Coronavirus (Covid-19): A Small Business Perspective
Updated: Mar 19
By now, everyone is aware of the Covid-19 outbreak that has currently gripped the world. I must stress that this post is not about the virus itself, or the health/human side of it. This post is about the potential impact on a small, service based business like ourselves. What have we done to inform and help our staff? What can we do to minimise the impacts? What do we think will happen? Will we come through the other side and still be trading?
About three weeks ago, we sent a memo out to all members of staff regarding the virus. This contained the standard advice that was being given out, but also a few additions of our own. Wearing gloves to handle all goods that our guys carry and cleaning steering wheels at the end of a shift for example. Some took it more seriously than others. The aim of the memo was to at least try and help staff to protect themselves and our customers, to hopefully avoid any impact on the business, or the people that we service. It is safe to say that a few weeks down the line, the landscape and outlook has changed greatly since we sent out that memo!
I (Kelvin) have to say, I have never actually seen anything like the current situation. The hysteria and containment measures being put in place are unprecedented in my lifetime. As MD of a small business, challenging scenarios are not unusual. However, how do you deal with a challenge unlike anything that you have ever seen before? I don't mind admitting, that I have not slept very well over the past week or so.
As I write this post, CK (and a million other businesses) are in uncharted waters. A large amount of our deliveries are made to: schools, bars, hotels and restaurants. All of these places may well face a temporary lockdown. Indeed, the whole country may face a lockdown at some stage. Are the UK dealing with this in the correct manner so far? That is not for me to say, I'm neither a scientist, nor a politician. What I can say is that most small businesses are not blessed with a huge reserve of cash and also find it difficult to access emergency funding. Small businesses are essential to the economy, so to just shut swathes of them down unless absolutely necessary, could tip many over the edge. The economy is finely balanced and the situation is precarious to say the least. With that in mind, I at least understand the cautious approach. At the same time, life must come first and everyone should respect that fact. I guess that I can be thankful that I don't have to make decisions of that magnitude!
The potential issues facing us and many other businesses are:
Customers having to temporarily close/going in to lockdown
Staff shortages due to illness and self-isolation
Supply chain shortages
Late invoice payments
Cash flow problems
Permanent customer closures
None payment of invoices as a result of business closures
As a business, we are still in the phase of trying to keep staff informed and at the point were disruption to our operation is minimal. The challenges facing us however are stark. I am personally currently self isolating, as there is a (slim) chance I have the virus myself. Unusually for our industry, all of our staff are employed and entitled to sick pay. They too have been instructed to self-isolate if necessary. Not everyone is so fortunate.
The challenges that will face us if the country does impose a partial or full lockdown are significant. What we are seeing elsewhere, does not fill me with confidence that we will remain so unscathed. For a business, the overheads will not simply disappear if the country is put into lockdown. Vehicles, insurance, salaries and rent will all still need to be paid. But where will this money come from if businesses are not making any sales? From our point of view, we could probably survive a two week lockdown, but what then? Difficult decisions will probably need to be made. We are doing our best to plan and prepare, but realistically, what can you do about things out of your control? It is a worrying scenario.
I am not sure that most people understand exactly what is at stake here from an economic stand point. It is ok to think a few weeks off will be great and that you should get paid in full. I agree, you should be paid in full. However, the economic reality of the business that you work for will probably not allow for this. Especially if you work for an SME business, as some 60% of private sector workers do. Of course, not all sectors will be affected in the same way and some sectors may only face minor, or even no disruption. All around the country, there are directors not sleeping and contemplating potentially difficult decisions that lie ahead in the not too distant future. A lot of businesses and jobs are currently at risk, especially in businesses like ours. Home working to provide our kind of services is not even remotely an option for us and our staff.
It is difficult to see us coming out of the other side of this outbreak, without major economic casualties as it stands. Small businesses now operate in a world that is very much weighted in favour of large, global companies. It gets harder and harder to succeed and unfortunately, this outbreak may well be a bridge too far for some small/medium businesses. Indeed, some large companies may also close if this continues for a sustained period of time. To lose the business that you have built through hard work, to something completely out of your control, would be a very bitter pill to swallow. It is not all doom and gloom however. From adversity can often come opportunity, there must always be optimism.
It is my personal opinion that now is not a time to panic and make rash decisions. Strategies need to be implemented as they were designed, unless there is a major shift. It is also a time to look outward, as well as inward. In a business sense, companies should not be insular at this time. Businesses and especially SMEs need to support each other through this where they can. Prioritise payments and pay the invoices that they can pay for example. We have contacted our customers, to offer any help that we can provide if they have staff or supplier issues of their own. We all have to pull together on this. The last thing the country needs, is to come out the other side with 10 million people unemployed. There is a real danger of that being the case, if the correct decisions are not made and an insular attitude prevails.
I stated at the beginning that this was a business related post, but I would like to finish by adding a personal note. Stay safe everyone and look out for those who are most vulnerable. I have an 89 year old neighbour and we will be helping her as much as possible. I would say head to the pub and wait for this to all blow over, but we have been advised against that. Hopefully this will not be as bad as it appears it will be and we will all come through the other side in a few weeks, fit and healthy. Here's hoping.