Marketing In Times of Recovery

Marketing In Times Of Crisis has changed its name to Marketing In Times of Recovery. It's still a bi-weekly interview-led podcast series featuring inspirational built environment business leaders but more with a look to the future. We’ve had to weather crisis’ before and podcast listeners hear lively conversations, jam-packed with hints, tips and takeaways that you can apply to your business now. Hosted by Ayo Abbas, Founder / Consultant, Abbas Marketing. Subscribe now, rate, review and help us to spread the word.


episode 3: Ep 03: Communications, Relationships & Collaboration with Helen Gawor, GKR Scaffolding [transcript]

Hello and welcome to the latest episode of Marketing In Times of Crisis. My guest today is Helen Gawor, who is the Business Strategy Director at GKR Scaffolding.  

I first heard of GKR when I worked at Mace. GKR was and still are a Mace subcontractor who honestly stood out from the crowd for the way that they operated and their focus on people and relationships. 

Helen shares how, during the current pandemic, GKR has kept a low external marketing profile and focused on internal communications with their staff, the health wellbeing and safety of their teams on site and collaborating with clients and the wider industry. 

She shares some of the digital tools that have grown in use and importance during this time and how they have improved some things for the better.  

Key takeaways

  • The importance of internal communications with your employees
  • Making sure you stay connected with your clients
  • Don’t operate in isolation – collaborate with the wider industry including your competitors 


