The Big Conversation: Helping Britain Recover - Midlands event

Added:  09/10/2020


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Our UK-wide series of discussions brought together a panel of business leaders and experts to share their recent experiences and explore the opportunities that will help the Midlands recover from the current crisis and rebuild.

The panel:

  • Clive Vickers, Owner, Halfpenny Green Wine Estates, a winery and retailer located in South Staffordshire
  • Daniel Shook, Group Finance Director, IMI plc, a global precision manufacturing business headquartered in Birmingham
  • Mark Hart, Professor of Small Business & Entrepreneurship at Aston Business School
  • Lucie Byron, Partner and Head of Banking & Finance, Wright Hassall, a midlands-based law firm
  • Paul Gordon, Managing Director SME & Mid-Corporates, Lloyds Bank

Hosted by broadcast journalist Declan Curry

Key insights:

  1. The current business environment
  2. The Midlands as a region contributes more than £300bn in GDP to the UK economy and was one of the fastest-growing regions prior to the onset of COVID-19.

    However, the region’s position as an engineering and manufacturing powerhouse – home to major players including Jaguar Land Rover and Bombardier – means that the sectors in which some of the region’s businesses excel were hit particularly hard.

    As is the case in other regions, the impacts have by no means been uniform across sectors, sub-sectors and even individual businesses. The degree of adaptation demanded from any given business in order to continue growing or trading vary significantly from one company to the next.

  3. Rising to the coronavirus challenge
  4. Though every business in the region seems affected, to a greater or lesser extent, there have been some outstanding stories of companies rising to the challenge by adapting what they do and how they do it.

    IMI, which builds valves used in a wide variety of applications from heavy industry to home-heating, also makes components for ventilators – pieces of apparatus that were in extremely high demand at the height of the outbreak.

    To help meet the spiralling needs of healthcare organisations, the company rapidly stepped up production from 2,000 per week to 23,000 per week, and this played a key part in allowing the supply chain to respond to the shortage.

    The significant changes that companies have been making were also highlighted by law firm Wright Hassall, who have been helping clients understand what flexibility they had under their existing financial relationships. The impact of the crisis has prompted lots of businesses to look to renegotiate agreements with their banks, tenants, landlords and others in order to put them on a firmer footing.

  5. Targeting growth opportunities in a low growth economic environment
  6. While, in many areas, consumer spend has dropped rapidly in the crisis, there are areas that have seen growth.

    One of these is online wine sales – something that has seen a sevenfold increase since the start of the pandemic. Clive Vickers said his business has had to work hard to adapt its focus to meet this rise in demand – previously on-site sales dominated its revenues – but the adaptation has paid off significantly in allowing the company to reach new customers, as well as existing ones.

    This change, along with new working protocols that ensure the safety of staff and customers on-site at the winery, has allowed the business to return to 80% of pre-crisis operating levels.

    Poll 1: What would help business recovery most in the Midlands?

    Grants to retain existing/ take on new employees - 36%

    Creation of regional growth funds - 27%

    Tax breaks - 14%

    More local (i.e. devolved) decision making by public bodies - 9%

    A stronger network among the local business community - 9%

    Improved digital connectivity - 5%

  7. Growing your customer base in the UK and internationally
  8. There was agreement between panellists that changing consumer habits means businesses are looking further afield more than ever before when it comes to targeting new customers. It’s much easier now for even small businesses to become global if they get shared and talked about on social media for example.

    “When it comes to international growth, and especially rapid growth – it’s critical to replicate the quality of customer service you’ve been delivering so far. The worst thing you can do is target customers in a new market and then let them down, as you don’t get two chances at that.” Daniel Shook, Group Finance Director, IMI plc.

    Poll 2: Which of the following would you say is most relevant of your business?

    We’re more innovative than we were six months ago - 44%*

    We’re more resilient than we were six months ago - 38%*

    Our workforce is more productive than six months ago - 6%*

    We have more positive cash flow than six months ago - 0%*

    None of the above - 13%*

    *note these numbers are rounded

  9. Making efficiencies and increasing productivity
  10. Paul Gordon of Lloyds Bank said that the current period of rapid change was the perfect time for companies to pursue goals that may have already been on the agenda, such as digital adoption and automation. There is a rare opportunity for businesses to build back stronger and greener as we witness a renewed focus on operating efficiencies and productivity.

    The environmental agenda is a particular opportunity, given that ‘clean’ enterprises are forecast to grow four times faster than the pace of the wider economy.

    “You can’t underestimate the power of data analysis and deep learning. Businesses are sitting on millions of data points, and the technology is now there to allow them to understand the complex relationships between all of their moving parts, and make the changes that will create a high-performance workplace and deliver the biggest benefits.” Mark Hart, Professor of Small Business & Entrepreneurship at Aston Business School

Attendee questions:

  • How do you go about finding and nurturing talent in the current climate?
  • Lucie Byron said: “There is a big opportunity to look at the workforce in a new way. My main piece of advice is to ‘get them young’. Bringing in people early in their career allows you to get them truly invested in your business and for them to take a journey with you.

    “The explosion in remote working means you might be able to cast your net wider geographically. I recommend putting out a call far and wide for graduates and apprentices that show a passionate interest in working with your team.”

  • How important is diversification for businesses looking to grow through this period?
  • Daniel Shook said: “Depending on the business in question, it can be critical in weathering difficult economic periods, and we saw a lot of companies diversifying back in 2009 too.

    “In any downturn, some parts of the economy will be worse affected than others, so having a robust profile with a good spread of end-user markets can insulate you against the worst effects.”


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Find out what additional financial support is available for businesses impacted by coronavirus.

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