Industry leaders reflect, one year on from lockdown

Printweek team
Tuesday, March 23, 2021

Industry bosses have been reflecting on a year like no other as the UK marks one year since prime minister Boris Johnson announced the first lockdown.

Boris Johnson pictured yesterday at BAE Systems, which makes good use of printed graphics. Image: 10 Downing St
Boris Johnson pictured yesterday at BAE Systems, which makes good use of printed graphics. Image: 10 Downing St

In his address to the nation on the evening of 23 March 2020, and with the NHS in danger of being overwhelmed, Johnson called for a huge national effort to halt the spread of the virus. 

He told people they must stay at home except for limited activities, including travelling to and from work if it was not possible to work from home, in order to “protect the NHS and save lives”. 

The initial lockdown was for just three weeks, and subsequent events and prolonged restrictions have had a drastic impact on the country and the economy. 

England entered its third national lockdown on 6 January 2021, with Johnson publishing his four-step roadmap out of lockdown at the beginning of last month. 

Speaking this morning (23 March) BPIF chief executive Charles Jarrold told Printweek: “I think we’ve forgotten what a huge thing it was at the time. 

"The reality is we are going to have to live with it, but we will have effective vaccines. We’re all going to have to accept that we can’t be protected by the government all the time.

"A year ago we were having two management meetings a day and just running flat out from early morning to late at night, scrambling to stay on top of it all," he recalled.

Jarrold said one of the key issues had been explaining to government that print was essential to many other areas of the economy that needed to keep going. 

“I think we saw a transformation in government enthusiasm. We were trying to represent real situations and get them to understand that if they took a certain route there won’t be food on the shelves or trains running.”

He said that thanks to the various government support packages, in particular the furlough scheme, companies that would not otherwise have survived the crisis have been able to carry on.

“2021 is going to be about unwinding this, and it needs to be done really carefully,” he noted.

“I think we’re all managing our expectations from a business point-of-view fairly carefully, because the roadmaps dates are ‘not before’ dates. But equally there will be possibly quite a lot of pent up demand, so things will snap back but it’s going to take time.”

The latest restrictions have caused a further outcry around civil rights, with new coronavirus laws set to include a £5,000 fine for anyone in England who tries to travel abroad without good reason. 

Outside mixing, step two of the first part of the roadmap out of lockdown is slated to be permitted from the beginning of next week. 

The roadmap out of lockdown infographic can be downloaded here. 

Industry leaders from a wide range of businesses, from SMEs to sector specialists and large groups, shared their thoughts and insights with Printweek as the UK reached this 12-months on milestone. 

Peter Atkinson, CEO, Macfarlane Group

“As the UK went into lockdown, we’d already been working with our suppliers and had asked them to describe what was happening in Italy, which had got into difficulties early. They were indicating to us that distribution companies like us in the packaging area were seeing 20% to 25% reductions in sales.

“So we modelled our business to assume there would potentially be that sort of reduction in sales and looked at the actions we needed to take to ensure that the business could continue in that sort of environment with such a material sales reduction. We built up a financial plan based on that sort of erosion, and then we put in a series of actions to ensure that we were able to conserve cash.

“Then we started the dialogue with all of our customers to, as best as we could, try and understand what they believed was going to happen and what we could do to support them through the looming crisis. We then talked to all of our suppliers and gave them the confidence that we would continue to pay our bills to them, but we would need them to look after us and support us as well.

“We also talked to our landlords, and then finally we started the communication programme with all of our staff to ensure that they weren’t in the dark about what we were doing. We didn’t try to pretend that it was going to be easy, but said to them let’s keep communicating and keep engaged, and we’ll be open and honest with you to make sure there are no surprises or secrets for anybody.”

“There’s no book you can turn to that says what to do in a pandemic, it was about doing as much as we possibly could, learning as fast as we could and then responding as fast as we could.

“As time evolved, we recognised that maybe it wasn’t going to be as bad as we thought it was going to be so the 20% to 25% reduction didn’t appear. Our performance in Q2 2020, which is when lockdown really begin to take effect, was only 5% down – it wasn’t good, but it wasn’t as bad as 20%.

“That allowed us to start easing some of the restrictions that we had in place, without totally releasing everything because we didn’t know what was going to happen [in the following quarter]. So it was then about monitoring events as they developed and adjusting our plan accordingly to that.

“We clearly are now beginning to come through it and members of our teams are beginning to get vaccinations. Clearly business from our point of view has been better than we expected it to be, so our business has been more resilient to the changes in the market, but I think it’s too easy to believe that it’s now just one-way traffic and that it’s all going to be easy.

“Being on high alert and making sure we don’t get complacent are probably the key messages that we are working on at the moment.”

