Being the boss in unprecedented times, part 2

Jo Francis
Friday, October 30, 2020

Part two of our special feature asking industry MDs and CEOs to share their experiences of being a business leader in unprecedented times and their strategies for handling the Covid crisis, both professionally and personally.

Miles Linney, CEO, Linney Group

Miles Linney is the sixth-generation Linney to helm the family-owned multi-channel marketing services group, which is headquartered in Mansfield and employs more than 1,000 staff. His great-great grandfather John Linney was at the helm during the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic.

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

No specific one, on reflection. When you started to see the death toll coming through and the pictures of the critical care wards across the world with people head to toe in PPE and wearing hazmat suits – I guess the reality started to hit home over that week.

What was the effect on your business?

In the initial lockdown week and month our activity levels dropped to 15% compared with the same period last year.

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

Obviously our peoples’ safety was foremost, as was doing our risk assessments quickly so that we could continue production and support our key ‘front-line’ clients, including pharma, the NHS, chemists and food retailers. Cleaning and PPE availability, initiating our disaster recovery plans and allocating responsibility across the exec and senior management team – lots of jobs that needed doing – right down to cancelling the milk order!

The Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme came to our rescue and gave us time and space to reflect and plan. We needed to be sure our people were informed and reassured and to ensure the payroll was processed and suppliers paid. Cash management became key.

Did you diversify into any new business areas in the short-term? If so, will you continue to offer these services?

No we didn’t – we just highlighted the different channels that we already offered and suggested our clients might want to amend their comms strategies as everyone went into lockdown. Social media, virtual conferences, film, and general online comms became more appropriate and that area of our business never really seemed to slow down.

We offered our transport and warehousing to the NHS ‘supply chain’ (at the request of our local hospital), which helped as we kept 24-hour shift working in place so they could drop off PPE supplies and we could deliver them in when needed. Other local companies did the same too. We all pitched in.

Did you have trouble sleeping?

I’m sure I did at times, especially in the first week taking it all on board, but I don’t remember it being an issue. There were early days and late nights (and weekends) and it was great to see the business pull together. I got worried, along with a lot of us, over two of our guys that got the virus in April. One in particular I have worked with very closely for 30 years and he was on 70% oxygen and told “there is not much more we can do”. He pulled through and it gave us all a great pick-up with that news. His workmates made a film telling him to keep fighting and to get better. I know he was really touched by it.

Who did you turn to as a sounding board?

I think anyone and everyone! I’m sure most people widened their net and tried to garner as much help, support and information as they could. Our exec team met every morning on Microsoft Teams and we shared our thoughts. Our Holdings board is full of wisdom and experience and we bounced around ideas and the general direction of travel. Our clients were really supportive and shared their plans. That was a great help.

What does recovery look like to you at present?

We are back to 85% compared with the same period last year.

Has the pandemic changed your future strategy?

No, not really. We feel our overall offer is good and the products and services we provide are relevant. We talk about tier one and tier two revenue streams here at Linney and we are developing new channels to market all the time. We continue to invest and develop.

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

I am sure, on close reflection, there are things that we would have wanted to do differently. Many times a day.

Overall we are happy (so far) with how we have tackled these last few months and I’m particularly pleased in how we have stuck to our plan and not swayed or been influenced by short-term pressures or trends.

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

The biggest disappointment has been not being able to walk around more and see everyone at work, and in the same vein as a positive I still get excited when I see someone I haven’t seen for weeks or months, in real life (and sometimes on a screen).

Helen Kennett, managing director, Henry Ling

Long-established Dorchester-based book and journal printer Henry Ling pressed ahead with investment plans despite the pandemic.

What made you realise just how serious the Covid-19 situation was?

The situation was obviously becoming serious for many weeks before lockdown day of 23 March and we were talking to our customers regarding business continuity planning, but I can still specifically remember sitting on the sofa at home watching the broadcast that night dreading that the PM would say we couldn’t open the next day.

Then followed hours of working out the dos and don’ts to stay safe and stay open.

What was the effect on business at your company?

We were fortunate that most of our customers in one of our core products, academic journals, kept ordering as usual, although distribution was a challenge, but we worked together to offer storage until international mail restarted. Books did not do so well during those months but we kept working when many local businesses and printers in other sectors could not.

