Meet the firm guiding British businesses through COVID-19

Business Leader recently spoke to Gavin Snell, CEO of Ellis Whittam, a North West-headquartered Employment Law, HR, and Health & Safety support advisor, who are helping thousands of businesses across the UK navigate their way through the coronavirus pandemic.

Snell talks to Business Leader about the industry-leading services it offers its clients, how the UK business community has had to adapt, and how COVID-19 has led to massive growth within the company.

Can you tell us about Ellis Whittam and how you support businesses?

Businesses have to deal with a lot of complex issues, and perhaps the most crucial and sensitive ones centre around employees and the workplace. Businesses must comply with regulations, manage tricky employee relations issues and demonstrate a safe working environment to employees, regulators, insurers, and often customers too.

We sit front and centre in helping 17,500 UK employers across 45 vertical sectors to deal with these issues. We keep employers protected, support them through day-to-day issues, and provide a range of online services to help them be more efficient in how they manage their employees and the health and safety of the workplace.

The business began 14 years ago and set out to provide the highest quality advice and services possible – initially focused on the SME market. Over the last three or four years, we have made the conscious decision to accelerate our business across several new sectors.

We have two types of clients: direct clients, who work with us individually, and large trade organisations, whose members can access HR, Employment Law and Health and Safety advice and online resources through Ellis Whittam.

We have two core services. Firstly, an Employment Law and HR service – this is where we typically engage with a business owner and/or HR department. We provide fixed-fee, unlimited-use access to a named employment lawyer. What that means in practice is that when an issue comes up – whether that’s day-to-day obstacles such as sickness absence or a more complex issue like redundancy – they have access to an expert who knows their business and policies to help them deal with their issue.

Our clients are not only 77% less likely to receive a claim from an employee, but if a claim is made, we successfully defend 88% of these, compared to the national average of just 9%. Our advice is optionally insured, meaning that the employer is protected against the costs associated with defending and paying out an award or settlement resulting from an employee claim. Our Employment Law and HR service extends to HR software (including time and absence management) and on-site HR consultancy required to support businesses with sensitive issues such as grievances, mediation, and management training.

Secondly, our Health & Safety service combines on-site audits and inspections with an online safety management system. We partner and advise clients as one of their legally required “competent persons”. Our clients are 50% less likely to face a prosecution by a regulator (for example, the HSE) and could see fines reduced by 85%. If a regulator does come to evaluate your business and carry out an inspection, we are there to represent you. Our consultants will help to protect the client and ensure that all appropriate health and safety procedures are in place. A range of added value services, such as e-learning and training, are all designed to support employers with their efforts to maintain a safe and compliant workplace.

We employ around 200 professionals, many of whom are professionally qualified experts in Employment Law and HR or leading Health & Safety Consultants. We solely represent the employer, not the employee, and we protect them against the most critical issues that they face when running a business. Our proposition is founded on a simple belief. When faced with sensitive issues concerning employees, safety and compliance, employers want to deal with someone they know and trust (rather than never speak to the same person twice). They want access to online resources to ensure that key employee and safety processes are maintained and monitored, and they want to know that the advice is insured.

What has your journey been at the firm?

I joined as CEO immediately after the firm secured private equity investment through Lloyds Development Capital in October 2016. In the first phase, we needed to form a leadership team, engage with our colleagues and develop a clear strategy. We were very clear on what kind of markets we wanted to operate in and what our strategy for growth would be. Since then, the business has invested heavily in skills, infrastructure and new services and we have grown the business significantly.

Our plan was to be different. We felt that the industry had become very transactional and lacked innovation, so we laid out some clear plans to offer a premium proposition. We want to build relationships with our clients rather than having the call centre mentality. In order to do that, we also had to look at ourselves and what we needed to do to lead and engage our colleagues and retain and attract the best talent. Hence, we applied for and achieved an Investors in People accreditation.

How have you had to adapt during COVID-19?

