The Big Conversation: Helping Britain Recover - South East event
On October 2, Lloyds Bank hosted a virtual event to discuss the challenges and opportunities for firms in the South East of England as they deal with the economic impacts of the coronavirus.
- Paul Myatt, Managing Director, Criterion Ices, a family ice cream manufacturer serving the retail, hospitality and entertainment sectors
- Malcolm Hyde, Regional Director South East, CBI
- Jo Nolan, Managing Director, Screen South, cultural development organisation delivering and supporting innovative projects across the cultural and creative industries
- Paul Gordon, Managing Director, SME & Mid Corporates, Lloyds Bank
Hosted by broadcast journalist Declan Curry
- The current business environment
- Business response to the crisis
- Targeting growth in a low growth economic environment
- Improving efficiencies and increasing productivity
- Growing your customer base in the UK and internationally
The South East region is the second largest regional economy in the UK, after London, so it has benefited more than most as GDP has begun to bounce back.
The economy is diverse and disparate. For example, Thames Valley – a hub for technology businesses – has been a resilient sector, but the area surrounding Gatwick Airport, with many firms relying on its steady flow of holidaymakers and business travellers, have been hit hard by travel restrictions.
The region is also the most confident in the UK according to the Lloyds Bank Business Barometer, though we are still in a period of historic lows in optimism.
The impact of lockdown on the cultural sector has been unprecedented, but firms have focused on developing new projects that can be delivered in new ways, for example by streaming live performances digitally.
Hospitality has also suffered disproportionately, which prompted Bury St Edmunds based Criterion Ices to tilt away from the sector to focus on selling direct to consumers.
The region’s Local Enterprise Partnerships – the bodies made up of council and business leaders that are charged with boosting growth – all have recovery plans in place and will launch a skills fund to help people transition to jobs in new sectors or to higher-value roles.
The panel heard how big building projects in towns including Ashford and Ebbsfleet will lead to supply chain and wider opportunities and that the culture sector is using digital technology to open up new audiences internationally, though that will require investment in digital skills and connectivity.
Criterion Ices said that it had targeted smaller independent customers who are able to make buying decisions quickly as larger retail groups can take many months to decide on whether to stock a new product.
Poll 1: What would help business recovery most in the South East?
Grants to retain existing/ take on new employees - 39%
A stronger network among the local business community - 22%
Creation of regional growth funds - 17%
Tax breaks - 9%
More local (i.e. devolved) decision making by public bodies - 9%
Improved digital connectivity - 4%
The poll result likely reflected anxieties about the imminent end of the furlough scheme.
Criterion Ices investment in automation had made its production and logistics functions more efficient. However, when demand for its products fell sharply, they had to make some staff redundant as remaining employees were given extra training so they could be more versatile and work on a range of different roles.
The panel heard how skills must move up the agenda if the region is to make the most of the recovery and all agreed that digital connectivity must improve, especially as more people are working from home.
“Investing in technologies like automation is one way to improve productivity, but we must also invest in our intellectual capital – attracting and retaining the best people is a priority.” Malcolm Hyde, Regional Director, CBI South East
The reticence to begin exporting for the first time is understandable, given Brexit uncertainty, but once future trading relationships are decided on, there will effectively be a fresh start.
Exporters should look to their networks for advice, as well as organisations like the Department for International Trade – which has people on the ground around the world and can provide valuable market research – as well as their bank relationship manager.
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 - 36%*
We’re more resilient than we were six months ago - 32%*
Our workforce is more productive than six months ago - 11%*
We have more positive cash flow than six months ago - 11%*
None of the above - 11%*
*note these numbers are rounded
Innovation needn’t be ‘blue sky’ thinking. It can be about taking existing assets and making them work better.
The CBI’s Malcolm Hyde said that firms’ strategies for ‘building back better’ is different to what it was after the 2008-09 financial crisis, when the priority was cutting costs.
Now there is a bigger focus on protecting jobs, which will make firms more resilient as well as mitigating the impact on society.
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