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

We had to ensure our employees were safe. Our management business continuity planning has really aided our ability to communicate internally and find solutions to coronavirus-related issues. We just kept communicating about everything from cleaning procedures to one way systems and shift changeovers.

There was a lot of detail to consider especially as the advice and guidelines changed almost daily and everyone was uncertain or scared in those early days. All office staff worked from home (and still do) other than a couple needed at the factory. We then had to communicate to our customers that we were still operating “as normal”.

Did you diversify into any new business areas?

No, we had enough work in our usual business areas.

Did you have trouble sleeping?


Who did you turn to as a sounding board?

Henry Ling is run jointly by myself and my brother Mark so we are each other’s sounding boards. We followed government guidelines at all times and found the BPIF, of which we are a member, a great help too.

What does recovery look like to you at present?

We are back to business as normal for a while, but I think only time will tell what the effect of this pandemic will be on our business, our industry and our country.

Has the pandemic changed your future strategy?

We had plans in place and went ahead with the Canon ProStream investment, which was installed in August, as we are optimistic that this can still help us win new business as well as offer our existing market improved quality. We hope to be in a position to go ahead with our other plans.

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

We would have bought gloves, IPA and sanitiser in huge quantities in January!

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

Aside from all the personal tragedies that people have suffered, that the beach at Durdle Door and Bournemouth beach were allowed to become the scenes you probably saw in the newspapers.

There has been great community spirit here and our fantastic staff have shown loyalty and dedication working through the lockdown period. There is very little manufacturing around us in sunny Dorchester and most other employers closed due to lack of work so our staff felt more vulnerable at first but stuck together.

Matt Galloway, managing director, Galloways

We’re not sure that “global pandemic” would have been in the handover notes when Matt Galloway took over as managing director from his father Andrew at the beginning of this year. Matt is also the sixth-generation Galloway to run the Cheshire-based print firm.

When did you realise just how serious the Covid-19 situation was?

From a personal perspective, we all saw what was happening across Europe and it was unlike any other news story I have ever read. I remember first reading the Italian news and thinking something so severe could never happen here (blind hope, I now realise!). However as the days passed we all realised how serious this would be and plans were drawn up about how we could cope with the months ahead.

What was the effect on business at your company?

Within a week in March we had a large volume of work that was already booked in either put on hold, or cancelled which was the start of things to come. Following a number of client sectors closing following government advice, I felt the right decision following the guidelines was to close the business down for what I felt would be a three-week period. While we have key clients in what we now know as the ‘critical worker’ space, the volume of work in these sectors wasn’t enough for us to stay open. That initial three-week closure, turned into a seven-week shutdown, purely servicing our online client base only.

However in the four months since reopening we are now trading at approximately 60%-65%, which is encouraging. There is a long way to go but with the team here at Galloways, coupled with the investments made last year I am confident we are well placed for the challenging months ahead.

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

After reopening the factory, of course the first priority was ensuring safety of all employees. We have demarcated the factory into zones, limited movement where possible and issued additional hand sanitiser. Naturally, account managers are still working remotely where we can however being in a tactile industry sometimes it is essential to see the jobs in production – so it hasn’t been easy, however I am glad the team has adapted to the new ways of working so well.

Did you diversify into any new business areas?

We didn’t diversify too much away from the norm in truth, I tip my hat to the printers I know who swiftly converted their factories into making additional PPE and signage, however without having the supply chain or the contacts for this line of work it is very difficult to know where to start.

We have had a long standing partnership with Addmaster, so through them we offered Anti-Microbial print to all our clients free of charge, and continue to do so as I feel all printed products will benefit from this technology with everyone slightly more conscious of hygiene than they were six months ago!

Did you have trouble sleeping?

I always wondered why my dad was up at 5am most days for the last 30 years as managing director, however I now understand! Having retired at Christmas, and passing the reigns to me, my first year as MD has been somewhat of a challenge. We have a good team in place here at Galloways, and I am ever grateful that the Christmas retirement has been put on hold slightly as we navigate the challenges of 2020. I guess, getting through this year puts me in a good place for the years ahead if nothing else. I have found myself up in the hours I didn’t know existed six months ago, and often waking up at all hours thinking about work and ways to improve particularly during the lockdown period in April.