Abbas Marketing

GKR Scaffolding

Build UK

Construction Leadership Council



 2020-07-03  32m
00:04  Ayo Abbas
Welcome to Marketing In Times of Crisis. It's where I get to chat to interesting business leaders about the steps that they're taking to weather the current crisis. I'm really excited to share with you this latest episode. It's an interview with Helen Gawor Business Strategy Director from GKR Scaffolding. Helen shares how GKR Scaffolding's business is built on relationships and how their priority always has been their employees and their clients, as well as collaborating with the wider industry. She talks about the challenges of being a largely site based organisation and the need for authenticity and doing the right thing; not just being seen to do the right thing. It's a brilliant interview, and I hope you enjoy listening to it as much as I enjoyed making it. And don't forget to subscribe and leave a review as I'd love to hear what you thought. Thank you. Hi, Helen, You joined GKR after I left Mace. But I've seen a lot of what you've been doing on social media. Could you tell me a bit more about yourself and your role and what you do at GKR?
01:09  Helen Gawor
Hello, and yeah, of course. And so my job title is strategy director, which basically means that I oversee the overall performance of the business. So, I ensure that our business capabilities and our operational capabilities are in line with what the market needs and what our clients need. And that we are delivering at a very high level by building high performing teams.
01:35  Ayo Abbas
Okay, and in terms of GKR, can you tell us a bit more about them as well.
01:39  Helen Gawor
So, we are the eighth largest scaffold and access provider in the UK. We're the only one in the top 10 that is still family owned. We turn over approximately £30 million pounds a year and we work predominantly in London in the South East. So, we work with contractors like Mace, Multiplex, ISG on some of the larger more complex schemes. So, we worked with Mace, for example, a number of years now on the Shard where we had to adapt to working at extreme height. We invented tool tethering systems and material tethering systems to enable that work to progress safely. And we have become the standard for safe working at height and working in very complex environments.
02:34  Ayo Abbas
Okay, brilliant intro. And in terms of when I initially invited you onto the podcast, you weren't quite sure it was right for you because you aren't doing marketing in a traditional sense. Can you explain what you meant by that?
02:48  Helen Gawor
Yeah, absolutely. And, well, I mean, as a business, we we do very little marketing in the traditional sense. So, we don't advertise for example, but we do focus on communications and social media being a very important channel for us, but all of our marketing is relationship led. So, it's about us doing less of the visible broadcast stuff and working with our clients, and building relationships with our clients. Until and, and perhaps, you know, sort of using that as a way to leverage our profile. And this particular time in terms of marketing, whilst you know, we are in an economic and health crisis at the moment. Yeah, we haven't done anything in particular at all. We purposefully have been dark on our marketing channels. And that has been in order for us to focus on internal communications with our staff. So communications with our clients as well. So for us, it is less about the traditional idea of marketing and more about communications.
04:05  Ayo Abbas
Brilliant, and what sort of things have you been doing with your staff in terms of communicating with them? Maybe we start from when lockdown first kicked in.
04:14  Helen Gawor
And yeah, well, I think, you know, sort of just linking back, to the previous question. For us communications is about authenticity. It's about I used to always say, if you know, if the business is genuinely as good as we we want to tell people it is I almost don't need to do any marketing. I just need to kind of open the door on the business and let the clients in the market have a bit of a window into what it is that we're doing.
04:44  Ayo Abbas
Yep. So you're completely open and transparent. This is who we are. Yeah, just what we do.
04:49  Helen Gawor
Absolutely. And, you know, and I think, you know, the litmus test for me is whenever we put something out there in terms of communications is, what would our employees think if they saw this particular post or this particular type of communications, and that's my way of checking that we are authentic. So, although we didn't want to tell people, we didn't need to tell people what we were what we were doing internally, our communications was very focused initially on our staff. Obviously, at that time after the country went into lockdown, we stood our people down at first of all indefinitely because we didn't know whether they were going to be safe or not. And then lastly, we furloughed Well, all of our site based staff because all of the sites that we were working on at the time were closed. We had to keep them very informed. So, obviously that was that was mainly done electronically, but obviously with managers checking in as well. As our staff have returned to site. We've been a little bit more visible and a little bit more face-to-face. So a big part of my job These last few weeks has been getting out. I've set myself the objective of speaking to every single member of staff so that they can understand the processes that we've been through, some of the decisions that we've made, give them some reassurance about the future and give them the opportunity to ask questions. So it's been very much a boots on the ground job and getting out there and speaking to people.
06:23  Ayo Abbas
How many boots have you got on the ground?
06:28  Helen Gawor
We have some very big boots as well.
06:30  Ayo Abbas
I'm Sure.
06:33  Helen Gawor
But we've got we've got about 150 operatives back out on site now. So across about 2530 sites,
