What a year: positive news from our business community

We always publish good news on Think Sandwell and, this year, it has felt more important than ever to shine a light on the businesses achieving more, bucking the trend or rallying around others. So here is a selection of great things that have happened in our Sandwell business community since the first national lockdown in March 2020.

A collection of square photos making the shape of a heart on a green backgroundAdapting to the situation

If we had to vote for the business buzzword of 2020 it would be ‘pivot’, having seen many firms perform a heroic about-turn in the face of the coronavirus crisis. Nowhere has this been more heartening than where businesses have adjusted their output to support others, or even manufactured products to assist the fight against Covid-19. Many of these were honoured in the Black Country Chamber’s Business Heroes Awards in mid-November.

Back in April, Smethwick engineering company A&M EDM had already started producing components for new UK-made ventilators, and was using 3D printing technology to manufacture head bands and chin pieces for frontline workers’ face shields. In May we reported on West Bromwich chemical manufacturer Robinson Bros making and supplying hand sanitiser for care homes and other support services.

Cannon Tools in Rowley Regis, which usually works for the automotive industry, began supplying hand sanitiser dispenser stands. Indasol in Smethwick also changed its business model and secured funding to innovate a food-safe disinfectant spray, while Wrights Plastics in West Bromwich and Smethwick’s MiGlass both responded to the Covid-19 crisis by producing new protective screens for use in workplaces.

When the global pandemic hit, Ramfoam responded swiftly. The Tividale foam manufacturer developed a lightweight, reusable and hypo-allergenic foam headband which could be easily connected to anti-fog visors and adjusted to fit within seconds. Ramfoam’s kits went into production in May and – when we reported on them in September – were being produced at a rate of three million every day. The awarding of a government contract helped Ramfoam create 294 jobs; 130 of these in Tividale alone.

Through lockdown and a time of rapid change, businesses with the capacity just kept toiling. Oldbury-based metal bending giant Barnshaws Section Benders, for example, continued to support essential projects by providing precision curved structural steel for the construction of facilities, including hospitals. Robinson’s Bakery fed key workers and the people of Sandwell, offering its cobs, sandwiches, baguettes, hot food, cakes and snacks by delivery through Just Eat. It increased production of traditional meals, such as cottage pie, for collection and delivery customers, and worked with Think Sandwell to supply vulnerable people and food banks in the peak of the crisis.

Indeed, many of Sandwell’s food businesses rallied around to help frontline workers – and dozens of furloughed staff from Sandwell Leisure Trust volunteered their time to provide direct care to Sandwell residents.

Responding to the crisis

Other Sandwell businesses found their existing products and services became more relevant than ever. The range of contactless, smart technology lockers from iLockerz in Rowley Regis has never been more needed – particularly the lockers utilising the company’s patented UV-C Clean technology, which uses LEDs to sterilise objects placed inside within 30 seconds. The huge surge in home working in 2020 meant West Bromwich-based telecoms provider Midshire Telecom was kept busy supplying remote-working solutions across the UK. Meanwhile, Mac Security Systems in Cradley Heath saw a topical way to diversify: by supplying fever detection technology for screening people for raised body temperatures – one of the signs of a possible coronavirus infection.

Thriving, despite it all

In 2020 we heard continually good news from parcel delivery giant DPD, which is headquartered in Sandwell. In response to a boom in online shopping caused by Covid-19, the firm created thousands of new jobs. It is striving towards sustainability. Cardboard engineering firm N.Smith & Co, in Oldbury, also benefited from the parcel boom and has created six new jobs. Meanwhile, household product supplier Newg420 Ltd created twenty jobs – having purchased a bigger warehouse in Smethwick.

We’ve heard about healthy order books for West Bromwich-based Midport Construction, and for Cube Precision Engineering in Rowley Regis, which is thriving in the aerospace sector. And while this may have been a difficult time to grow a new business, AK Valves in Tipton and Dronez Access in Oldbury – both established only in 2019 – have reported doing well.

Mosaic artist Caroline Jariwala at home in BearwoodWe loved hearing about creative responses to Covid-19, from sculptor Luke Perry’s four-metre ‘Wings and Scrubs’ angel installed in Lightwoods Park to thank NHS and key workers, to the gorgeous mosaic design created by international artist Caroline Jariwala in her Bearwood home, while she recovered from coronavirus.

Future proofing

Other Sandwell businesses chose, wisely, to invest in their future – such as Oldbury-based CSCM Limited. With support from Think Sandwell, the technology company secured Aim For Gold funding to develop a growth plan and undergo a valuable rebrand. Pipe-forming manufacturer Formbend in West Bromwich was similarly successful with Aim For Gold, receiving £10,500 to finance new machinery and capitalise on marketing development opportunities. And Oldbury-based Hewigo, which makes fish and chip fryers, used Aim For Gold investment to bring its manufacturing process up to date.

Historic Smethwick engineering company James Lister & Sons decided to counter the uncertainty of Covid-19 and Brexit with investment: £300,000 in new systems and machinery. Meanwhile, Sandwell engineering firm Deritend Group poured £500k into a regional centre of excellence in West Bromwich, which could create 25 jobs for our borough. And Liberty Building Solutions, part of Liberty Engineering Group, has been seeking UK partners for collaboration on projects in the Middle East.

Enjoying the Black Country

Swirly fossil sculpture from Wren's Nest, Dudley

We’re definitely biased, but 2020 reminded us what a great place the West Midlands is to live and work. Others saw it too: in August it was revealed by the Department for International Trade that our region is the UK’s leading location for foreign investment outside of London and the South East. Our pride in the Black Country as a place of innovation is never prouder than during the annual Black Country Business Festival, which in October was mainly digital and brought thousands of people together for nearly 100 events. We were glad to see the Black Lives Matter movement at the forefront of our region’s consciousness in 2020, and will play our part in ensuring it remains. And we all celebrated back in July when the Black Country was awarded UNESCO Global Geopark status for being an area of outstanding geological heritage.

On a Sandwell level, we’ve been delighted to see three towns striving towards a share of £80m Towns Fund investment and hear about Wednesbury being awarded £18m of regeneration funding.

Finally . . .

Of course, not all businesses thrived in 2020 – and many have not survived. Here at Think Sandwell we want you to know we’ll be here for our business community through whatever 2021 brings. Whether you need support with starting up, finding premises, accessing finance, recruiting, or just having a friendly ‘way in’ to working with Sandwell Council, you can call on us:

We hope you will have a peaceful, healthy and happy break over Christmas – and we look forward to hearing from you in 2021.