AE Spotlights: Strategic Insights from the C-Suite Featuring Brydens Stokes

The angst that many of us felt within the last 20 plus months when we recognized our medical supplies at home were running low but the supermarket shelves for the first time were equally bare in some cases, was being experienced by distributors some time before. An intimate awareness of what was happening in the global supply chain and the implications for shipping routes, container accessibility, production and pricing created a nightmare for those in the distribution sector whose responsibility it is to ‘keep the shelves stocked’. Approaching the two-year anniversary since the documented onset of the Covid pandemic, the situation has far from settled as the much maligned sector struggled to navigate new buyer patterns, product options especially in the absence of the favorite go-to brands and new shipping routes that have magnified the cost of landed products.

Global realities don’t align well to the picture on the ground in Barbados. While both the country and its residents have shrinking purses, rising global prices place distributors in a near perilous position of trying to broker ‘impossible’ deals. So the question is: How do you prepare for an unknown future? What can be done to expose the invisible, knowing that because it cannot readily be seen doesn’t mean its effect cannot be profound?

Equally, the pandemic ushered in an expansion of the term ‘essential workers’ with persons within the distribution and retail sectors included in this categorization. Given the demands on this grouping, they found themselves experiencing the disproportionate impact of the pandemic through increased exposure to threats to their physical, mental, emotional and even financial wellness. So at a time where the average person was seeking safety in their homes, these persons were expected to report for duty.  How did organisations navigate this? 

Our curiosity to have these questions answered and others around strategy and the human resource management experience in the Distribution sector has led us to engage Mr. Adrian Padmore, Managing Director and Mrs. Kara Boyce, Human Resource Manager at the regional distributor Bryden Stokes Limited. Bryden Stokes Limited is one of the leading distributors in Barbados offering an extensive range of popular brands across its three (3) divisions of Food & Consumer, Brewery, Wine, Spirits & Tobacco and Health and Wellness such as Ben & Jerry’s, Brunswick, Grace, Dewar’s, Grey Goose and Boost. Employing over 300 individuals, Bryden Stokes is a household name.   

Antilles Economics: Much has been written about the disruption of global supply chains. As a stakeholder, what has been the Bryden Stokes’ experience since the onset of the pandemic? How has it affected you strategically and operationally? How have you been able to navigate this period?

Adrian: There’s no doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic has brought a new wave of uncertainty from the very outset and because, as a major distributor, Bryden Stokes sources products from across the world, we felt the impact pretty early on. It varies depending on category, portfolio and country of origin but the current situation is that supplies are often uncertain. Generally pricing is on the rise, mainly driven by freight costs on long haul routes and the availability or unavailability of containers.

Therefore, as a distributor, we have had to be exceedingly nimble and creative in forecasting and planning and anticipating what is coming at us and doing our best in order to safeguard supplies. The Caribbean from a global perspective is still a small marketplace and therefore when multinationals are allocating their limited resources, be it raw material and/or finished products, the Caribbean doesn’t always become the first choice market to dispatch product to, so things like allocations and quotas have become a real factor in some categories. I think because of our longstanding relationships, as we’ve been in business for the best part of a century at Bryden Stokes or various iterations of the company before the merger, it has afforded us the opportunity to stabilize supply wherever it is possible to do so and to minimize the impact, which would have been otherwise a lot more severe.

Antilles Economics: Would you say that those relationships have been the primary activity you have leaned on to navigate this period or are there other strategies or approaches that have contributed to your survival?

Adrian: Certainly the relationships have helped. But from a technical and capability point of view, we have strengthened our supply chain team in a significant way. So a higher caliber of resources, more resources, more emphasis on forecasting and demand planning has started and will continue and intensify. Those are some of the strategic and operations decisions that we’ve had to make to navigate through the global supply chain situation.

Antilles Economics: Has consumer behavior and confidence changed since Covid?

Adrian: Absolutely. It started very early on and I think we have all seen on the news et cetera, consumers in supermarkets purchasing large amounts of certain categories (of items) out of fear that they would be in short supply. Some of that fear was well founded. Some of it wasn’t. However, certainly consumers’ buying patterns have changed. For pharmaceuticals and medication, consumers may be more inclined to purchase two months or three months’ supply now rather than one month’s worth, if financially feasible. In Barbados, with the impact on the economy and employment, the spending power and the disposable income of consumers have been negatively affected.

Therefore, persons are exercising choices that enable them to spread their dollar a lot further. We’re seeing smaller shopping baskets, generally speaking. Consumers have a tendency to shop far more regularly rather than fewer big shops. We’re seeing a wider array of more economically priced products going into the shopping basket. We’ve seen persons deciding to forego some of the more luxury, indulgent purchases that they would have made before. So clearly, there’s been an impact globally, but certainly in Barbados on shopping behavior.