06:44  Ayo Abbas
and what's the feedback you've been getting on getting when you've been speaking to people?
06:48  Helen Gawor
It's been brilliant, actually. It's, we have kept them very up to date, by sort of more formal communications and you know, toolbox talks so that they understand, you know, the position that the business has been in, what we're doing to adhere to social distancing measures, what the implications are for jobs. However, I think hearing it first-hand from company directors definitely has an impact. There's, you know I tend to watch what everybody's, the body language is I'm talking to people and when we do talk about, job retention, but our expectation that the teams are running leaner, and because, you know, we can only have fewer numbers of operatives on site, but we expected to give 120%. All hands to the pump, they can help us drive the business forward. And you see the body language shift, and there's always one person who says, that was the question I wanted to ask and, it doesn't take much for somebody to come out and explain it to us. Thank you, you know, it's you see the reassurance and hearing it from the leadership team is really important.
07:59  Ayo Abbas
I think that's the thing especially for people on furlough and things like that who've been brought back. It's how do you reassure me that this is okay. And this is all going to work? Because it's it's a scary time for everybody.
08:08  Helen Gawor
Absolutely. You can understand I mean, these, we talk about communications in time of crisis. And, you know, and we can talk about, you know, other recessions and, you know, other economic, you know, times of economic difficulty. It isn't just an economic crisis. This is a health crisis.
08:30  Ayo Abbas
08:31  Helen Gawor
There are human factors involved. And there are, you know, that there are decisions that need to be made not just as individuals and about individuals health, but their family's health as well. So, that when we were mobilising workers back to site, and, understandably, every single person was concerned, they had to put a huge amount of trust in us as a business that we we had audited those sites we had, we had to ensured that those sites adhered to the new site operating procedures that we felt that they were as safe as they could possibly be. That they had the right to speak up and tell us if they weren't happy with anything. And, that's a very different type of communication. And yeah, we spent a lot of time thinking through the behavioural economics of that, making people feel really confident in us. And, the site, the project that they were going back to. And, also working with our clients that they that they understand that that's a difficult decision as well. And we, you know, we worked very closely with our clients and with industry bodies, like Build UK and, and the CLC, because at the end of the day, it's as in the trades that have got the boots on the ground. It's them that are putting themselves at risk, and coming back to work during the height of a pandemic, and so, so helping our clients understand the challenges in mobilising workers. And what they needed to do to help us build confidence in our employees that they were coming, that they were coming back to a safe environment, was really important as well. So, you know, sort of tying that back to communications. It's, from our point of view at GKR there's a lot of thought leadership that goes into our communications. And, and helping our clients understand, what the challenges are and what we can do together to overcome those challenges and really create that partnership.
10:31  Ayo Abbas
So how did you do the communications with your clients? Was it did you write to them? Are you having calls? Was it meetings? Was it more like kind of face to face one to one thing? I guess every situation is different.
10:40  Helen Gawor
Yeah. I mean, initially, when we went into lockdown, and we we were probably one of the first businesses to stand our people down for 24 hours immediately after Boris's announcement because the six of us on the leadership team, you know, we all jumped onto Microsoft Teams have spent an hour going, what do we do? Because he hadn't mentioned construction, he just said, Well, if you can't work from home, you must go to work. And he was
11:05  Ayo Abbas
It was ambiguous.
11:05  Helen Gawor
And it was such a long period of time. And, you know, we, you know, and I'm very proud of the decision we made that night because we, you know, as you'll have seen from our communications, you know, the last few years running up to that point, we've been very focused on that the safety and the health of our people. We've got a very establised programme an award winning wellbeing programme. And, you know, for us to just throw that all out of the window because we were concerned about getting contractual or financial penalties for not turning up the next day. We just didn't feel right. No, I we knew that we would not be able to look our staff in the eye again. And, you know, we made the decision that night that set the precedent for all of our decisions moving forward, which was to put the safety and the health of our staff first, so that you know when we stood everybody down for 24 hours, whilst we worked out what was happening in the industry. I had to write to all of our clients and explain why we weren't presenting a team site the next day. And and explain why. And actually, we have got some really great feedback from our clients, quite a few people phoned and said, Well done, well done, even though the next day and a lot of sites were trying to work out how they stayed open. But, you know, by the end of that week, I think everybody was talking about, about closing their their sites, temporarily so that they could put the right procedures in place.
12:36  Ayo Abbas
So that was it, wasn't it? Yeah. needed time to do that. You couldn't you couldn't do that and be operational?
12:41  Unknown Speaker
