Companies in the UK faced unprecedented challenges when COVID-19 struck. The global pandemic brought fast-moving and unexpected circumstances, some of which businesses and crisis teams weren’t prepared to handle.
Despite the inevitable challenges and economic slowdown, some industries and businesses were able to adapt to the circumstances by strengthening their business and even going above and beyond standard requirements.
We spoke to Neil French, Managing Director of high-performance leisurewear manufacturer, Proskins, to see how the pandemic challenged the business to think outside of the box.
The COVID-19 pandemic began shutting down most of the UK’s commerce in mid-March, leaving many businesses and industries devastated. From disrupted supply chains, closed stores and vanishing demand, most businesses felt the negative impacts of the outbreak. Proskins were not exempt from this.
“When the pandemic hit the UK, we found ourselves in the same position as many businesses” explains Neil.
As the company’s UK supply chain was significantly disrupted following Government restrictions, the business made the hard decision to begin furloughing staff and closing its factory and operations. Simultaneously, across the UK, most industries saw a decline in consumer spending, ultimately leading to a drop in online sales for businesses such as Proskins.
Neil recalls: “My initial thoughts were on ensuring business survival. How do we get through this? At this point, we had to start looking for opportunities outside the core of our business. Maintain cash flow, cover costs and stay in business. This period really highlighted the importance of having a strong workforce. The employees at Proskins were given the freedom to do what they thought was right in terms of sales and marketing.”
The business soon began the journey of mitigating any lasting impact the pandemic could have. They acted by cutting back on all unnecessary expenditure, engaging with key stakeholders and looking at innovative opportunities to drive sales. This is when they noticed an increase in the demand for their snoods, a staple product they had been selling mainly to the motorcycle trade for cyclists who wanted face coverings for their journey. From there, the sales and marketing team began to bring to life a new product line: face masks.
Neil explains: “We initially supplied 100 masks to one of our outlet retailers and they sold out pretty much overnight. Next thing we knew, we were asked to supply thousands of these. This immediately relieved the pressure by helping us to generate cash into the business and gave us some much-needed breathing space to reassess our costs and order book.”
Whilst this was taking place, the nation was still being rocked by COVID-19, the death toll was increasing, and the pressure was felt nationwide. Undoubtedly, one of the biggest challenges was the lack of healthcare supplies for the NHS. Across the UK, nurses were left without gowns, healthcare workers were running out of masks and doctors were in dire need of ventilators.
Neil was keen to turn the business’ efforts to helping the country’s public health authorities, he explains: “Once we were back on our feet, my priority was to make sure we did our part to help out. Most of our factory staff were still furloughed, but I saw an opportunity for us get back to work and start to do our bit.”
After several attempts of contacting the Government to no avail, Neil turned to an NHS Clinical Director friend to try and get the assistance to re-open the factories.
“I asked him, who can help me? We have a factory, who can I speak to? This was really something I needed Proskins to get involved in.” He explains.
It wasn’t long until the wheels began moving. Proskins received the green light to re-open its factory, on the basis that social distancing measures were put in place. Soon after, employees went back to work and began to create PPE equipment for the NHS. With such high demand both locally and nationally, the factory was granted an extension, allowing Proskins to make new hires during the economic crisis, a huge relief to many of its new employees who had been let-off from their previous jobs.
Neil comments: “There is a global shortage of PPE and the whole world wants a restock. I’m pleased to say that each day, procurement directors from the NHS come in to pick up the PPE our employees have made from the previous day. At this rate, we’re anticipating that we will operate at full capacity for the foreseeable future.”
Whilst this was ongoing, Neil was clear that this wasn’t about profiteering: “Us reopening our factory was not a commercial move.” He states “It was about doing the right thing. We want to help in the bigger picture and come together as a country.”
In reflecting on what Proskins learned during this season, Neil feels that what initially helped the business was the ability to be agile and remain in good spirits. “You can either sit back and accept what’s happened to you or you can change things. There’s a lot of business out there if you look for it.” He explains. “With that being said, it’s important to acknowledge that many other companies may not have had the same opportunities as us, and this period has been new territory, there are a combination of things that have really helped us.”
The experience of Proskins and their team shows how innovative companies are pushing the limits of what they can offer during this testing time. Their story joins that of many other businesses and people throughout the UK, coming together and doing what they can to support each other and the wider recovery effort.
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