The Big Conversation: Helping Britain Recover - East event
On September 30, Lloyds Bank hosted its virtual Big Conversation event to discuss the challenges and opportunities for firms in the East of England as they deal with the economic impacts of coronavirus.
- Chris Reeve, Commercial Finance Director, Stokes Sauces, which serves the retail and food service markets across the world
- Kiran Cheema, Managing Director, Allcures, a chain of pharmacies that also has an online offer
- Becky Ames, Partner, MHA Larking Gowen, an accountant and business advisory firm
- Richard DeNetto, Associate Director East of England, CBI
- Paul Gordon, Managing Director SME & Mid Corporates, Lloyds Bank
Hosted by broadcast journalist Declan Curry
- The current business environment
- Rising to the coronavirus challenge
- Targeting growth opportunities in a low growth environment
- Growing customer base in the UK and internationally
- Improving efficiencies and increasing productivity
The East of England is one of the most diverse regional economies, with a growing tech sector and knowledge economy, as well as strengths in food production, construction and tourism.
While some sectors, including aviation and hospitality, are still firefighting, others are seeing business return to normal levels. However, firms are facing difficulties forecasting future demand and the resources needed.
Working from home is likely to be one of the more enduring consequences of lockdown. Ongoing investments in new technology enabled MHA Larking Gowen to embrace new ways of communicating with colleagues and clients, which are expected to continue for the long term. Moreover, most of the firm’s clients have accessed some form of government support, which had been invaluable.
Stokes Sauces reported a significant fall in orders from the hospitality and food service sectors, though the government’s Eat Out to Help Out scheme did help during August. While it has seen an increase in retail sales, these gains did not outweigh the losses in other sectors.
Allcures stayed open through the pandemic. Early issues sourcing PPE were quickly overcome and pharmacists have been able to provide important support to frontline care services. The business will continue to seek strategic acquisitions, though it’s prime focus is on offering a wider range of services from its existing sites.
The panel agreed sustainability presented a big opportunity for the region, with the clean economy forecast to grow four times faster than the wider economy.
Customer service has increased in importance during lockdown. MHA Larking Gowen stressed the importance of embracing technology and training to maintain effective communication, and the availability of grants to support investment.
Stokes Sauces has tilted its business towards the retail sector, which has put its products in front of more people than ever before. It has also ramped up its social media marketing activity.
Poll 1: What would help business recovery most in the East?*
Grants to retain existing/ take on new employees - 31%
Creation of regional growth funds - 19%
Tax breaks - 15%
A stronger network among the local business community - 15%
Improved digital connectivity - 8%
More local (i.e. devolved) decision making by public bodies - 8%
*4% did not vote
It was reported that the Government’s Job Support and Kickstart Schemes had been very well received locally.
The panel agreed on the importance of getting good advice before beginning exporting, including contacts in the markets you are exporting to. There is support available from the Department for International Trade and Chambers of Commerce as well as the Lloyds Bank International Trade Portal.
Stokes Sauces has been hit by the cancelation of trade shows but has embraced virtual meetings with potential new UK customers, which saved a lot of travel time. Allcures said its investment in a dispensing robot had enabled it to automate some processes, freeing up resources so it could offer more home deliveries and compete more effectively with online rivals. Its pharmacists can also spend more time with patients, offering a wider range of personalised services and cross sell.
For many of the region’s firms, lockdown has been a catalyst for improving efficiency, chiefly by arming staff with the technology they need to work remotely. Stokes Sauces experience was that staff had found their increased independence empowering.
Becky from MHA Larking Gowen flagged the importance of continuing to invest in staff training through the current restrictions, saying: “It’s so important to ensure we remain competitive and that our staff are engaged and motivated to develop their careers with us.”
The CBI highlighted the importance of excellent digital infrastructure to operate efficiently but said that some areas of the region still suffered from patchy connectivity, which must be addressed.
Poll 2: Which of the following would you say is most relevant of your business?
We’re more resilient than we were six months ago - 50%
We’re more innovative than we were six months ago - 25%
Our workforce is more productive than six months ago - 15%
None of the above - 10%
We have more positive cash flow than six months ago - 0%
None of the above - 10%
The panel heard that companies were innovating to diversify their product lines and establish new digital routes to market.
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