No, no, you just couldn't do you know, and we were part of some of the enabling works for that to happen as well, all the, you know, the extra staircases and things that we, you know, we were we were part of that we, we had little sort of emergency teams who were working on small jobs like that, but yeah, in the early days, stages if there was a formality to that communication. We've got some very good relationships with our clients, and particularly MD Lee Rowswell has some very good relationships. And we were very, and I suppose this is the legacy of the relationships that we've had moving, you know, up until this point and that the clients were proactively coming to us and engaging us and asking us, you know, what we were doing, telling us what they were doing. We're part of, you know, we're members of Build UK, so we were part of that that contractor network that was meeting regularly.
13:35  Ayo Abbas
But it is not something you could have done on your own. It's, it's we've all had to come together and come up with how to work through this, isn't it?
13:43  Helen Gawor
Oh, absolutely. And I think, you know, this has got to be one of the big takeouts from from this time. It's you know, we've, we've always spoken to our clients about the need for early engagement being involved early so that we can plan and we can we can do things better together. And actually, I think we've realised that we can do that there are there are much more forums now, client led forums where the supply chain are involved or working together to try and sort out productivity issues and safety issues and those sorts of things. So I hopefully thiswill be a legacy that continues. But yeah, it just go back to your to your question. There's a real mix of a formal communications and those informal communications, lots of virtual meetings with the supply chain involved, and lots of one-to-ones and lots of phone calls. And even within our sector as well, you know, I'm speaking to, you know, the leadership teams in all of our competitors as well. And so were the other directors, sharing information, making sure that all of our workforces were kept as safe as possible.
14:53  Ayo Abbas
Yeah. I mean, that's the thing is nating. For us in this current time, you want everyone to be able to survive and to stay healthy. Basically, it's it's a nice business and personal isn't it?
15:03  Helen Gawor
Absolutely, absolutely. And I think, you know, sort of we would, dreading, you know, our own staff becoming infected. Projects would dread having a spike of infections on their project. So we had to be incredibly responsible. Everybody did. And, you know, and I think, you know, certainly from the part of the industry that we operate in, we certainly have achieved that.
15:29  Ayo Abbas
Okay. So in terms of tools that you've been using, and communications tools and marketing tools, what new things have you introduced, or what new things have kind of had to come to prominence during this time?
15:40  Helen Gawor
And well, I think, you know, informal communication is, you know, it's got to be the likes of Zoom and Microsoft Teams. And, you know, these are these are tools that I'll be honest, we never used in this industry before. But you know, my, my background is tech and digital. So I was very used to, meeting with people virtually dealing with people You know, sometimes all across the world across Europe, you know, in different time zones and it's just not a way that we're used to working in construction. But you know, needs must so we've all had to get used to, video calls and spending a huge amount of time on Zoom every single day. And, you know, that's internally that's been with our clients. That been with our teams are on site. And you know, I was explaining to you earlier we have our black hats meeting on Zoom now every Thursday, and sites all across London, are dialled in so that we can be kept up today and and also the flexibility means that the whole leadership team can dial in and listen once a week to exactly what's going on on site. And that that's that that's really, really powerful.
16:50  Ayo Abbas
And in terms of the blackhat meetings, how what do they have been run before?
16:54  Helen Gawor
And well, we'd have had to take the guys off site and get them into our office on Tower Bridge. So you you know, that's downtime, which obviously impacts on on productivity. So, so it's great that we can do this in an efficient way, and actually have all of them together. Usually, we would split them up by we've got four different business units. So, but they're hearing about what's going on in the different business units on the different projects. So it's brilliant, actually, in terms of making us feel like, we are one big team again.
17:29  Ayo Abbas
And I guess, because I know, one of the big issues whenever I've worked, you know, with contractors is actually the fact that you've got office based and you've got site base people has this kind of narrowed that divide of communication.
17:40  Helen Gawor
I think so. Yeah, definitely. And we've, I think more of us can, can keep in the loop with what's going on on site now much more easily. And you know, what, we've got two different offices. We've got an office in Kent, where our logistics and finance hub is. And then we've got the head office in London where we've got the leadership team and sort of all of the operational managers, and then obviously 30, potentially more than 30 projects across London. So we're a very dispersed workforce, and, and, the ability to get us all together, even if it's virtually, is fantastic. And it's really important for us that we, we do see what is going on on site, you know, and I challenge all of our staff, regardless of the role that they do, whether they, whether they work in our accounts department, you know, whether they're in an admin role, everybody has to do two site visits a year. And it's really important that they go out and see our work, see what the working environment is, like, you talk to the operatives that are on site and our management team on site and get a real appreciation for what it is that we deliver for our clients.
