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How UK food & drink SMEs can survive the coronavirus - comment

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Food & drink entrepreneur John Stapleton, who created and sold brands New Covent Garden Soup Co and Little Dish, believes there are a number of steps SMEs can take to help them survive coronavirus.

John Stapleton offers his advice on how food & drinks SMEs in the UK can prepare for the impact of the coronavirus

John Stapleton offers his advice on how food & drinks SMEs in the UK can prepare for the impact of the coronavirus

The topic on everyone's lips at the moment is the coronavirus, COVID-19. Not just in the media and on social media, but also down the pub and over dinner in your favourite local eatery. And, you should get your visit in now as very soon they'll either be closed - as in Ireland - or practising social distancing - if they're big enough. 

I don't intend to add to the noise but, if this develops in the UK anything like it has in Italy or in South Korea, then the effect of the pandemic on industry and the wider economy will be severe. This is not about scaring the living daylights out of businesses, rather, to consider the likely outcomes and try to be prepared as best we can - in particular for SMEs [small and medium-sized enterprises]. Here are some pointers.

1. In the first instance, focus on the safety and well-being of your staff and colleagues. Follow any relevant government advice and use common sense.

2. As in all crises, conserve cash initially in an effort to weather the immediate storm. I realise this has a knock-on effect on the economy as a whole, as less money is in circulation, but there are certainly going to be redundancies and bankruptcies as a result of this pandemic.

Your job, for your business, is to limit the former and avoid the latter. Place the business on pilot-light flame until you can figure out what's likely to be happening in April/May/June in your industry.

This is especially the case with start-ups, early-stage growth businesses and SMEs. If your business is heavily leveraged, talk to your bank - traditionally not that much use to SMEs - but they are being encouraged to relax debt repayments, at least in the interim.

Also, get hold of your accountant. Last week's Budget announcement contained lots of promises to help protect against the economic effects of coronavirus (and there is likely more to come as the seriousness of the pandemic properly dawns on the UK Government). Get to the front of the queue as inevitable bureaucracy will delay any payments to those who really need it, by weeks or months.

3. The food & drink industry is likely to fare better than some others. Think of the situation facing the tourism, hospitality and travel industries.

Ultimately, people will still have to eat and drink. At the moment, consumers seem focused on the staples. They are likely to soon tire of this, however, and return to their normal buying patterns. As pub, restaurant and out-of-home consumption dwindles, retail channels will be in strong demand - possibly over-run. 

Emphasis needs to be placed now on securing supplies of key ingredients (many may come from more affected areas, potentially areas suffering significant disruption - think of northern Italy) and packaging (large quantities of food and drink packaging is manufactured in China). Focus on securing continuity of supply from existing sources and/or explore alternatives (which may well cost more). 

4. Conduct some scenario planning. Think through the likely positions come summer, when we are hopefully coming out of the first wave of disruption (like China appears to be now).

What will likely have changed? What will you need to do to get back to where you were before all this happened? Will it ever be possible to get back there? Run some best/worst/middle-of-the-road financial projections based on new assumptions taking account of the risks from and effects of the virus on your business and industry. 

If you need cash to survive any of these scenarios, figure out now how you could achieve this with the least possible pain. Do this now, rather than leaving it until your back is against the wall.

5. As with Brexit, with uncertainty comes opportunity. We may well be facing a new economic reality when we come out of this. Some avenues may be closed to us then, while others may open up. One of the great strengths of start-ups or early-stage growth businesses is their agility. Opportunities to pivot may present themselves, but only if we recognise them.

I have heard so much from businesses over the last two years that they couldn't really prepare for Brexit as they "didn't know what it would look like".  With coronavirus, we certainly know what it looks like - again, see Italy and South Korea. We have real-life case studies currently running approximately 15-30 days ahead of the UK. We can learn from how they have responded and the challenges and opportunities that are likely to develop over the coming months.

6. I said I wouldn't add to the noise on what we as individuals should do to help stem the spread of the virus. However, I heard a medical expert speaking on Irish national media recently and what he said made me think.

When asked what we should all do differently, he said: "Well, nothing much really. I mean, we've always been washing our hands, haven't we? It's less about what we do and more about how we think. If we all had the attitude that each of us is already infected and our actions are more to do with protecting others - i.e. those who aren't - rather than protecting ourselves, then we'd have a chance of halting this virus before we have to encounter a drastic loss of life."

If we're equally smart about our attitude to economic survival and later returning to growth, I feel we can also avoid a drastic loss of businesses.

John Stapleton leverages his experience of creating, developing and scaling FMCG brands. He provides business growth advice and mentorship to growing businesses, is a business thought leader and speaks on a range of entrepreneurial, intrapreneurial and motivational leadership topics.

This article was initially published this week on just-drinks' sister site, just-food.


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