How small businesses can survive the COVID-19 pandemic

Covid-19 | Covid-19 Advice | Employment & Skills | Reports

Written by Lance Forman, Former MEP and Founder of Forman’s London Cured

Forman’s are no strangers to crisis.

In the space of five years, soon after I took the helm running our family business, we suffered a catastrophic fire where we lost three-quarters of our smokehouse. We rebuilt it and within a year the local river overflowed. Our factory was one metre underwater and we had to start all over again. We built yet another state-of-the art facility and within another year of rebuilding we had to tear it down as the London Government decided that we were located on the site where they wanted to build the Olympic stadium.

And now, like every business up and down the country, we face Coronavirus. So how have we dealt with it?

Typically, our wholesale business delivers to some 300 restaurants, hotels, clubs and event caterers daily. One month ago, this business literally fell off a cliff. Our retail customers had a mixed response. Some bought extra large quantities in the panic buying that ensued; others bought less whilst they focussed on necessities like toilet rolls and canned foods, rather than artisan-made fresh food.

We didn’t want to lose any staff and whilst our order book shrunk, the furlough scheme does not allow for part-time furloughing making things even more challenging, as a driver does not know how to fillet fish and a cleaner does not know how to slice smoked salmon, so we needed all our staff even to maintain a much-reduced revenue.

On top of which, many of our customers simply decided to stop paying old invoices, which is somewhat frustrating as we delivered the food to them 30-60 days ago, their clients have enjoyed it and even paid for it, yet small supply chain businesses like ours are essentially doing what the banks or government should be doing and financing our customers. To make matters worse, the Government have given full rates exemption to the hospitality industry yet those supplying the hospitality industry get no such support.

Other elements of our business operation have also been forced to close. We have a restaurant and events-venue on site and we offer tours of our smokehouse and kitchens and these, naturally, have all had to be curtailed.

So we turned all our attention to our online business www.formanandfield.com. People still have to eat. Whilst H.Forman & Son, our wholesale business was established in 1905, Forman & Field has been operating for 20 years. It’s a B2C business which specialises in the best of British food – fresh food delivered direct to homes across the UK. This business is only normally only a very small part of our overall operation except for Christmas week, when it grows 50 times in size.

Three weeks ago, we found ourselves in a unique position. People couldn’t go to restaurants, yet we deliver restaurant quality food to homes. Elderly people do not want to risk going out to shop yet our generous customers were sending packages to their elderly relatives and friends to perk them up. They have been so generous indeed, two weeks ago, we put a link on our website where customers can donate a meal to an NHS worker once they’ve placed their own order and we have already facilitated 2000 meals.

Unlike Ocado, which due to its super-efficiency operates at near full capacity all year and has been struggling with the spike, we know precisely what a spike in demand is like, as it hits us every Christmas. The key difference is that each year we spend three months planning for Christmas, ensuring all our supply lines are in place, ingredients, packaging and staff arranged; here we barely had three minutes, so it’s been a challenge, to put it mildly!

Whilst Forman & Field has grown, it still has some way to go to catch up with the lost wholesale business but it has meant that we have been able to continue and furlough fewer than ten percent of our staff. Our team have been superb, risen to the challenge, worked all hours around the clock, so we can have fewer people on site at any one time, helping us to socially distance in our kitchens, smokehouse, packing and dispatch areas and the office. I congratulate them all for their amazing efforts. I am so proud of each and every one of them.

With plague and pestilence now added to the list of crises suffered by our family firm, I wanted to offer some tips on how to get through these challenges:

  • Think about what you need to do to survive another day ie take each day as it comes.
  • Be flexible. You need to react to circumstances you are not used to. These are not normal times, so you need to think outside the box.
  • Don’t act too quickly. A bit of bad news one day may be superseded by good news the next day, so you don’t necessarily want to act on the bad news in the wrong way.
  • In this crisis – it’s different to a personal crisis – because here everyone is in the same boat. So, share your concerns with others. Talking about it helps you think through solutions. Also, you realise there may be people worse off than you and that helps you put your own challenges into perspective.
  • Think about your business reputation throughout and always try to do the right thing. Behaving well seems to yield its own natural justice.
  • Be careful with unnecessary costs and try not to waste anything. Good business practice at all times.
  • Try to stay positive. It helps you and also those around you.
  • Try to maintain a sense of humour. We will get through this.

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