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'Where now for Gloucestershire?' we asked businesses - 'Onwards' they said

Written by: Andrew Merrell | Posted 06 November 2020 10:10

'Where now for Gloucestershire?' we asked businesses - 'Onwards' they said

Reading the results of the ‘Where now for Gloucestershire?’ business survey is a glimpse into the hearts of minds of scores of the county’s businesses – and it is stirring stuff. 

We did not just ask questions about the impact of the pandemic to be answered ‘yes’ or ‘no’, but asked for insight - and we got it; words spoken in the face of tremendous pressures like comment from the front line. 

Expressed is doubt and uncertainty, but foremost there is overwhelming, stoicism and determination to weather the worst. There are tales of the fleet of foot and thriving and others whose business is pared right back and just surviving. But surviving.

The vast majority have confidence in Gloucestershire to recover (84 per cent!), but few opinions on that come without a caveat. 

These perspective on the future – delivered like all of these findings before the lockdown we have just entered and yesterday’s extension of the furlough scheme - perhaps sum it up best: “Probably confident. It feels like Gloucester/Gloucestershire is on the brink of something and has the potential to grow a lot more. 

“We have a lot more pain to come in the next six months. The end of the furlough scheme will be very tough. 

“Ultimately Im very confident that there will be a vibrant and successful new normal. The toughest challenge is the hospitality and entertainment sectors. If the damage is too great there, recovery will be exceptionally challenging.”

Alasdair Garbutt, commercial property partner at Willans – which made the survey possible - said “In the commercial property sector, we’ve seen many businesses show admirable agility, creativity and resilience; takeaways, coffee shops, beauty salons and manufacturing and industrial units have opened in commercial developments, for instance, and one client is constructing an enormous self-storage unit on a bare site they are purchasing.” 

“On one hand, we have largely seen the market for some office units drop dramatically, but on the other, some tenants of our landlord clients are doing well and are expanding and taking the opportunity to take further office space. 

The sense of cautious optimism that businesses have expressed in the survey does tally up with our own client experiences.”

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Matthew Clayton, employment law partner at the Cheltenham-headquartered firm, said: “Redundancy and furlough related matters have been two of the biggest themes, but it’s pleasing to see a proportion of Gloucestershire businesses considering recruiting and expanding, albeit a small one.  

“Indeed, many of our clients were alive to the benefits of flexible working before the pandemic, and those businesses have coped remarkably well so far. 

The businesses that didn’t have the resources or infrastructure to enable flexible working and home working at the start have risen to the challenge, but you cannot sugar-coat the difficulties this has presented for many, especially when coupled with cash flow issues.”

Asked ‘Are you feeling more positive now about your business than at the start of lockdown and why?’ two thirds of respondents said they were, but the devil remained in the detail. 

“Yes. The concern about losing businesses and customers was not as bad as expected. Cash flow was a major issue and we just scraped through which was the biggest problem. Closely linked with that was how on earth are to get our team back in on full pay when furlough ends,” said one. 

New markets had opened up for a few, there was a sense of hope, but much concern about future lockdowns like the one we have just entered with any speculation in the media appearing to impact immediately and to the detriment of some. 

Most found ways to adapt which they said would benefit business going forward, but some did not see these as long-term sustainable solutions. 

The rush to technology was widely acknowledged, opening opportunities and potential benefits, but it was not without it own hurdles – with the old issue of broadband speed and access still very real. 

“Technology has jumped ahead, booking processes and methods now much more in line with where we wanted to be, covid has given us the push we needed,” said one, reflecting many. 

“Going online to provide virtual Zoom exercise classes accessed 10 per cent of existing clients to keep minimal income stream going. However, until better internet and virtual hosting services are provided, this remains an inadequate substitute for real life observations and interventions.” 

There was this, from the tourism sector: “We were all furloughed and cut off during lockdown, lessons learned for our business and tourism businesses in general, a more sustainable business model needed to withstand events such as this.” 

Nougats of insight like this: “Learned the importance of the business you have is often more important than potential new business.” 

And an immense amount of good will mixed up in people’s thoughts: “Keep in regular contact with customers and prospects. Help everybody you can whenever you can.” 

It was not just businesses thinking of customers: “That our customers are very supportive of us and we worked as a local network to get through it.”

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More than 90 per cent of those who responded did not need to access bank funding. Notably, the self-employed wanted to and could not. 

There was tremendous positivity about adapting to make gains. 

For some, that did not come without considerable pain: “Lost 40 per cent business and staff proportionately.” 

An overwhelming number felt their businesses would become stronger in the long run as a result of the experiences of 2020, but with some serious and rather stark caveats for some. 

“Maybe, but not before 2022” 

And from another: “If it survives - yes.” 

And there was the awfulness of it all for others – perhaps best captured in this line in answer to the question about whether their business would make it: “No. Even if I survive cancer, I’ll be pushed into consuming my life savings.” 

Roughly a fifth of businesses said they would be considering recruiting. 

For some, there were individuals who had stood out, for others it was more general. 

“I think the LEP has done well with positive announcements, without grandstanding or over-egging them. Real heroes are those who kept going.” 

The local enterprise partnership and David Owen received a number of mentions. 

As did Alex Kell of Quayside Wealth Management, Guy Hopson of Hopson Solicitors, Will Mansell of the Long Table and Suzanne Hall Gibbins of Circle2Success “for re-inventing their model early and keeping businesses connected”. 

Many had found benefits in working from home and admitted it may become a factor going forward, but it was not for everyone. 

“No - It is very hard for the team to work collaboratively from home. We are about communication and it is hard to work with others when you do not know what their workload is.” 

One third said training was now a factor in their thoughts as a result of the pandemic. 

A significant number said home working and other changes had also made it change its mind about decisions on their workspace going forward. 

“We have gone from seriously considering getting bigger premises to seriously considering not having an office.” 

“Successful working from home for a good proportion of our office staff has meant that plans for space expansion are now suspended indefinitely.” 

And others added: “We do think differently, and need less space despite growth.” 

“Yes. We may not need as much, but in the short term the extra space we have has allowed us to operate more effectively and safely with a reduced number of staff in the office.” 

And: “It has confirmed that, whilst flexible working is helpful, it remains the case that having a base is important.” 

When it came to dealing with landlords, most had not needed to discuss a change of arrangements. 

Other had, but with little joy. 

“I wouldn't say they have been hugely supportive, we have a very large deposit which we asked to be lowered - this was refused.” 

“No. I asked several months ago for a negotiation on deferring part of the rent, and received no reply. I am a new tenant therefore didn’t want to give the impression of being in financial trouble, so I didn’t dare pursue the matter.” 

Seventy per cent said the lockdown had made them reconsider the amount of travel their staff needed to undertake for meetings. 

Forty five per cent said they felt their staff teams were now closer, with only 12 per cent believing the opposite. 

“With the right attitude, support for small business, leadership and sunny days, we should pull through and prosper.” 

The Raikes Journal would like to thank Willans LLP for making the survey possible. We hope you found its findings interest and, above all else, helpful. And, as we enter another lockdown, we wish you, your businesses and families all the very best. 

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