‘Covid-19 has given us all a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to stop, reflect, think, and reinvent ourselves’

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To find out what it is really like to run a business through a global pandemic and what pressure really means, Business Leader spoke to three leaders in different sectors to hear their views.

To start off the conversation, we wanted to find out how businesses first heard about the pandemic and how did they immediately react?

Bruce Bratley, Founder of the First Mile, comments: “At the start we were probably slightly ahead of others and, to an extent, saw the pandemic coming. We knew it would hit us hard because our customers are office, retail and leisure and so we moved very quickly to conserve cash, renewed an overdraft facility with Barclays and started to plan for the worst. By the time it became clear we would be going into lockdown, we were pretty well prepared and had already put many employees at risk of redundancy to save the business, but then luckily furlough was announced.”

On how Bratley has found the furlough scheme, he comments: “Since April 1st we have had 200 employees on furlough and 60 working. This core team has been busy, and they really are committed to the business. We have mothballed the office, vehicles, and all non-core expense. We also innovated rapidly. 

“Keeping in touch with and supporting the furlough team has been a constant worry for me and we moved from a monthly to weekly town hall meeting for the whole company to keep in touch. We have also sent out gift boxes, discount vouchers, set up a hardship fund and have supported numerous volunteering activities that our furlough team are involved in.”

Bratley also says that the business has seen an 80% reduction in volumes, but essential retail is still trading throughout the period and that his business is still in contact with its ‘dormant’ customers and discussing with them how they plan to come back.

On how he has diversified and innovated, he says: “We realised early on that we could help if we changed our model rapidly. The most flexible capability we had was our delivery fleet and we quickly put this to work delivering food, medical equipment and PPE for charities and the NHS to ensure supplies got to the front line. This first three weeks of lockdown was very busy and we filled a vital supply-chain failure.

“We delivered tens of thousands of donations and essential supplies to hospitals and homes all over London and I am very proud of the team and how they responded and worked incredibly hard.

“After the initial period of volunteering and paid work to supply the frontline, we started to see that a number of supply chains were failing, and we launched services quickly to solve these issues, such as household waste collections; initiatives around recycling; fruit and vegetable deliveries and we worked with a company called Delphis to supply ethical cleaning and recycling packs.”

Richard Eagleton is the CEO of McQueens Flowers Ltd and he says the pandemic has given him a once in a lifetime chance to reflect on his business and life.

On how he has responded, he says: “With excitement, energy and a determination to book a window seat on the ‘Pandemic Teleporter’ and travel to a new world, however unfamiliar and uncertain that might be.

“Of course, my initial reaction to rapidly unfolding events was a mixture of panic, disbelief and confusion, but we took swift and decisive action to cut costs, furlough 95% of our workforce and conserve cash as I watched our sales plummet to zero and our strategic and business plans in the shredder. 

“But Covid-19 has given us all a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to stop, reflect, think, and reinvent ourselves. If Friday 20th March felt like the sky had fallen in, by Monday 23rd I had resolved to have our own ‘Madonna moment’ and reinvent the business – determined to take that teleporter to a new world. I didn’t see it as a time to ‘wait and see’ – feeling sure that those who did would, sadly, be left behind.

“A day or two after lockdown, I was asked by a member of my senior team how we should respond to the pandemic. My answer was, and how I have tried to respond since, is to be kind – it costs nothing and always returns the favour; keep an eye on the horizon and stop worrying about the things you can’t control.”

In regard to how the pandemic has directly affected his business, Richard comments: “We’re an international luxury floral design brand with teams in London, New York and Seoul. Previously, 95% of our sales came from supplying fresh weekly flowers to five-star hotels, such as Claridge’s and high-end restaurants, and from weddings and corporate events – all of whom cancelled over a period of a little more than a week.

“Add to that the dozens of cancelled bookings for vocational courses run by our flower schools in London and Seoul, there was a moment when I thought things couldn’t get any worse.

“The first parts of our business to be disrupted were our teams in South Korea and New York, which gave me a pretty good sense of what was about to hit us all so hard in the UK. Even so, because the team in London is so much larger, the intensity and speed of activity required to stabilise the UK business certainly took its toll on the team. That means that a large part of my job has been to bring the team together in a virtual world, stay connected, and start thinking about the future and planning our return.

“What had always been a very small part of our business, online retail sales suddenly became our only source of revenue – requiring some deft footwork to scale up and secure a robust and reliable supply chain of the right quality flowers. Although still relatively small, retaining an online sales presence throughout has proved reassuring and encouraging to both my furloughed team and our regular B2B customers who will need us again in the future.”

For many businesses, the pandemic has meant shifting business models and looking at new revenue streams. It has been no different for Eagleton.

He explains: “Historically, the business had not embraced DIY flower arranging at home or e-learning, but within a couple of weeks of lockdown, we’d introduced a luxury flower subscription service that enables people to have flowers delivered weekly, fortnightly or four-weekly that they then arrange for themselves at home, accompanied each week by an inspirational ‘how to’ video. 

“The service brings together our Flower School and retail businesses in a way they haven’t been before, and it is helping us to reach a new audience of keen amateur florists.”

Eagleton also says that the mental health of his team has been one of the biggest challenges during this time.

He says: “Aside from the universal and obvious challenge of conserving cash, by far the greatest challenge for me has been to understand and find ways to boost the mental health and well-being of the team who are furloughed. We’re a creative business, and even on a good day it’s something of a delicate ecosystem, and the challenges of being stuck at home with few if any outlets for their creativity, along with the separation from close working colleagues, has hit many of them very hard.

“I discovered MS Forms and found a well-structured anonymous survey of the team extremely helpful in formulating an action plan to make a significant amount of professional and non-professional training available to them. What I hadn’t expected was that a large group of highly talented creatives would put Excel training right at the top of the wish list.”

Julie Chen is the Co-founder of The Cheeky Panda and says that her business has actually grown during the last few months.

She explains: “As our products (toilet paper and antibacterial wipes in particular) are in high demand, the business went through high growth during the pandemic. Our turnover increased to £1.2m monthly from £350,000 monthly. We also onboarded a new supermarket in Tesco, as well as one of the biggest distributors in the USA.”

Interestingly, Chen also says that one of the main challenges her business has faced has been that it needs more people to aid its growth.

Chen comments: “The only challenge we’re facing is that we need to hire more people to support the business growth, and it’s not easy to hire people during this time. We hired a lady to work in operations before the office shut down but, unfortunately, she has not been able to start her job in the office, where we pride ourselves on having a fun and collaborative culture. Working from home without other colleagues around to support her proved to be difficult, as she left after a couple of weeks.

“Our business is growing very fast and there is huge demand for our products. Our employees are often very busy, and each person might have to do two or three people’s work. To improve efficiency, I have started hiring online freelancers and outsourced some work, such as data entry and order processing to keep the core team focused on important stuff.”

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