Robert Cross, director, Micropress

“Our initial thoughts were that the drop off in sales were going to be disastrous and we started running financial scenarios to see what effect it could have on the busines and the results were not pretty! In reality the drop off in sales were as bad as we feared, but the impact on the business was not as bad as we predicted. I am feeling very optimistic as we embark on the roadmap out of lockdown.

“Pushing the ‘pause button’ gave us a once in a lifetime opportunity to review everything without the normal day to day pressures. As the business has ramped production back up there has been a strong focus on automation and efficiency. By being able to put the time in we have come on leaps and bounds in these areas.

“As a well-established trade supplier we have seen the opportunity to supply other print companies grow and grow over the last 12 months. As businesses review their focus it has fast tracked a trend in smaller companies sub-contracting work out. It’s important we continue to offer the right ‘trade’ supply solution to these companies and we will continue to evolve the business around this.

“It’s going to take another two or three months to fully recover but I believe there is a lot of pent up demand and things will get good again. I’m hopeful we will break some sales records this autumn.”

Stephen Docherty, group chairman, Bell & Bain 

“I’ve always worked hard, and I thought somebody had pulled the rug out from under me and that there would be nothing I could do about it. It was unthinkable what was in front of us.

“But we just mucked in, and through all the negativity there have been positives. We’ve had very few people on furlough, and we’ve carried J Thomson Colour [commercial printer that Bell & Bain acquired in 2019] through it and they’re out the other end stronger.

“For me, our staff are as much heroes as anybody else – they’ve come in through the thick of it and very few people have been off. We’ve been really close to our people to try to gee them up when we can – even we need a bit of geeing up from time to time! We’ve probably come out of this stronger as a unit.” 

John Emmerson, director, Emmerson Press

“I’d just come home from the trip of a lifetime, golfing in the States. We were on the last flight out of Atlanta to Heathrow and it was surreal. We landed early in the morning and I’d planned to go home but I came straight into work – 90% of our scheduled work had been postponed or cancelled, and it was crisis time. 

“We wrote an open letter to our loyal client base of customers we’ve worked with for 10, 15, 25 or more years explaining that we needed their support. And the response was amazing and they remained loyal. We supported our core supplier base, too. We also kept on doing work for all our local charities and we still managed to find ways to get people their proofs and paper samples. 

“We made some redundancies which was horrible but necessary for the stability of the business. My view is with the team and the technology we have now, we can pretty much cope with anything that’s thrown at us. It’s also been a good opportunity to sell some kit and we will replace it with state-of-the-art plant when the time is right. 

“Work will kick off again, it’s just a matter of when, and there will be less of us [printers] to be busy. And we’ll get through it. 

“There are still ups and downs to get through, and the usual pattern of work is out of the window. When work starts to kick off again we’ll grow. It’s business as usual, just less is more.”

Wayne Fitzpatrick, managing director, Glossop Cartons

“As we went into what we now know to be the first lockdown, I didn’t expect the impact to have been as long lasting as it has been… maybe six months of restrictions and business interruption and then back to normality in the second half of the year. I guess I thought it would be another ‘Swine Flu’ type event.

“My worry at the time was how we would manage with the potential high levels of employee illness and absence and keep business flowing whilst keeping everyone safe. Would we have to close altogether for a period of time?

“We have certainly seen our relationship with suppliers change during the last 12 months. Projects and topics which previously had to have face to face meetings have now been managed over phone and video calls. It seems even an MBO is possible via telephone and video messaging! It’s a shame those big bulky video conference facilities many of us invested in had arrived 10-20 years too early and never got their time to shine. Whilst it will be good to be able to meet with customers and suppliers face to face later in the year, I think the ability to handle projects and issues with customers over video calls is something that is here to stay.

“The level of support from staff throughout the pandemic has been amazing to see; people's willingness to help cover shifts, additional or different tasks has been incredible. Understanding both the physical, but also the mental impact of such a pandemic has also proven to be extremely important. The mental impact, frustrations and burnout have been as noticeable or even more so as the physical impact of the Covid lockdown. I think we all felt the dip of the second lockdown and this could be seen and felt within the company as well as in society.

“The ability to work flexibly and be multi-skilled has always been important, but the pandemic has proven its worth to an even higher level. This is something we will be working on moving forward.

“2021 is looking positive. Other new challenges are already on the horizon, but at least they are different challenges. There is certainly a positive change of mood within the company as spring and potential freedom seem to be coming ever closer. I remain cautiously optimistic that we are through the worst of the pandemic, but will be reluctantly prepared if we have to go for another round of restrictions.”

