The Big Conversation: Helping Britain Recover - North West event
The virtual event in the North West brought together voices from the region’s business community to discuss the challenges and opportunities they face as they deal with the impact of coronavirus.
- Laurie Thomas, Group Managing Director of Vision Support Services, a global textile company supplying the hospitality and retail sector
- Gareth Oakley, Managing Director Business Banking, Lloyds Bank
Hosted by broadcast journalist Declan Curry
- The current business situation for the North West
- Rising to the coronavirus challenge
- Targeting growth opportunities
- Improving efficiency and productivity
- Innovation and resilience
The North West has been particularly badly hit by the pandemic, with the impact exacerbated by ongoing local lockdowns across the region and the panel agreed that the scale and impact of coronavirus is still a long way from being understood.
In live polling of the audience, 27% said more local decision making by public bodies would help business recovery most, a theme which emerged time and again during the panel discussion.
Poll 1: What measure would help business recovery most in the North West?
More local (i.e. devolved) decision making by public bodies - 30%
Creation of regional growth funds - 25%
Grants to retain existing/ take on new employees - 20%
A stronger network among the local business community - 15%
Improved digital connectivity - 10%
Tax breaks - 0%
The panel agreed that the relatively well-established devolved governments in Manchester and Liverpool had been important in the early days of the pandemic. The Metro Mayors’ existing relationships with the local business communities meant they could make fast decisions, based on local insight. It also meant that responses to unfolding events could be tailored to local needs and be rooted in on-the-ground data.
Vision Support Services, which has customers across the globe, has seen changes within all of the sectors and markets it works with. Laurie Thomas believes that, in particular, “retail has changed forever – the high street certainly won’t be in the same shape.”
However, he says there have been pockets of success. Their work with the hospitality sector is now back to strong growth, as venues have started to re-open, since the slump of April and May.
With ongoing uncertainty, Laurie was asked to name one thing that would help his business recover. “Once we’ve got a clear idea of what timescales [we are working to], and how we have to behave during that period, I think it helps everyone to get a better plan.”
Although the global scale of the pandemic had hit his business hard, Laurie cited Middle Eastern markets as especially active at the moment, with Vision Support Services supplying various construction projects for the World Cup 2022 in Qatar and more widely across Saudi Arabia, doubling its sales in the Middle East. He also expects sales in China and Australia to recover quickly while some countries, like Pakistan, have seen relatively low numbers of cases and remain fertile ground for growth.
For North West firms looking to continue or start exporting, the advice from the panel was clear: it’s important to carefully consider the best use of resources to target markets that are already re-open or are well on their way.
The key barriers to productivity in the North West won’t be solved overnight. Relatively poor infrastructure means getting around the region can be a challenge, particularly from east to west, hindering movement of workforces and access to broader talent pools. The panel felt positive that local government leaders understand what businesses need and were confident that overcoming barriers such as lack of transport infrastructure was a ‘shared agenda’ for both the local business community and politicians.
Panellists also believed many businesses will have become more efficient as a by-product of the pandemic - one of the few positive outcomes. The lockdown will have prompted companies to review their processes and improve them so identifying these short-term gains and implementing them for the longer term will pay dividends for productivity.
Results of the second live poll suggest that North West firms have seen a jump in innovation and resilience throughout lockdown.
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 - 41%
We’re more resilient than we were six months ago - 29%
Our workforce is more productive than six months ago - 18%
We have more positive cash flow than six months ago - 0%
None of the above - 12%
This chimed with the panel’s own experience and prompted a discussion about how businesses can plan ahead for unexpected events.
Gareth Oakley commented that resilience planning will be far higher on firms’ agendas from now on. “We’re moving in such a fast-paced environment where there is so much change that businesses do have to take a much more enterprise-wide look at how they manage their risks. Those businesses that had done that were better prepared into this crisis.”
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