Antilles Economics: Has this change in consumer behavior impacted your own internal purchasing practices?

Adrian: Yes. A lot of the predictors and assumptions that we have built our business on pre-COVID have been modified because of the pandemic. There are categories that have grown astronomically. As persons, during lockdown, were forced to stay at home we saw that non-perishables would have increased in sales. Canned goods, for example, as opposed to fresh goods, because that’s the category that you can safely buy and store. We have had to challenge ourselves quite a bit to rethink our approach to procurement and to stay up to date and to make sure we can satisfy our customers and our consumers’ expectations.

Antilles Economics: Throughout the Covid experience and especially at the onset, the narrative was that to protect employee safety, working from home was encouraged. However, for potentially the first time, a new type of worker was considered to be on the front line, many of whom would be found within your industry. How did you go about mobilizing the workforce who, by nature, would have been experiencing the same fears as the wider population?

Kara: The pandemic has certainly forced us to test our influence with our employees. I believe what worked well for us was when we decided to build our credibility very quickly. We were faced with the Covid-19 pandemic which was unexpected and unclear on how to handle it. However, we had to get our information from somewhere. We had to get our information from the experts as quickly as possible, so that when we go to our staff, they would understand our approach. They would understand that we’ve been doing our due diligence. We quickly started sharing that information to ensure that we made the right moves as it related to them (the employees) and their families.

Therefore, our first response was one of information – This is what we’ve heard, this is what we’ve learned. Many of our employees would have been getting information from different sources that may not have been accurate, so we wanted to ensure that the information that they received was accurate information so that they were comfortable and up to date.

Now, by doing that, it informed our strategy on how we would respond to our staff. We identified those employees on the front line who were high risk – whether of a certain age range or who may have non-communicable diseases etc. We identified those employees first and pulled them off the front line.

Unfortunately, because they can’t work from home, we had to make the business decision to protect them by putting them on special leave with pay until it blew over and until we knew more. When it came to mobilizing the others who were able to go out there on the front line, [the focus] was to ensure that they knew that we were accessible, ensure that they had all the right PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) to protect them while they’re out there doing the job. Of course that PPE changed so that impacted the PPE budget, as we now had to transition to masks, face shields and replenishing gloves regularly.

We had to ensure that they felt protected and that built trust quickly. Another thing that we needed to do was to engage them a lot more. Just checking in ‘how is it out there’, ‘how is it going’, ‘how are you feeling’, ‘do you want to speak to our EAP?’ Do you have any questions? Several employees were feeling many emotions – anxiety, fear, depression. In some cases, because persons were losing their family members and family members in their households were losing jobs. We had to engage them a lot more, but our strategy has always been – information, information, information.

We (Bryden Stokes) are going to bring the information to you so that you can be informed. We are going to remain accessible, call us at any time. We’re going to do all we need to do to protect you and that’s exactly what we did. Because of that, we built credibility. We built influence. Employees then felt confident that they could go out there and do their job knowing that their employer, Bryden Stokes, will have my back. 

Antilles Economics: Over the course of the pandemic has employee confidence changed and, in any way, influenced the operations?

Kara: Most definitely. I’m glad that you asked this question. We usually do our employee engagement surveys, and since the onset of COVID-19 we included specific questions around the management of COVID-19 – how the employees felt about how we responded to it, how we took care of them, et cetera.

That has been our highest score. 97% of our workforce believed that we managed the COVID-19 situation well at Bryden Stokes. It really brought us closer together, I mean, when we think of all the different initiatives that we did. Even when we got to the point of the vaccinations, we had multiple vaccine drives. We had multiple sensitization sessions. When a few of our employees contracted Covid-19 we would have sent care packages to them so that they were taken care of even while at the hotel (in isolation), we wanted them to feel comfortable.

Employees appreciated it. It brought us closer together. We learned things about them that we didn’t know before, and everyone really banded together as a family so the confidence within the organization definitely grew following our swift response to COVID-19. 

Antilles Economics: Research shows that employees function better where there is psychological safety. The trauma caused by the Covid-19 environment has magnified the need and importance of psychological safety. However, the business obligation to manage finances and provide shareholder value can oftentimes run in conflict with the emotional safety and security that employees value. What has been your approach to maintaining this internal equity in these unstable and unpredictable times?

Adrian: It comes down to guiding principles. I firmly believe as the leader of this organization that when people look after the business, the business will look after the people. That guides us through every day and literally every situation. The pandemic brought so much uncertainty to all of us. I believed in personally getting in touch with all staff through regular town hall meetings. Admittedly, at times these were called at very short notice. We opted to do face-to-face communication rather than written communication all the way through because we felt that it was more credible and allowed for direct feedback so we could assess where people were and help folks to settle and to focus. Yes, there was a cost of doing all this. Yes, there was a cost of taking people off the front line to allow them to get out of harm’s way but that’s our responsibility as a business. Therefore, while we track the cost and we tracked the impact and we knew what our capacity to sustain was going to be, we never had any doubts and certainly our other companies within the group never had any doubts about whether it was the right thing to do.