Who did you turn to as a sounding board?

Growing up, I have seen my dad live and breathe the company all my life. Despite being within the business myself for a long time, it’s only when you’re in the position I am in now do you realise quite how lonely and difficult it can be at times. Thankfully, as I mentioned before he has been there to advise (as well as the management team within the business), bounce ideas off and more often than not a sanity check against the unknowns that the pandemic has raised to all areas of business. I am not quite sure his retirement to the golf course has fully gone to plan, but hopefully the years to come will be a bit easier than this one and he can relax a bit more!

It is also worth mentioning that speaking to friends within the industry in similar positions to myself really helped in the early weeks of the pandemic. Hearing what others were doing, being vocal with problems as well as listening to other people’s issues is something which helped me enormously – those that I called know who they are and to them I will be eternally grateful.

What does recovery look like at present?

While recovery is always going to be a steady progression, I am glad we are seeing signs of little bits of improvement. We were trading at 60% through summer, which is traditionally a quieter period for us normally. We realise it will be a slow process, but through having all the systems and processes in place I am confident we will get there in the months to come.

Has the pandemic changed your future strategy?

The future strategy has been implicated by the pandemic, I would be lying if I said it hadn’t slowed progress down however through the systems and automation we have put in place in recent years, the foundation is there to continue to build and grow. Obviously 2020 will be a difficult year, however we must look to the future with confidence based on previous years of planning.

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

It was a very difficult decision to temporarily shut the company, but one I felt right to do based on our client mix and the type of work we do for our client base. The team have been fantastic since we reopened and back producing work across a large range of sectors and our packaging arm has remained busy which has helped while commercial print is down.

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

The biggest disappointment has been the set back the pandemic has caused us as a company following a milestone investment in 2019, with a few major clients placing work on hold although hopefully these projects will be placed towards the end of the year. Positively, through our link with Addmaster we have offered all clients anti-bacterial print free of charge which added a niche – and the uptake has been good. While non-essential marketing budgets may have been put on hold, other sectors within our client base have been busy which has been a huge positive.

James Williams, managing director, Curtis Packaging

Multi-award winning Curtis Packaging specialises in bespoke, high-quality folding cartons with a big sustainability ethos. The 80-year-old firm is based in Redhill, Surrey.

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

Towards the end of February once things started getting quite bad in Italy. We deal with quite a few companies based in Milan, which was hit quite hard and the information we had coming back from there made us very concerned pre the UK lockdown.

What was the effect on business at your company?

Until lockdown was enforced it was very much business as usual. January to March is quite a busy order period for us as we are usually booking in Christmas packaging requirements for key customers. However once lockdown was announced everything rapidly came to a grinding halt for new orders and enquiries. Fortunately the order book was quite healthy so the factory has remained busy throughout.

What measures did you take to cope with the situation?

We used the government’s furlough scheme to allow any members of staff who felt seriously concerned about their personal health or if they lived with people in a high-risk category to stay home. Fortunately we did not have to impose furlough on anyone. All office staff who could work from home were allowed. Increased hygiene measures, staggered shifts with no crossover between staff members, provision of optional PPE. Pretty much anything we could think of to try and keep operational while minimising risk to staff members.

Did you diversify into any new areas?

No, as a cartonboard operation there wasn’t a lot we could offer. We did however collaborate with a local school to provide plastic visors that could be attached to headbands that they were 3D printing. The studio cut over 2,500 visors and they were distributed to local care homes and hospitals.

Did you have trouble sleeping?

No, strangely I tend to sleep better during a crisis. I think I did so much worrying during the day I was exhausted by bedtime!

Who did you turn to as a sounding board?

The situation was so unique there wasn’t really anyone who could offer any significant pearl of wisdom. I did print off a picture of Winston Churchill with his famous quote ‘When you are going through hell, keep going’, which adorned my office wall for a few weeks. I think he helped a little.

What does recovery look like to you at present?

Better than expected so far. After the initial shock and everyone getting used to the ‘new normal’ things have settled down. It has hit sales quite hard so the optimistic budget for 2020 has been consigned to the bin. However, I am pleased that we are faring better than the re-visited pessimistic budget. Still a long way to go and a few more bumps in the road I am sure but cautiously optimistic!