19:02  Ayo Abbas
I think so yeah, I think until you've actually visited a site, you don't know how they run, you know, you work, they work or whoever's in small, tight, you know, such tight sites, it's, it's a whole different world until you fully appreciate how tough that is, you can't do your job properly. I do completely agree with that.
19:21  Helen Gawor
Absolutely. And it's and that's also a big part of our, our client communication team, as I was saying, you know, if we, you know, our market communications is, you know, is literally just opening a door or a window onto GKR so you can have a peek inside and see what we do. And that's really important for the whole market and our clients as well. So they can, they can see the good stuff that we do that that hopefully gives us competitive advantage. bBut also get an understanding of, of the complexity of the work that we do and change perceptions of the people that work in our industry. The fact that, I've got, you know, 200 plus operatives working for us who are all highly skilled, smart people who work incredibly hard and have to adhere to lots of safety guidelines and influence the culture of our business. And I want people to see what you know what genuinely happens behind the hoarding and absolutely great work that we do. So it is an opportunity, it's no myth that you know, that there are perceptions of people who work in construction, there are perceptions of people who work in scaffolding, and not always accurate and so it's really nice to be able to show that to to the rest
20:49  Ayo Abbas
different side than what people think it is.
20:51  Helen Gawor
Yeah. And our clients. Yeah, I mean, A great example actually, because we we launched some risk aversion training using virtual reality a couple of years ago. Although it it was built as a training means which it absolutely is. And it's been very successful, but because it was an industry first, obviously a lot of our clients have wanted to see it. So myself and my health and safety director, we take it out to show our clients and our clients' teams get to play with a demo version, and we talk through some of the psychology behind it etc. And in a lot of those meetings, we take one or two of our scaffold operatives with us to to help with the headsets and to also talk about the training and what happens to their team when they've been trained. And I remember taking one of our project managers to one of these meetings, and the health and safety director came up afterwards from the client and said, you know, you and Peter brilliant, fantastic presentation said but the person everybody is talking about downstairs is your project manager. They just say you know, having such a great chat, you know, he was obviously different to their perception of somebody who worked in scaffolding, you know,
22:03  Ayo Abbas
Which is brilliant
22:04  Helen Gawor
just brilliant, And I love that. And I just love to be able to get our clients in front of our people, because that
22:14  Ayo Abbas
they're your biggest asset, ultimately? Absolutely, yeah, I wasn't anything, you know, their passion for what they do, what they know, their years of experience and training, and to actually put that in front of a client and that's just amazing.
22:28  Helen Gawor
Absolutely. And, you know, and I'm very proud of them. So it's great to be able to showcase, you know, the people in our industry.
22:38  Ayo Abbas
So, as we continue this transition out of lockdown and more things happening on site. Do you think there's different things you're gonna be doing as a business going forward in terms of how you communicate and what you're doing? Or do you think it's more of the same?
22:52  Helen Gawor
I think in terms of our, you know, our strategy, it will be pretty much the same The think the context will be different. I think, you know, one of the reasons why we haven't done much external communications or broadcast communications over this period of time is out of sensitivity for the people who are affected by the situation. Obviously, there's, the the whole industry is going through a difficult time. You know, there are people across the industry who are being made redundant, and who are still on furlough, who may be coming back to work in a slightly different capacity. It's a very uncertain time. And obviously, people are still worried about sort of the health and safety side of things as well. So, I think we will, we will try to be respectful of that. It's not the time for us to kind of be shouting about how brilliant we are, and you know, and how great everything is because, you know, at the moment, it's still massively challenging. But I think there's still an opportunity for for us to show how we are responding to this particular situation. And also, we do try to lean on a bit of thought leadership as well. And there's, there's things that, you know, we are reading and trying to roll into what we do in terms of you know, behavioural economics in sort of influencing people's behaviour change and those sorts of things and I think we can we can start sharing bits of information as we're as we're learning. But again, it will still be about that, authenticity, just showing people what we're doing in response to this particular situation. But being very sensitive to the fact that it is a very difficult time and we obviously will want to show; to remind our clients that we are a stable business and that we are bonding appropriately and we are the right sort of supplier and partner for them. But we will continue to do that, in respect of the situation that, that a lot of the industry is in at the moment.
25:08  Ayo Abbas
So I guess a lot of it is gonna be direct for you and just keeping those existing relationships going and supporting, supporting them two-way isn't it?
25:15  Helen Gawor
