We have documented all of these processes to ensure that our employees across all branches adhere to them to keep our team, our customers and our communities safe.”

Leading from the front

Within Coates Hire there are 37 branch locations in the three southern states under Gade’s management, Victoria accounts for 75 per cent of the total employees. With Melbourne and regional Victoria going through Stage 4 and Stage 3 lockdowns since July to contain the coronavirus spread, Gade says Coates Hire was quick to take action.

“In the early days since the new restrictions came into effect, we proactively organised our operations, and by the time Melbourne entered Stage 4 lockdown, we had already obtained the necessary permits, reviewed our COVIDSafe plans and had put additional control processes in place to continue to operate and support our customers,” Gade says. “Some of our top-tier customers and major contractors are bound by stringent safety compliance requirements and we were able to continue to give them confidence that our equipment has been extensively cleaned and sanitised before being deployed on site, and that our safety and operational compliance documentation was adjusted to meet their requirements. Through such proactive measures and leading by example, we were able to help our customers to adjust to the changing restrictions as well.”

Gade emphasises the importance of safety training and preparation as an important aspect of ensuring employee safety at all times.

“Even before the pandemic, we have worked hard on increasing workplace safety to reduce the accident frequency rates across the Coates Hire business,” he says. “I come from a manufacturing background and I have found that ensuring workplace safety in the hire industry is even more challenging than in a manufacturing plant. Our business involves a lot of high risk loading and unloading operations and close manual interactions with our equipment, both on Coates Hire sites and at ever changing delivery environments.

Coates Hire, according to Gade, has done much on the equipment side of the business to improve safety in the workplace as well.

“We have introduced loading and unloading zones to segregate people from trucks and forklifts,” he says. “We are also currently trialling a new truck that can be loaded from the ground instead of using a tilt tray. It’s a fantastic truck design that is much safer, faster to load and very well received by our customers.

“We conduct regular safety training sessions for all our employees to enhance their risk awareness and behaviour.  Even during the coronavirus restrictions, we continue to audit and train our teams remotely, with branch managers delivering safety training based on their experience of the real risks in the workplace.”

While Coates Hire is Australia’s largest equipment hire company, Gade says few people are aware that the company is also a registered training organisation. “Our team provides a range of training programs for our customers, both on-site and across our branches. This includes training people for working with elevated work platforms or verification of competency training (VoC), among others.”

Coates Hire also offers world-leading engineering capabilities, which combined with the hire of a large range of fit-for-purpose equipment, has created another point of competitive differentiation. The Coates Engineering Solutions team have delivered customised design solutions for customers in many areas including structural propping support, basement construction support and sheet piling with hydraulic shoring, dewatering, water treatment, pump diversion and by-pass for civil and infrastructure projects.

“As an equipment hire company, we are constantly investing in adding the latest equipment to our fleet. Last year, Coates Hire invested $225 million of additional capital to refresh and grow our fleet, which is three times more than our nearest competitor,” Gade says.

Leveraging technology for safety

Coates Hire’s focus on workplace safety and employee protection is reflected in how the company is leveraging technology.

Gade says among the latest investments by the company is a secondary guard solution for use with elevated work platforms (EWPs).

“We are installing a new high tech operator protection system on our scissor lift fleet that has been designed to minimise the risk of operators being crushed by overhead objects. The system monitors the position of the operator in front of the controls and in the event of sudden movements, which could be caused by raising the scissor lift into an overhead structure or by the operator leaning over the handrails, cuts out the scissor lifts functions,” he says.

Some customers have already started to mandate this solution; we have taken the proactive step to be on the front foot, having already implemented the system on over 150 of our machines.”

Location tracking through telemetry sensors is another technology area where Coates Hire is offering benefits for customers.

“The use of telematics for asset management is something that our customers appreciate greatly. Areas where we have found most success with the technology are in location tracking, fuel usage monitoring and geofencing” Gade says. “Across our own business, we are implementing a state of the art transportation management system (TMS) to offer better delivery service and more visibility to customers when they want to track their equipment’s delivery. We are also using the my.coateshire.com.au portal to allow customers to easily track their orders and on-hire lists.”

During the pandemic and challenging economic conditions, Coates Hire repositioned the organisation with a new company vision and strategy to deliver safe, smart and sustainable equipment solutions.

To underpin the strategy, Coates Hire reset the Company Values to guide the way Coates Hire’s teams work with each other, and also with customers, supply partners, shareholders and the communities who rely on Coates Hire every day.

“The ‘care deeply’ message as a core value is what I really like about Coates Hire,” Gade says. “It depicts how we work as a team and how we focus on supporting our customers, as well as the communities that we work in.  Maintaining a zero-harm environment for the past six months despite the distractions and stresses caused by the pandemic and while being proactively engaged with our customers is something I am very proud of.”