Has the pandemic changed your strategy?

Not drastically, it has stopped us from perhaps becoming complacent. We have had pretty much 10 years of steady profitable growth which in this industry is extraordinary. Something like this does help to re-focus your attention on the little things as well as the big.

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

Possibly I might not have ordered the new mezzanine floor, the new laminator and the new hot foil stamping machine, which were all ordered in January for delivery during April-July this year. I don’t regret the purchase of the kit now but it did increase the stress level slightly at the time.

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

Not being able to get out and see people has been frustrating. I have always preferred face-to-face meetings and not being able to meet customers or suppliers for nearly six months has been challenging. The UK government has been the biggest disappointment for me, not wishing to go full Ben Elton but the phrase “couldn’t organise a piss-up in a brewery” sums them up quite well. The biggest positive is people coming together to help each other; the community spirit has been outstanding and long may that continue.

Rachael Nevins, CEO, Adare SEC

Nevins took over as Adare SEC CEO just over two years ago, having previously been CFO at the business and having joined the multi-site company from outside the printing industry a year prior to that.

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

With our mind on client service levels, colleague safety and protecting our business, we took a proactive approach to closely monitor the situation early on.

We supported our clients quickly with our compliance team sharing our business continuity plans and communicating our assurances to closely manage the situation to our entire client base.

Then, following the official announcement of a global pandemic, a number of company task forces were formed to focus on each key area of the business.

What was the effect on business at your company?

While, like many organisations, we saw some impact to demand, we worked to protect our business to mitigate this effect through the many support channels provided by the government. We are proud to say that, through the commitment of our colleagues, we have maintained our high service levels to clients throughout the pandemic.

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

We implemented a three-way approach to the situation: colleague safety, focus on delighting the client, and the protection of our business. We assembled dedicated task forces to lead each area of the business with oversight by the Executive team daily.

Colleague safety included safeguarding our operational colleagues who were required to be onsite. That meant supplying the necessary PPE, professionally deep cleaning our three operational sites using a fogging agent along with mandatory social distancing. For all our office colleagues, we very quickly enhanced our IT infrastructure, rolling out Microsoft Teams, which enabled colleagues to continue working from home with no disruption to productivity.

I sent weekly communications to all our clients to give them comfort as to our ongoing service levels and safety precautions on site. This, along with our agility to respond to their changing needs was well received.

We took the opportunity to utilise the government schemes put in place to protect the financial strength of our business, for example a number of colleagues were placed on furlough.

Did you diversify into any new business areas?

Throughout the period we supported clients with urgent communications to their customers related to the Covid-19 situation. Additionally, we quickly launched a number of fast-track solutions to respond to our clients’ needs. For example, our ‘SmarterScan’ solution allows clients to send their incoming mail directly to our site, we then sort, scan and return this back to our client in a digital format. As our clients were moving to ‘working from home’ status, this solution replaced many of our clients post rooms and enabled them to continue to respond to customer correspondence.

We also found some of our existing solutions were now being viewed as critical for clients, such as PrintMe, our hybrid mail solution, that enabled clients with employees working from home to continue sending out their critical communications as if they were in the office.

Did you have trouble sleeping?

While very little stops me from sleeping, this situation clearly focuses the mind as to what is important.

Who did you turn to as a sounding board?

I am fortunate to have a strong exec team around me. Each member played a crucial role in supporting the business through this crisis.

What does recovery look like to you at present?

We are looking to the future in the best way possible – with positivity. We all need to adapt to the changing world and accept it will be different and seek out opportunities.

Has the pandemic changed your future strategy?

The pandemic has allowed us the opportunity to sharpen our focus on our future strategy. We remain committed to delighting our clients through the delivery of integrated communications, of which digital transformation will remain key.

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

The situation changed rapidly and I am proud of the reaction by my team and colleagues throughout the business. Their support throughout this crisis was amazing and humbling – it’s a great team at Adare SEC and I do hope my appreciation is recognised.

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

For all of us, it’s disappointing that we have had to naturally defer activities that would just not be reasonable in the middle of a pandemic and the difficult decisions we need to make. However, we have recognised our strengths: our agility, our client-centric approach and fantastic team spirit – and we look forward to accelerating with our plans at a pace.

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