Jason Hammond, CEO, The Delta Group

“There was so much to think about. How to protect our clients, our businesses and our staff was I think the first primary challenge that needed quick decisions and actions to ensure communications were swift, accurate and helpful. We focused on keeping our manufacturing sites operating to support our clients, in particular reconfiguring our manufacturing platform to deliver Covid collateral. We introduced immediately shift bubbles and social distancing to ensure any Covid cases were not transmitted in the work-place. We immediately reduced the number of people in the office space and enabled people to work from home with their correct IT needs satisfied. 

“Our next focus was opportunities and I’m pleased to say we produced visors, barriers and dividers for our existing client base and gained a lot of new clients very quickly with our agility and flexibility utilising our existing machinery. For us the roadmap out of lockdown is very much focused around staff welfare, ensuring people are comfortable returning to a covid safe environment, whilst delivering maximum support to our client base.  

“Unlike most of our competitors our investment program continued through lockdown with over £2.5m of new machinery delivered and installed which is delivering cost, time to market and sustainability benefits. We also invested through two robots for the first-time during lockdown and our experience has been hugely beneficial to our ongoing automation plan for the future. Finally, we also established our Sustainability strategy (Delta ZERO) which is delivering a number of benefits to our clients, and an award recently, in particular how we are aligning to our client’s sustainability objectives.   

“2021 has been slower to open up than I think everyone had hoped but that has allowed us to focus on strategy and planning that we believe will deliver benefits for years to come. Our stronger client relationships, built up through the challenges of lockdown are to be continued and built on. We have had huge success with our technology platform, enabling the creation of multi-channel fast turnaround marketing collateral from instore print, digital screens or social media platforms and this is where our scale and continual investment across our businesses has really paid off.”

Andrew Jones, chairman and group managing director, Stephens & George 

“Initial thoughts were that the situation was going to become extremely serious, and it was going to take a considerable amount of time to come out of the problem. However, I didn’t think it was going to take 18 months, which it is likely to be.

 “The business has had to shrink, as sales have been hammered. By the end of March 2021, we will be trading at 50% or so compared to March 2020. The second lockdown really was a big blow.

 “Even though 2020/2021 has been very difficult, we have consolidated staff, machinery and expenditure to ensure our survival, the furlough scheme has been a much needed crutch for our business and has surely staved off even more redundancies.

“I think that we will come out of this situation quite quickly, as all business are allowed to reopen, however, I don’t think that we will get back to pre-COVID levels until at least year ending March 2023 and perhaps a bit longer.

“So, all in all it has been a pretty torrid time, but we have done our reorganisation and now it’s all to do!”

Dally Kaur Purewal, director at Ideas That Work, Nettl of Leeds and of North Leeds

“I clearly remember 23rd March 2020. I naively thought we would be in lockdown for three weeks and then return to life as normal. I dropped off the computers to our team on March 24th and said I'd see them in a few weeks! As the weeks passed, it was apparent that returning to the office was going to be a lot later than I initially thought. I struggled to adapt to home working. As a creative business we thrive on interaction with people, we create our best work when we are bouncing ideas from one another. It took me about six weeks to adapt. I focused on the things I could control and tried to stay as positive as possible 

“The last 12 months has seen an huge increase in our web and branding services. This we assume for a number of reasons, for example businesses recognised the importance of being current in a digital world and we saw an increase of start-up businesses due to people losing their jobs in the pandemic. 

“As a print business we were concerned about the impact the pandemic was having on a core part of our business. We are a Nettl partner and at the central hub they worked very quickly to develop a range of covid safety equipment such as signage, masks, vinyls, sneeze guards, sanitising stations etc – this made sure we were able to still be the ‘go to’ for our clients rather than them having to seek those products elsewhere. 

“We are excited about the restrictions being eased. We supply a lot of print to the hospitality, retail and sports sectors so we are sure there will be demand. The print part of our businesses has taken the biggest hit, but we are very confident that we'll bounce back and that businesses are going to want to market themselves in an aggressive and creative way. 

“As we embark upon the road out of lockdown, I feel optimistic. I am optimistic for business, for the future and new opportunities.”

Zed Sheikh, chairman, Clifton Packaging

“Covid hit us like a ton of bricks, nobody was ready for it and there was a lot of disruption, getting used to PPE, and now abiding in creating an environment where everybody has got to be masked up. You can do all that you can at work, but somebody might catch it at home.

“There are lots of issues to deal with; you’ve got to look at your staff to avoid any dismissals and redundancies. And then you’ve got to see where you can cut costs. We’ve got a staff headcount of around 130 with about five on furlough, at the start we had around 10 on furlough.

“Everybody is adapting to change to suit their environment and business. The retail sector was worst hit, but we are in the food sector and have got to be an essential supplier to keep the food chain going, so we have not been hit as much as the retail sector was.

