Business management

Shine a light

We speak to six businesses about how coronavirus has affected them, how they’ve contributed to the collective effort, and their plans for the future.

Simon Brooks, managing director, Rotamec, Somerset

With an aerospace apprenticeship under his belt, 24-year-old Simon Brooks took the skills he’d learned and went off to start his own electrical mechanical engineering business. Twenty years later, his company Rotamec is growing organically and by acquisition – two in the last 12 months – he employs 65 people, runs an award-winning apprenticeship programme and whether it’s an extractor fan at a local chip shop or a multibillion-pound turnover company with a production line down, his guys are there to fix the problem.

“We do reactive breakdown work. We look after motors, gearboxes, pumps, process automation. We do work for the Bristol Royal Infirmary as well as hospitals in Cornwall. If you imagine somebody is in an operating theatre and something goes down, or they can’t get the air conditioning right, it’s pretty critical what we do.”

Which is why the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak was complicated for Brooks. Despite the uncertain outlook, and turnover looking like it could drop off in some areas, he knew it was impossible to furlough his engineers. “They needed to be on call 24/7, seven days a week to support organisations like the NHS, and our food manufacturing customers, which were stepping up production and running their machines harder. Our services were needed. That was a very difficult balance.”

The business navigated its way through and Brooks say he’s proud of what his company achieved. “In the middle of the night when the guys are at breakdowns and up to their eyes in grease trying to get a process or piece of equipment working which is crucial to what people do on the frontline, that’s a proud moment.”

Brooks continues to plan for future growth but has paused to take stock. He knows some companies in his industry won’t be able to withstand the hit caused by coronavirus. His acquisition strategy of “buy and build” means he can help keep the skilled people at some of those companies employed. He adds: “I’ve pressed pause and looked back: is the business efficient, are we doing the right things, do we have the right processes, are we looking after our customers, going for the right markets? I’ve reflected on what we’ve achieved so far and will try to make it better.”

Simon James, company director, Essential Supplies, Cornwall

After over two decades of building up his business, Simon James now runs a company with around £2m of sales in a year, supplying and manufacturing lighting, electrical, rigging and audio products, mainly in the events sector. “There’s nothing like it,” he says. “When the curtain goes up, the curtain goes up! There is no second chance, things have to work first time.”

Essential Supplies has customers around the world, from Taiwan to Mongolia. The effect of coronavirus has had a huge effect, not just on James’s business but on an entire sector. “The majority of our event customers have been forced to close,” says James. “There’s little work coming in from that area. We’re lucky to have other customers. We’ve delivered equipment to the British Antarctic Survey.”

A contract to help supply the electrics for the NHS Dragon’s Heart Hospital in Cardiff was a boon. “The construction was mainly led by businesses in the event world. Putting on a rock ‘n’ roll show is not that dissimilar to building a hospital – scaffolding, power systems, lighting, ventilation.”

James says they called on contacts and suppliers around the UK to help. “We’ve never worked harder. We had a cohesive team who were super flexible. They were all keen to help support the nation and help support the Dragon’s Heart Hospital,” says James. “It was a great sense of achievement. We were only making cables and power boxes but we did our bit. Those cables were going to be supplying the power for the ventilators, so it was critical, and rewarding to know that all the work we put in was going to good effect.”

If he’s learned one thing it’s the importance of being agile, making quick decisions and acting on them. “We’ve got a lot of people whose lives rely on working for us, so we’ve got to keep some work coming in. We had good financial forecasting systems in place, and they made it easy for us to quickly adapt cash flows. Had they not been in place we might have struggled.”

Jo Chidley, founder, Beauty Kitchen, Glasgow

For a business that is approaching its sixth birthday, Beauty Kitchen has achieved a lot. The fast-growing company, whose founder Jo Chidley is on a mission to create the most effective, natural and sustainable beauty products in the world, became a certified B Corp in 2017. It’s the first high street beauty brand in the UK to meet the organisation’s stringent requirements to consider the impact of decisions on workers, customers, suppliers, community, and the environment. Chidley has won the Scale Up Entrepreneur of the Year award and her business has been voted one of the UK’s 50 most disruptive.