Over the last few months, we have brought in plans to ‘adapt and thrive’ by pivoting the business to work within the situation we are all in.

As a result, we have grown during the COVID-19 period, our customers are paying and renewing at record levels and new business levels have been broadly sustained.

This is because we have positioned ourselves right in the centre of the storm.

So, as a lot of businesses are battening down the hatches, we have been increasing our marketing spend, providing a free ‘Coronavirus Advice Hub’ with guidance and templates accessible to all employers, increasing our level of service delivery, all the while completing these services remotely. We now have remote-based app services, where our consultants can alert clients to risks without being at their offices.

When did you first hear about COVID-19 and when did you start to think it will have an impact on the UK?

We were aware of it from the news; however, in March, we were increasingly finding that our clients were coming to us for advice. As a result, we had to quickly put in place effective action plans for clients across a range of sectors that were immediately affected by the lockdown. We aided our clients to deal with the impact on their industry. Some needed help in slowing down and others wanted to ramp up production – but all needed guidance on the best course of action.

Prior to COVID-19, we had approximately 50% of our colleagues working from home already. In a matter of days, we were able to set up the remaining 50% with the ability to work remotely from a home office. We made it possible for them to work safely, while still being able to help our clients during this difficult time. We also put very few people on furlough.

Our team have put in an extraordinary amount of effort – at times we were dealing with four times the normal workload across our teams. They stayed highly engaged and professional and provided the work needed to deal with the situation.

Our Coronavirus Advice Hub has had over 10,000 registrations – which meant a large increase in demand for our services. Our relevant subject matter experts continue to deliver bi-weekly webinars and we are constantly adding to and updating the resources available on the Hub in line with the ever-changing government announcements. Naturally, there was an increase in client interaction to help employers deal with the constant change in the developing story around the virus. Because of this, our business has actually grown as a result of COVID-19.

How are you seeing your clients adapt during this time?

Hugely varied – from care homes who have had to close their doors and have staff stay on site, through to manufacturers who have never known it to be so busy. And then every sector in between having to deal with their own unique and collective challenges.

There are, however, some common themes. The way businesses transact has completely changed. People now are prepared to make such quick decisions regarding purchasing goods and services, despite the fact that they have never met in person before.

Clearly clients and business owners want to make quick decisions to do what is right for them and their employees. The increased focus on employee engagement is crucial to running a successful business during this time, as their interaction with customers is vital.

We will enter a recession, but do you see the recovery being quick due to the liquidity available in the economy?

We are now in a recession, but it will be different to the one we experienced between 2007-2010. The unknown quantum is Brexit – which is still rumbling on in the background. The level of liquidity we see in the economy, across a number of sectors, means that there is money circulating around the system, but the same factors will be facing employers.

The challenge will be confidence levels, but there is no doubt that some sectors are extremely exposed to the impact of a recession. We are seeing that in leisure and retail at the moment with job losses being announced daily. These sectors will need to figure out new business models, factoring in consumer and business concerns about safety. Inevitably there will be sectors that will thrive in the current climate, such as professional services, logistics and manufacturing.

Many challenges are centred around export and those industries that are affected by it – due to the impact of the virus, mixed with interest rates and other things that will be more influenced by Brexit, rather than COVID-19. No one is really talking about Brexit right now, but there will be a lot more to come.

We will emerge from the COVID-19 period with many casualties – especially when we move off furlough relief. Right now, at Ellis Whittam, we are dealing with four times the number of redundancy-related matters, so employers are already utilising this as an option for their business. It is about confidence and cash moving forward, as well as changing business models.

How do you see the future for Ellis Whittam?

I am hugely bullish about the future of Ellis Whittam. We are relevant and trusted (c. 95% annual contract renewal rate), we have fantastically engaged and capable colleagues (c. 90% positive colleague engagement scores) and we have invested to ensure that we can provide clients with even more value. The last few months has demonstrated that we have a real contribution to make as employers seek to adapt their businesses to global health and recessionary challenges.