We are still very much in the throes of managing in a pandemic world and there are realities around cost that come with it, whether it be security, sanitizing costs, cleaning costs, transport, various things. Those are new realities. We just had to accept that we can mitigate where we can, reduce where possible. But we certainly had to accept that there are going to be a new set of costs associated with doing business. Once we can keep our staff safe and once we can keep communicating with them then we would get through this together. Kara didn’t share it but those multiple efforts to get our staff educated around the vaccine, addressing the fears, the sensitization sessions and the vaccine drives all got us to above an 80% vaccination rate at Brydens Stokes. I’m very proud of that because that’s our staff recognising for themselves that this is important to them for their safety and for their life and their family.

Antilles Economics: As schools reacted to the need for sudden closures, the lack of access to technologies led to many students ‘disappearing’ from classes for some time. This lack of inclusion though unintentional is a stark reality and one which can happen in the workplace as well. While some personnel may have been able to work from home, there is a risk that a segment of your employee population may have felt ‘lost’ or unsupported due to loss of face to face interaction, lack of access to or confidence using communication platforms etc. How have you treated to these possibilities?

Kara: We saw this early on and recognized that we would need to work on it. We did a few things. Of course, the usual WhatsApp chats and making sure that all persons are accessible, making sure that everyone had each member of the HR team’s direct number, our cell numbers. We made that commitment to make sure that we were accessible regardless of the time because at any time, anything can go wrong with any member of our team. Therefore, accessibility was big for us. However, we found some other creative ways. The first one was through one of our local service providers. There is an option where persons can dial in to the town halls using their cell phone and the charge allocated to the company, that way it did not affect their phone packages. However, as I said, we were learning. The first time we tried it, we were so confident that we sent out communication advising that employees would not be charged when they logged in.  Unfortunately, persons were charged. I don’t know if you remember what I said earlier about being responsive, but as soon as we received the first complaint, we did a quick survey to figure out who was impacted and reimbursed them. After that, we got it right as we went back to the service provider and tested it again and we’ve been using it ever since so that our frontline staff would be able to just dial in and be able to access our town halls.

When Adrian mentioned face face-to-face, that would be on Microsoft teams, for example, for our persons that have access to computers while others would sign in from their phones.

One of the downfalls of using the phone is that some persons might not be able to ask the questions that they would want to ask.  We always followed up and would ask the managers and the supervisors to check in and see whether everything was clear for their direct reports. If one person said that they were not clear, we would do that entire town hall again for that one person. They would be our audience because we wanted to ensure that the message was received.

Another creative solution was an internal tool that allows persons to have a platform similar to a social media page, but internal to the organisation. While it was created for the sole purpose of reaching those persons who don’t have access to emails and computers, we also used it to be a bit more creative. Persons can share how they’re doing today. They can shout out each other on this particular tool and it’s been fun. We can actually go live on this tool and have our town halls and those persons who may have missed it can return to the platform and access it.

We’ve had to be creative. Both of those tools that I spoke of came with a cost, a cost that wasn’t budgeted for this financial year but that’s just a demonstration of the company’s commitment to do what is necessary to be able to keep the staff safe and connected and achieve what we need to achieve.

Antilles Economics: What was the key takeaway for the organisation emerging from this crisis?

Adrian: Agility. We learned very rapidly because of the pandemic and a few other incidents that affected our business right before the pandemic to be agile very quickly. We learned to make decisions a lot faster than we would have been used to in the past, sometimes with less information than you’re comfortable having.

Certainly navigating through it and getting to the stage has been a lesson in becoming a lot more nimble and agile in decision-making. I wouldn’t say that we’ve reached the epitome of that either, because there’s always room for improvement, but I think we’ve certainly gone along way.

Antilles Economics: Has the organisation been able to future-proof itself? What is the organisation doing to future-proof itself in anticipation of the next global crisis?

Adrian: No, because the future is so uncertain and that may sound like a cliché. I have a really good management team and a great leadership team here at Bryden Stokes Limited and we recognize that the future’s changing all the time so what’s important are insights – understanding the trends, interpreting the trends, anticipating what those trends will mean in terms of business and consumer behavior, and then positioning the business to participate.

That may mean deploying resources in an area that 12 months before may not have been as significant or it may mean throttling back and focusing in other areas. I wouldn’t say at all that we are future proof. I think every day that we turn up for work, we are staring at the challenges that come at us and the wrestling them to the ground and day by day, week by week, month by month, we are determined to do the best job that we can.

