Being the boss in unprecedented times

Jo Francis
Wednesday, September 23, 2020

When it’s very, very tough at the top. Part one of a two-part special feature where a variety of industry MDs and CEOs share their experiences of being a business leader during an unprecedented period of dramatic disruption.

Paul Manning

Managing director, Rapidity

Rapidity, with operations in central London and Kent, is Printweek’s reigning Company of the Year


At what point did you realise just how serious the Covid-19 situation was?

Around a month before the official lockdown we started having orders for events work cancelled. Additionally, we were being told by our customers that their companies were sending staff home indefinitely.

What was the effect on business at your company?

Profound. Revenues dropped to unprecedented levels and all of us were genuinely concerned. Although we entered the lockdown in good financial shape it was clear that this event was going to drain company finances substantially and significant early action was required. In the early days, for our staff, it was akin to being a passenger on a plane watching the pilot run up and down the aisle telling everyone not to panic!

What were the key measures you took to cope with such an unprecedented situation?

Our immediate ambition was to protect cash, nothing else mattered, profit and loss, balance sheets, etc, all go out of the window and cash becomes king. As such we reviewed every creditor and requested a range of deferrals, extended payment terms and payment holidays. In tandem with this we started chasing debtors aggressively. We also, of course, furloughed our staff at the earliest opportunity and took full advantage of the government’s Job Retention Scheme.

Did you diversify into any new business areas? If so, will you continue to offer these services?

We setup www.viralsigns.co.uk to deal with a surge of coronavirus signage such as floor vinyls. We also looked at offering masks, hand sanitiser and other such items to our customers. We had some good work through these channels and we continue to offer coronavirus-specific printing, which I expect will last for some time.

Did you have trouble sleeping?

In the early part of the lockdown there’s no doubt it was the most stressful and worrying period of my life, and it’s definitely the least amount of sleep I’ve ever had. There are many family businesses in print and on balance a family business is a great place to be, but when you’re facing a pandemic which is threatening your business and therefore the livelihoods of your entire family it’s exceptionally stressful.

Who did you turn to as a sounding board?

Anyone who would answer the phone! I spoke to many people in similar companies and similar positions to mine and it was a great thing to do simply for the reassurance that we were all equally affected.

What does recovery look like to you at present?

In my opinion we will never fully recover. That doesn’t mean the future is bleak, it just means the future is different and the opportunities have changed. To recover means to return to state of normality but, and forgive the cliché, there is a ‘new normal’ now and we have to adapt to it. Therefore the recovery to me looks less like a regaining of normality and more like a reset button from which I think we will come back stronger, different and wiser than before.

Has the pandemic changed your future strategy?

Yes. It has fundamentally changed our outlook. We’re assessing every part of our business and making tough decisions to ensure we come out of this as strong as possible.

With hindsight, is there anything you would have done differently?

With hindsight I would have stockpiled masks, hand sanitiser, toilet rolls and flour. I would also have taken out comprehensive pandemic insurance and I would have set up an online gym company doing lessons on Zoom…!

On a serious note I’m not too worried with hindsight for a once in a century pandemic. No one saw it coming and there’s no use focusing on what we could have done. All we can do is learn the lessons and prepare for the future (although we really do hope this is the last pandemic we see!).

What has been your biggest disappointment, and what have been the positives to come out of it all?

My biggest disappointment is the actions of some customers to bury their heads in the sand and avoid paying us. One customer just switched off the phones, locked the doors and went home owing us quite a lot of money and it took a further four months to recover. Luckily we have had, to date, no bad debts. There’s no doubt none of us were prepared for this event, but not dealing with suppliers in a clear manner is not fair. I’ve heard horror stories from other printers of customers simply saying ‘we’re not paying you’ particularly in the retail sector. We’ve also had high-street names approach us out of the blue looking for printing full in the knowledge they have had to look elsewhere as they haven’t paid their incumbent suppliers. It really isn’t right.

There are many positives to come out of the situation and I think one of them is creating an environment where we can sit back and review our business in full. We’re always so busy that we become embroiled in our business but to have the time to sit back and look at things properly is definitely a silver lining.


Lascelle Barrow

Co-founder and managing director, Augustus Martin

Barrow founded east London retail and out of home specialist Augustus Martin more than 50 years ago and has now added ‘global pandemic’ to his long list of business experiences.