“All we can do is just deal with the obstacles that come our way in a positive light, otherwise we’ll just fold up, fall asleep, and end up in the corner and get swallowed up.

“We have to step up our game now and start looking at other matters to improve the business, and use the opportunity to get ahead and adapt to the many changes.”

Gurdev Singh, managing director, Northwolds 

“I felt that it would be a tough few months but things would get back to some sort of normality by the autumn. We kept in touch with our customers using phone/email/Zoom etc. but then the second and then third lockdown cancelled all bets. I am a natural optimist but the landscape for print will be even more challenging because even after the lockdown ends the virtual economy has a momentum that will continue.

“Northwolds had to hunker down and honestly we were forced to use our cash reserves to stay afloat mostly as opposed to fulfilling investment plans. However we did a survey of our clients which was encouraging and showed our credibility was still high despite very little or no client spend, plus we were very pleased to hear that our clients would be coming back to us once things opened up. 

“We also sent out email and direct marketing to sectors to continue to build a presence in selected sectors ready for the hoped for opening up. The furlough scheme was vital and very helpful in keeping staff employed. Most of the front end staff were able to work from home but it’s not the same as face to face client meetings. 

“GDPR issues in sending samples/info etc. to customers’ homes was just one issue that didn’t help. I think it was Tesco’s founder Lord Cohen who when retiring gave a tie pin to his board that had the letters YCDBSOYA… You Can’t Do Business Sat On Your Arse. Print will be around for a long time yet but it must be high quality, personal and evoke emotion in a way digital cannot. 

“January and February were very tough, dare I say we are seeing more optimism recently, green shots and all that. I don’t believe it will be the V-shaped recovery Johnson is flouting but a more gradual and tricky climb that is fully dependent on the vaccines success against current and ‘new variant’ strains. Print has got used to being resilient in the face of uncertainty and I believe and hope we will be stronger in a couple of years.”

Paul Utting, CEO, Walstead Group

“One year ago none of us really understood what was in store for us! As a result, decisions were deferred and new business dried up completely. Many retail outlets were closed, resulting in a dramatic fall in advertising and circulation for publishers and for most retailers marketing activity, including print,  was suspended. Net result was a dramatic reduction in volume overnight. I think at this point the whole industry was just focussed on survival and introducing measures to operate safely and conserve cash. 

“There have been significant changes to operating procedures to enable our staff to work safely in an environment where there is close interaction between staff. In the early days of the pandemic we put together a Europe-wide team which met by phone call or video conference daily to discuss how the situation was evolving and how we could adapt our systems of working to maintain social distancing guidelines and keep staff as safe as possible. 

“The pandemic is evolving at different speeds across Europe with cases still increasing in a number of countries. This is having a direct effect on business sentiment and the speed of recovery. With an advanced vaccination programme there is more confidence in the short term outlook in the UK than some other countries, although recovery is from a very low base. 

“In the publishing market many titles have closed in the last year and these will never return. It remains to be seen whether circulations and paginations return to pre-pandemic levels. 

“Walstead‘s business is still strong in all territories as the scale of our business, efficient operations and commitment of our staff have put us in a good position for the longer term. However, for less robust companies in the sector the situation will be very different and I anticipate that among these businesses there will be an increase in the number of insolvencies in the coming months, across Europe, as government support schemes such as furlough in the UK and its European equivalents come to an end.”

Jeremy Walters, CEO, Paragon Customer Communications

“When we first went into lockdown my initial thoughts were for the health and safety of our 3,000 employees, and how best can we balance that with our customers’ requirements. Our people have done a tremendous job. 

“Tragically, the darkest part of lockdown is that we lost three colleagues to Covid. Our thoughts and respects are with their families.

“From a customers’ perspective, what we’ve found is an appetite to do things faster, but within a controlled environment particularly around things like compliance. We all have to react to the economic position and situations we see in front of us, and our customers are no different. 

“We’re certainly seeing decisions, and implementation of new solutions, being done much quicker. That’s definitely one way we’ve adapted and we see that continuing. 

“We’ve become tremendously flexible. Our clients have to react to their own customers. I think remaining incredibly flexible and reactive is how we’re going to have to address the market as we look forward. I have tremendous faith in our organisation and our people to absolutely operate in parallel with what our customers’ requirements are. 

“I’m certainly very optimistic about coming out of this current lockdown – I really enjoy change anyway – and we’re very excited about what opportunities as we adapt to change, will present to the business.”


Printweek welcomes informed debate, but all comments must comply with our house rules which can be read here: A-Z of using the Printweek forums


© MA Business Limited 2023. Published by MA Business Limited, St Jude's Church, Dulwich Road, London, SE24 0PB, a company registered in England and Wales no. 06779864. MA Business is part of the Mark Allen Group .