As well as all that, the business is a commercial success. “We have proved you can have sustainable products that are not just ingredient sustainable but packaging sustainable and you can do it at scale, where it’s commercially viable and it’s profitable,” says Chidley. The company’s purpose, she adds, is to help create positive change, to make progress, and not stand on other people’s heads to get there.

Jo Chidley talks about managing her business at this time.

When Scottish Enterprise contacted Beauty Kitchen about bidding for a tender to produce hand sanitiser for the frontline during the coronavirus outbreak, including the NHS, the company did so without compromising its values: “Because we are a young, growing business with an entrepreneurial mindset, we were able to pivot and developed a range of antibacterial products, including a hand sanitiser. We moved our manufacturing into producing 50,000 hand sanitisers, not only because it was the right thing to do but it helped us face the challenge, to find an alternative way of doing things. Our product range will be here for the foreseeable future and we’ve employed two more people.”

Beauty Kitchen has also encouraged the NHS to use reusable bottles, which Chidley says is better than recycling. It reduces waste as well as the environmental impact of production. “The NHS has never done anything like that before. Our hand sanitisers don’t have any microplastics in them, they’re 100% natural, we get the empty bottles back, wash them, refill them and send them back out. For me, that was one of the great things that’s happened since the challenge of coronavirus.”

Josh Owens-Baigler, owner, Angelina Restaurant

Hackney restaurant Angelina started impressing diners with a unique mix of Italian and Japanese cuisine in February 2019, and before the coronavirus hit, things were going extremely well.

“We were acknowledged by the Michelin Guide in our first year and received some really humbling reviews from the food press,” says owner Josh Owens-Baigler.  “Turnover was ahead of what we had expected and after taking some really scary financial risks to open, we were really happy with how it was all going.”

“The beginning of this year [2020] was particularly great for Angelina,” he adds. “We were busy right up until the week before lockdown – February was our best month since opening.”

Angelina’s close ties with Italy, the first European country to feel the full impact of coronavirus, played a part in preparing Owens-Baigler and his team for what was to come. “Having heard early on what was happening for our friends over there, we realised that before long the spread of coronavirus was going to dramatically affect the way we do things here too.”

Those warnings sparked internal discussions not only about what could be done to ensure the restaurant’s survival during a lockdown, but also how Josh and his team could support staff and the local community through a difficult and uncertain time. “In our sector there are a lot of unattached Europeans and people from across the world who don’t have their families with them – they work incredibly hard, so it was important that we did everything we could to mitigate against disaster for them.”

After considering various routes forward the team decided it wanted to get nutritious food to as many vulnerable people as possible in the local area. “We knew there’d always be people who were hungry in our community,” says Josh. “And with our skills and tools, we knew we could make a lot of food really quickly.”

After simplifying the restaurants offering to boost the number of meals they were able to make, the team then reached out to local community food kitchen Made In Hackney and the two organisations began working together to raise funds and identify the people, shelters and charities that’d benefit most from their support – to incredible effect. “After scaling up and up, we managed to hit about 500 deliveries per day and by the end of July, we’re expecting to have provided around 40,000 meals.”

Total ‘normality’ might still be some way off for the hospitality sector, but Owens-Baigler and his team have been preparing for life after lockdown. “About a month ago we started thinking about what reopening will look like,” he says. “We took our first steps by launching a Friday night takeaway service, cooking the food we’d normally cook. We also revisited the retail route and have been providing ingredient hampers for people to use at home.”

See below for more insight on Angelina Restaurant.