What made you realise just how serious the situation was?

It became a reality with the change in shopping behaviours. I think the fact that toilet rolls became a rare commodity and the shelves were emptying of everyday goods brought the challenge of Covid-19 home in a very real way. From a business perspective, our customers were signalling that they would need Augustus Martin’s help and we had to adapt our practices to respond even more rapidly than usual.

What was the effect on business at your company?

We had to very quickly adapt to the needs of our customers who were struggling to orientate themselves so that they could support consumers with in-store guidance. Requests came in thick and fast, and it was both a hairy and exciting period that drove a far deeper level of collaboration to ensure that their needs were met. It was actually quite exciting to be in the trenches with them, making it happen.

What were the key measures you took to cope the situation?

We took the opportunity to do a root and branch review of our business as we needed to both support our customers, protect our people and maintain the business. I have to say, our people were absolutely amazing in the way that they responded. Clearly, we took advantage of the government furlough scheme and it was important to us to ensure that our communications plans kept these colleagues connected to our business.

Did you diversify into new business areas?

Not particularly. We did develop our own set of face shields as an optional support for our customers’ campaigns, but quickly realised that most of our clients had sourced these already. We did find that much of our innovation was around Covid-19 floor and store graphics.

Did you have trouble sleeping?

Other than the concern for ensuring that our people were okay, no. in times like these you do the best that you can as a manager and a business. As long as I was doing that, I slept fine.

Who did you turn to as a sounding board?

I am fortunate to have an excellent business partner in Barrie, a strong leadership team and wide external network, but I also took the views of family and friends – in particular my daughter who is very keen on sustainability and environmental issues – because, you can be too close to the problems and getting a non-specialist perspective can be a revelation sometimes.

What does recovery look like to you at present?

I am very optimistic for the future. We have learned a lot about improving productivity and effectiveness. However, I am really excited about how the business will be helping its customers meet the challenges of sustainability with our new products and services over the coming months.

Has the pandemic changed your future strategy?

Yes, in so much as we cannot allow ourselves to default back to the past. Today and tomorrow, the winners will be those who can predict or, very quickly respond to market demands. Our people, our processes and our systems will all be developed to ensure that we are one of those winning companies.

With hindsight, is there anything you would have done differently?

Not really. We made very tough decisions very early and I think that in doing this we put Augustus Martin in a good position to support our customers and employees. I don’t think you could ask for any more than that given the speed with which Covid-19 hit us.

What has been your biggest disappointment, and what have been the positives to come out of it all?

My main disappointment, or sadness, has to be the loss of one of our directors to Covid-19. Like many across the world, you somehow don’t think you will be affected by it personally, and then you are.

In terms of positives, the speed with which we have become organisationally lean and are driving our sustainability learnings out to the market is really exciting to me.


Mark Cornford

Managing director, Integrity Print

Midsomer Norton-headquartered Integrity Print is the UK’s biggest trade printer. The company is part of the MCAARP group of businesses which includes label and security printing.


Was there a specific happening that made you realise just how serious the situation was?

I was visiting some customer pals of mine at the Cheltenham Festival on 10 March, and we knew it was bubbling, but we hoped for the best. I was also planning to watch Wales play Scotland in Cardiff on Saturday 14 March, but it was cancelled at lunchtime on the Friday.

The late cancellation was the right call even though it caused significant disappointment and enormous disruption for people. With what we know now, the game should have been called off earlier in the week – and the Festival should also have been cancelled.

What was the effect on your business?

Covid had a significant impact on my business, reducing turnover by circa 40% in some areas and overall by around 30%. We’ve had to permanently reduce headcount by around 15%.

What were the key measures you took to cope with the situation?

Everything moved incredibly quickly with new and contradictory information coming out of government almost on a daily basis. We reacted incredibly well, working closely as a senior team with all our colleagues, communicated strongly and clearly and in a timely fashion. We took action, we didn’t get paralysed by the situation. We implemented best practice and common sense, as seen in most businesses within our industry.

Did you diversify into any new business areas?

Our diversity of products and marketplaces helped us enormously during the pandemic. We also broadened our offering by trading in PPE and also helped the government on a number of specific requirements that they had in the education sector. We will continue to offer these services.

Did you have trouble sleeping?

I usually sleep well, but find a dram or two of malt whisky sends me off.

