Tell me about Astral Hygiene?
Astral Hygiene has been in existence for over 26 years having been set up in the mid 1990’s by my husband’s parents, Grant and Carol. Carol had always been in the hygiene sector but was disenchanted in the way that business was done by the major players and wanted to do business the way she felt business should be done in a much more personal way. She started Astral Hygiene with a £10K loan and a handful of stock and it has grown from there into the second generation team of myself and Grant and Carol’s son Yewen. The two of us now run the business supplying places like royal households, care homes and leisure groups, all with differing needs. We supply both locally and nationally with our own delivery fleet and distribution partners and sell everything from the basics such as toilet roll and pine disinfectant to much more specialist products such as hypochlorous acid and super concentrated chemicals.
How did you get into the cleaning and hygiene sector?
I started my career in consultancy, predominantly HR secondments and cut my teeth in the business world learning about people and how to get the best out of them. When I met Yewen, my husband, and because of my background, I was brought in to Astral Hygiene (for free initially) to really drive the sales team and supporting them to connect with our customers more to better understand and then service their needs.
Initially I worked in sales but my role has evolved over the years and I moved into buying once my mother-in-law retired, before inheriting the operations side of the business and now have a really broad role. I therefore am able to really understand the business, our team and our customers. I have made myself fully accessible to both customers and suppliers so that we, as a team, fully understand what we are selling and what our customers need and be able to add value at all times.
This is what makes Astral Hygiene different; our knowledge and expertise and the passion we bring to the sector. It isn’t just about supplying a product but about supplying the right products for the needs of the customer. We put in a lot of research behind every product we stock.
What do you enjoy about the hygiene sector?
I like that we are small family business in this sector and that we retain a real passion in our brand and what we offer customers. We are able to give much more knowledge and experience than our larger competitors because we’re owner run with the passion and drive that comes with that. Due diligence and thoroughness is embedded in the business as well as in my and Yewen’s ethos in driving the team and providing great leadership. We do things properly so that every customer gets a world-class experience from a small family business.
What are the key changes you have seen in your business in the past 18 months with the Covid-19 pandemic?
Our business has been affected like everyone else’s and it’s been very stressful like any small business. We’ve been lucky that we’ve stayed open and continued to trade and that we’re still here to tell the tale. In March 2020 the phones never stopped ringing as our customers wanted our advice and wanted to buy products, but we had nothing to give them as our supply chain had totally collapsed. That was hugely stressful.
My team were also worried about themselves, their health and for their families so we put things in place to support them so that we could continue to work as one team. So, last year we were really busy, not necessarily with revenue driving activities but with reassuring our customers which became the focus of our strategy.
2021 has been the quietest that we have ever been as premises have been closed. We have continued to remind customers that we’re here and helping those that have been able to operate in one way or another and continue giving lots of advice, guidance and support which comes for free when you shop with Astral Hygiene.
Has Covid-19 changed attitudes within businesses? And in what way? What are businesses now looking for from someone like Astral Hygiene?
I think a lot of our customers are putting value on the advice that Astral Hygiene provides. We have reached out, provided advice and also given hugely flexible payment terms. It’s really important to us not to behave in the same way as big competitors, some of whom have taken customers to court for late payment. We believe that our behaviour has helped drive loyalty both ways and we have moved from being more than a supplier as they are more aware of the way we do business.
Moving froward I think businesses are going to be looking for more from suppliers such as the advice, support and guidance that we provide.
What are the key challenges businesses are facing now in relation to infection control?
There has to be a realisation that this pandemic isn’t a black swan. Over the years we’ve had animal infections, Ebola and so the spread of Covid is no real surprise. Moving forward, hygiene is going to have to be high on everyone’s agenda because Covid has affected everyone personally. Consistency though is vital; everyone using the right kind of products that are accredited and proven to work. A badge on a product claiming to kill something just isn’t’ enough and we at Astral Hygiene are keen to make everyone aware that the product you use must be a good product.
Once the vaccine roll-out has finished and lockdown eases what do you think will be the ongoing challenges?
The challenges will be the same. Despite the vaccine, something else will come along, whether on the scale of Covid or smaller. I’ve been talking to subject matter experts for the past 14 months and they are all echoing the same sentiments. Over years the human population has been impacted by viruses and diseases such as the plague or smallpox and now we are getting smaller and more acute pandemics closer together as the population increases such as Ebola, swine flu and bird flu and these are all infections that can be controlled with the appropriate practices. It’s about being clear on the appropriate practices and that is what I will be concentrating on going forward.
Do you think that “infection control” has changed forever?
Infection control has definitely changed forever, and it needs to, so that we never have a pandemic on this scale again. This pandemic shut down the world in 100 days so we need to make sure that doesn’t happen again.
I would like to see that Astral Hygiene are seen to be subject matter experts who have the knowledge when you need expert advice. But I have seen competitors who incorporated in May 2020 and they think they know as much as what has taken me years to learn. What the public needs is to be able to navigate through who is a reputable company and brand and who isn’t.
You stock a number of products including Salvesan hypochlorous. Why do you promote its use, what are the key benefits and what future do you think hypochlorous has in the hygiene industry?
We stock HOCl because it is such an effective and safe chemical. There are loads of effective chemicals but most have harmful ingredients or are toxic to be around without PPE. One of the lovely things about Salvesan is no PPE is required because it is made from the active chemical produced by our immune system to fight infection. The scientists who have created Salvesan have harnessed that power in a bottle and the awesomeness of this product cannot be described in words. It’s amazing, totally harmless but totally effective against bacteria and viruses like Norovirus and it kills almost on contact which is unrivalled in the industry.
Why hasn’t HOCl exploded into the market yet?
I think there is a lack of understanding about HOCl and with large corporate companies and public sector organisations it’s all about price rather than effectiveness. But you can’t put a price on life or people’s health. When companies use nasty fogging chemicals that are sprayed in the air we have no measure as to what harm is being done to people. But we know that Salvesan and HOCl has been used in hospitals and is entirely safe. So it comes down to price and a lack of understanding.
The more that people talk about the benefits the more well known and adopted it will become.
To speak to Anna directly and see how Astral Hygiene can help you visit www.astralhygiene.co.uk