Absolutely. And, and even also, I think sort of you when, you know, when I'm speaking to clients, and obviously, you know, that they're in a difficult situation, because they're the ones that have to build the confidence up in their own clients. Our clients are the principal contractors, but the, the end client, you know, in terms of ensuring that they can, you know, they can green light a build, and it not be affected by this particular situation, we're in, economically and in the ways that we've got to work. And obviously, the markets getting incredibly competitive out there at the moment, so I'm hoping there will be a strengthening, a deepening of partnerships within the supply chain and that hopefully our clients will talk to us a little bit earlier, when they're when they're, you know, when they're working on things that pretend to stage. Getting us involved in that early engagement so that we can be part of that team that's helping to win business and bring confidence back to the market and to reinvigorate the pipeline's again,
26:23  Ayo Abbas
I guess I say, it's gonna be so competitive going forward that everyone's gonna need to put, I mean, realistic quotes out, but I think you're right, early engagement has got to be the way to get the best solution.
26:31  Helen Gawor
Absolutely. And, you know, it's everyone's biggest fear is that, people will, you know, we've got to win and, you know, we don't want this to be a race to the bottom. We want to, our bid process is is very value led, we will always want to be competitive, but we want to understand how we genuinely add value to to any project and to be able to do to prove that and articulate that and be part of that right from pre-tender stage.
27:04  Ayo Abbas
Okay, so on to my final two questions. I'm in terms of marketing or communications campaigns during lockdown as or as we transition it out of it. Has there been any standout campaigns that you've seen and really thought were very, very good?
27:21  Helen Gawor
And I think I mean, I'm not sure that many people have actually had sort of campaigns in the in, in the traditional sense. So a lot of people have been very respectful of of this pretty particularly difficult period of time and not using this to to their advantage
27:40  Ayo Abbas
To sell. Yeah, yeah,
27:41  Helen Gawor
Because it's got to be relevant and that, you know, consumer brands, potentially have that set, but from a from a B2B sense, and certainly in our industry. However, I think, you know, sort of, there are examples of people who have remained relevant and been useful because I think that they're the two things you've got to be relevant and useful at this time. So it's got to be the industry bodies like Build UK have kept, you know, their members and the wider industry informed and obviously they've been doing a lot of work behind the scenes themselves in terms of driving, the guidance and the recovery and working with the CLC, etc. But then also, I always look at Mace as, a good example of of B2B marketing in our industry, except that I suppose they're probably what, I would aspire for us in that they, there is an intelligent approach to the information that they share. It's not just about look at us, look at the projects and, and a lot of good sort of thought leadership content that has been shared by Mace, which
28:48  Ayo Abbas
they've done a huge series on COVID-19, haven't they? Which has been very, very good. Yeah, it's been very useful kind of how to get back in the office. What do you think of those types of useful nuggets that we really do need. Yeah, that's the stuff people aren't necessarily thinking about. And it's like, when you mothball building quickly, this is all the stuff you might not have thought of.
29:08  Helen Gawor
Exactly. So that's, you know, that's the kind of the kind of content we need. And, you know, that's in a way they probably you know that they're they're trying to market themselves to that the other side of the industry but that's all stuff that's useful to us, which will get noticed that they are supporting the wider industry with with information and good thought leadership. So, so yes, I had, you know, had I had the time in a bigger team. That's the kinds of content
29:42  Ayo Abbas
You wanna do a Mace. And in terms of kind of one tip you would give to business leaders at the moment that they what they should be doing communications, marketing wise, what would you say it should be
29:55  Helen Gawor
Authentic. Just be authentic. It's, people see through marketing messages, and particularly at this time, and I think, you know, there's, there's a lot of evidence to prove that actually keeping your marketing and your communications going through difficult times, does pay dividends. The economic recession we have back in 2008, I was on the different side of the fence and I was working in media and advertising at that time. So I was in a slightly sort of different side of things, but we saw ad spend decrease however, the brands that did continue to advertise, did see that payoff over the next 12 months in terms of sales and, and brand awareness and those sorts of things. So, so I think if you can find a way to be useful and relevant to to keep that presence up, but do it in an authentic way and and don't try and use this particular situation as a way of leveraging yourself,
31:04  Ayo Abbas
no, it has to be authentic. You've got to care. I mean, there's so many people impacted by this. So, on that note, Helen, thank you so much for your time today. I've really, really enjoyed interviewing you. And that's the end of this episode of Marketing In Times of Crisis. Thank you. Take care. Bye Thanks so much for listening to Marketing In Times of Crisis. I really do appreciate you taking time out of your day to tune in. Check out the show notes for useful links, including my website, where you can find out more about everything featured today, and how to get in touch. We're a new podcasts so if you like what you've heard, please do subscribe so that you never miss an episode and more people get to hear about us.