Simon Berry, MD and chairman, English Lakes Hotels Resorts & Venues

As a fourth-generation family business, which started with a law firm in Manchester in 1920 and is now an award-winning five-hotel group in South Cumbria and North Lancashire, English Lakes Hotels Resorts & Venues has survived its share of challenges. Foot-and-mouth disease, for example, had a devastating effect on tourism in the region. “We had plans in place for something as significant as foot-and-mouth,” says MD Simon Berry, reflecting on the impact of coronavirus. “We did not have, and I’m not sure anybody did, plans in place for a complete global shutdown. With help and support, we’re getting through it.”

Guests can stay in areas of natural beauty, such as the Lake District National Park.

As anyone lucky enough to have visited will attest, the Lake District National Park in the north-west corner of England is idyllic. There are plenty of accommodation options, acknowledges Berry. The reason he has a 60% return rate for guests coming at least twice a year is because his family and team of employees try hard to create a memorable experience and positive story for their customers to tell. “The bricks and mortar is actually the easy part, it’s then about creating the atmosphere – and that’s about the people.”

Except at the moment, there are no people. All of the hotels are closed. Aside from addressing some maintenance issues, which they wouldn’t normally have time for in June, the company’s main focus is making sure that it is ready, fit and able to reopen as soon as it gets the green light from the government. It’s a huge amount of preparation.

“We’re hoping for 4 July, that’s what we’re working towards. That’s staff training, and having new systems, procedures and protocols in place,” says Berry. “It’s important our guests have confidence that we’re going above and beyond what’s required. We know there’s a pretty significant pent-up demand for domestic leisure stays, it appears that demand is going to be strong. We need to make sure we’ve got everything firmly in place.”

Berry says he has learned a lot over the last few months. “The biggest takeaway is actually the speed at which you can innovate when you need to,” he observes. “We’re finding lots of new ways of doing things, some of which will stick forever, some of which we’ll want to get rid of as soon as we possibly can, like all standing 2 metres apart! In terms of significantly speeding up check-in and checkout, how we serve in our restaurants and bars… those can be taken forward and will ultimately be positives. We’re also trying not to be too dependent on any one significant market – making sure you’ve got some spread is really important.”

Rodney Hurd, development and wellbeing manager, New Skill Centre, Ipswich

Rodney Hurd previously spent his career working with children with additional needs before joining New Skill Centre three years ago. The team operates an alternative education provision for vulnerable young people with additional learning needs aged 11 – 18, as well as supporting adults with disabilities by providing afternoon skills workshops covering activities such as woodwork, cookery, IT skills and more.

“A lot of people have needs but are not willing to show their vulnerability,” explains Hurd. “What we do is find out what people’s interests are and by providing bespoke activities in relation to their interests we are able incorporate their needs into that. We offer a place to go where people feel comfortable and attachment is built up very quickly – it’s a safe space.”

Knowing how essential the service provided by New Skill Centre is to the well-being of its clients, Hurd was anxious to maintain as consistent a service as possible during the pandemic. Despite needing to furlough some staff members, the team has managed to stay open throughout the lockdown by making sure that social-distancing measures allow clients to access most of the activities they previously engaged in.

“What’s really been important is that we have been offering food parcels to all our clients while they haven’t been coming into the centre,” Hurd adds. “We’ve also been able to put on online activities, which have been invaluable. For some of our customers with Asperger’s and autism for example, the world is very black and white and they have been absolutely terrified. So we’ve been managing to reach out to those clients online and that has encouraged them to come back in and get involved with activities.

“We operate on positive attachment and creating a safe space; if our ability to provide that had stopped, that would have been devastating. For our clients, it’s as much about feeling that we’re there for them as anything else – and that’s been consistent throughout.”

Though the journey has not been easy, Hurd says that the pandemic has actually revealed some important lessons for him and his colleagues: “We have all to some extent been disabled because of the virus. As we’ve needed to reach out to others and needed help, it’s put us in a position to further empathise with our clients – especially those with sensory issues, for whom wearing a mask is really difficult. The pandemic has helped us to see from their perspective, and that’s a really valuable lesson.”

Moving forward, Hurd and the team are keen to continue to improve their outreach services to be able to help more clients in their homes.

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