Who did you turn to as a sounding board?

I always seek support from my family and senior management team, but I feel it was particularly noteworthy that colleagues within the industry, some of whom I compete with, were enormously supportive and collaborative. It felt good to all come together during these unprecedented times.

What does recovery look like to you at present?

Normal trading, on the cusp of Covid-19 dropped immediately to 80%, and then 70% in May, June and July. We are now climbing back to normal trading and were at 85% in August. We are forecasting 2021 to be around 90% of our pre-Covid expectations.

Has the pandemic changed your future strategy?

Covid hasn’t damaged our strategy, it’s accelerated our execution.

With hindsight, is there anything you would have done differently?

I’m sure there are many things that we could have done better, but my overall emotion is of great pride about how all our colleagues reacted so magnificently to the pandemic. I think we are an even stronger business for it.

What has been your biggest disappointment, and what have been the positives?

As a nation we mustn’t squabble and find fault with each other (which would be easy) we must come together and fight our common enemy. The lockdown gave us time to pause, to think and reflect on what a beautiful world we have. We have realised that certain things that we thought were really urgent and important are not so. We have learned how to prioritise and put things into perspective. Covid, I hope, has given us glimpses of what great kindness and compassion there is in the world.


Gary Wallace

Managing director, Wallace Print

Wallace Print is a wide-format specialist founded 36 years ago that operates nationwide


Was there a specific happening that made you realise just how serious the Covid-19 situation was?

We started to really watch and discuss from about early February onwards. We ramped up planning in late February and in early March bought more laptops to enable some staff to work remotely. March rapidly became a nightmare – revenues fell off a cliff, and in the pre- lockdown week had dropped by 90% a day. We also had two or three staff self-isolating. Now, this was not in anyone’s disaster recovery plan!

What was the effect on business at your company?

We had started 2020 fantastically well, breaking records and running 24 hours a day. With the lockdown our business essentially stopped dead in its tracks for a while.

What were the key measures you took to cope?

Staff safety was the most important consideration and we furloughed virtually everybody from day one. The finance director and myself then rapidly obtained the CBILS loan (thank you, Barclays) and while our forecasts were dire, the loan, furlough and other financial measures we took gave us comfort that we could survive and gradually recover. We then concentrated (with a loyal skeleton crew) on fulfilling the remaining orders in hand and I got onto the phones every minute of the day to all our clients, old, new and potential.

Did you diversify into any new business areas?

The main product for us was floor graphics which we supplied to a huge database of clients, they have been incredibly loyal to us, I have never been closer to so many managing directors and CEOs at both clients and suppliers as we are all supporting each other with ‘war gaming’ strategies. I am also relishing going back to my roots in selling print!

Did you have trouble sleeping?

Absolutely, it has been the single worst time in my career and a nightmare for all as no one was actually in control of this immense threat.

Who did you turn to as a sounding board?

My finance director, who has been loyal beyond belief. My wife and family have also been very supportive and patient as I have been at work every day since mid-March!

What does recovery look like to you at present?

Recovery looks like it is going to be slow, certainly not the sharp V-shape spoken about. Large retail clients are obviously suffering as are the restaurants and entertainment sectors. We are lucky, we have been trading for 36 years, we are stable and have a fantastic remaining team of staff and clients.

Has the pandemic changed your future strategy?

I am particularly driven and now have the business running more efficiently than ever. I have been able to employ two new solid professionals, a marketing strategist and an experienced general manager. I will keep our future strategy close to my chest.

With hindsight, is there anything you would have done differently?

They say hindsight is a perfect science and of course some things could have been done better, but I believe we got the fundamentals correct. I have employed up to 40 people for more than 30 years and was not prepared to see my business under threat. To be honest we will prosper mainly through sheer hard work, mostly good loyal staff, a high-quality product, along with a supportive government and a large dose of luck!

What has been your biggest disappointment, and what have been the positives to come out of it all?

We’ve had a number of staff issues with some leaving, believing the grass is greener elsewhere, and while I wish them well, I think they are being somewhat reckless and foolhardy as there is a challenging long cold winter to come. On a more positive note, I have been into work every day and we’ve succeeded in winning a record number of new clients, as we’ve literally been there to answer the phone. I will guarantee that we, as a company, will prosper and take advantage of the fresh opportunity.

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