Antilles Economics: What types of roles do you anticipate will emerge in your environment or if already existing gain greater importance? Are you satisfied that the pool of talent is available? What role does the business have in ensuring the readiness and availability of this talent?

Kara: On the competency end: agility. We don’t teach that a lot, we don’t look for it a lot. We need to develop that within the organization.

We also need to develop the whole aspect of coaching within the organization. We had the phenomenon of management, then we switched to the phenomenon of leadership, but there’s this rise of coaching where once the leaders demonstrate or practice the coaching behaviors, then that helps the organisation to scale its capacity.

The next is Big Data. I think those are some roles that we should definitely see being introduced within the organization in the coming years because data and big data and analytics can help companies to understand its consumers and their behaviors. It’s a lot quicker, more thorough and no longer are you relying on gut instinct or guesswork.

Adrian: I believe that successful organizations have to adopt and sustain a continuous improvement mindset. So having good problem solving and root cause analysis skills is inevitably important in any organization, in any industry and being an innovative thinker instead of being confined to historical and traditional norms. Innovating, and innovation, isn’t necessarily creating brand new fantastic products, goods, and services that no one has thought of but it’s also simply just updating and changing and refreshing processes, systems, products, et cetera.

Antilles Economics: Internationally, the ‘Great Resignation’ or the ‘Great Attrition’ has been trending. It is argued that employees are more willing than before to leave their jobs if dissatisfied. Do you expect this phenomenon to affect us locally and if so how will Bryden Stokes treat to this?

Kara: I believe it’s already here. I believe it is already with us in the Caribbean and I believe it’s already with us in Barbados. If I’ve spoken to 10 persons within the last month or so at least six of them have changed jobs. It’s not in any specific field, it’s just persons who have decided that it’s time to move. When I asked the reason, either it is for a peace of mind or they want to pursue their passion. I’ve even known some that opted to pursue entrepreneurship. What we need to do as a company to respond is to get closer to our teams. We need to ask them what they want. What do you see yourself doing in the next two to three years within this organization? What will excite you? Then creating programs and avenues to get them there. Whether it’s through the usual developmental plans to make sure we support them on that journey or just having stay interviews. This will position you as an employer to understand what is dissatisfying about the role and addressing it before it festers.

I also believe that we need to invest in technological solutions. Thankfully we have a Managing Director who is very technologically savvy, even more so than I am. Once we can invest in technological solutions that make the job easy and more efficient for employees to perform. If we can create an organization that allows employees to be able to win and to be able to perform, then that would be an amazing place, an amazing culture.

The final thing is that we need to move it beyond the revenue. We need to move it beyond the top line, bottom line. We have to make persons feel like the organization is important to society. In the interviews, persons are asking “What does Brydens Stokes do within the community?” “How do you guys demonstrate your corporate social responsibility?”. When we start to make it bigger than the business, creating a bigger purpose outside of just coming to work, doing the job to be able to earn funds. So it’s about moving beyond profit to purpose.

Antilles Economics: Reflecting on these last 21 months or so, if you had to build the workplace from scratch to optimize it what would it look like?

Adrian: Just as Kara spoke of just now, employees have different expectations of employers so therefore I’d want to place that as a foundation. I’d want to make sure that we were building from scratch an organization that caters to individuals’ needs while still meeting the business objectives.

Flexibility in terms of the work hours, work from home and those sorts of things certainly would be fundamental that we’d have to put in place and probably jettison a number of the traditional, rigid employment approaches that we would have had in the past. I’d say also the organization, would be a high energy organization because energy is needed to sustain this pace and this intensity, and it doesn’t really change. It may look different. It might manifest itself differently from one period or one cycle to another, but you need that energy in order to sustain that and that isn’t necessarily youth, it’s just energy.

The organization would also very much embrace technology. I am a not so closet techie. Not on the IT side heavily, but I believe technology is there to enrich people’s lives and we should not be afraid of it.  We’d embrace it and incorporate it within the workforce to make jobs easier, to make decision-making simpler and faster. The organization I would build from scratch would be very tech forward at every interface. I’m including providing tech-based solutions to our customers and consumers. We are in the healthcare business. Technology is going straight into healthcare in many ways. Several of our major suppliers invest significant sums in Research and Development and innovation each year with the understanding that the consumer may not know that they need this, but when they bring it to market and market it correctly, they will, they will see the value and pick it up.

Those are the sorts of trends that I would certainly want to take advantage of if we were building from scratch. I was going to say initially that we’ve almost built it from scratch because of so many challenges we’ve had in the last 24 months. I believe the organization we have today is, while it is not where any of us wanted to be in terms of performance, in terms of capability I think it’s certainly come a long way. I am very proud of my staff and the teams that I have working with me and I am very excited about the future and on what our future results and our performance will be.


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