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Ahead of the Covid curve

6 Oct 2021

The pandemic forced us to dramatically change how we do business, but The Top 50 Most Ambitious Business Leaders have tackled the Covid challenge with remarkable reserves of imagination and innovative verve.

When lockdown hit in March 2020 and high street shops were forced to close, there were a number of in-store experiences that needed to be replicated online – and fast. For lingerie company Curvy Kate – that meant bra fittings. “We used to have one person who did virtual bra fittings, but when the pandemic happened we had to hire five more dedicated virtual bra fitters because demand was outstripping supply – and still is,” reveals managing director Rachel Jenkins.

To continue delivering on Jenkins’ mission to make women feel great about their curves, the changes embraced by the company went far beyond D-K cup sizes, as the high street struggled with store closures. Curvy Kate’s wholesale operation – once 50 per cent of the business – shrank, and the direct-to-consumer side shot up. The consumer operation has grown by 49 per cent since January 2020, and now accounts for 70 per cent of the business.

“We had to adapt quite quickly in terms of structure and personnel – moving people from handling wholesale, which is traditionally much slower, into direct-to-customer,” explains Jenkins. Speaking directly to consumers requires a different approach and a heavy focus on social media. Jenkins says: “We’ve got a great social media team, which jumped into engaging people with wellness and education content. We grew our social channel following by 15 per cent to almost a million.”

Jenkins’ experience is a familiar one. Across many sectors, businesses had to pivot to meet new demands and new ways of reaching customers. This is evident among The Top 50 Most Ambitious Business Leaders.

Tony Hague is CEO of PP Control & Automation, a provider of strategic manufacturing outsourcing services. Hague hopes the company’s success will help to change the face of manufacturing in the eyes of the next generation – encouraging more new talent into the sector. He reveals that 2020 was the only year since the last recession when his company has seen profits dip. “But we bounced back strongly,” he says.

The Walsall-based firm did this by getting involved in the UK’s Covid ventilator project, producing around 50,000 parts and keeping the PP factory open throughout the pandemic. And Hague predicts: “We’re looking at close to 30 per cent growth this year.”

Now Covid is having far-reaching effects on the way the company does business. Hague notes that prior to the pandemic, the UK had for decades offshored a lot of manufacturing: “But Covid has made everyone rethink supply chains, and there’s now a huge trend for UK reshoring.” This is likely to mean bringing significant manufacturing capabilities home from places like China and result in the need for more highly automated and high-tech factories. Hague believes that these changes could be part of the solution to the low productivity that has dogged the UK for decades.

When the pandemic first hit, online sampling company SoPost, which uses data to help the likes of L’Oreal, Unilever, Neal’s Yard Remedies and Clif Bar get their samples out to relevant people, ripped up its day-to-day strategy and threw it out the window.

“We had to be as reactive as possible,” says founder Jonathan Grubin. “Over two weeks we saw opportunities in Finland and Switzerland – we had never looked at these markets before but we were able to get up and running there really quickly.”

For a time, Grubin says sales fell off a cliff but the company was able to weather the storm without letting anyone go.

“By design we were able to have a longer-term outlook, and when brands started to spend again, because we hadn’t let anyone go or stopped building the product, we were able to rebound.”

Sure enough, after an initial shock, it turned out that Covid encouraged a wave of new customers to use SoPost. “The shops were closed and no one was really buying magazines,” explains Grubin. “We’d had conversations with these brands before but they couldn’t get their heads around it. Now they love the service – they get so much data and insight but it took the pandemic to force them to try something new.”

The changes and innovations that responses to Covid have delivered will be reshaping business for years to come. In many cases this will mean more agile, robust organisations. “I think the good news is that we are much more in touch with our consumers, and overall we’ve enhanced our business as an operation,” explains Jenkins. “Our ways of working are smarter and we’re much more responsive to consumer demand – there’s a lot of positives that have come out of this dire situation.”

orange quote mark
By design we were able to have a longer-term outlook, and when brands started to spend again, because we hadn’t let anyone go or stopped building the product, we were able to rebound.”
Jonathan Grubin
SoPost

In a virtual world

How do you give your WFH workforce a sense of community? Arrange video meet-ups to talk about hobbies? Or ensure your culture is embodied by leaders at every touchpoint?

Maintaining company culture during a pandemic has been one of the toughest challenges for businesses across the country. Working from home has in many cases created a more productive workforce. But not having the ability to see each other and take part in face-to-face activities (even if it’s a pint in the pub after work) has meant teams feel disconnected and diffuse, and welcoming new team members with usual gusto is tricky.

Dundee-headquartered Waracle, one of the UK’s largest mobile app and digital product developers, has doubled staffing levels to 300 and brought on more than 115 new employees since January. Its CEO, Chris Martin, says one of his top priorities has been creating an inclusive company culture. “I spend a great deal of time considering how a company like ours, which has a positive culture, can create a new culture in this hybrid environment.”

Martin’s answer was to create a new culture platform, where people can gather digitally and meet. “I want people to connect with each other and share videos – I might make a video about how I love campervans and surfing. We’re even trying to set up a TV station at Waracle so you can tune in and catch up on what you’ve missed.”

For Josh Gill, the founder of water company Everflow, creating a powerful culture is about choosing people who lead by example. “The best part of running the company for me is creating jobs and hearing how satisfied our teams are,” Gill says. “To create a good culture, you’ve got to have good values. If leaders in our business aren’t displaying the right values, they aren’t right for us – they all have to model what it looks like to care for people and do the right thing for staff and customers.”

Having experienced working for other utility providers where teams were unhappy, Gill is determined to build something different. “In utilities, people spend a lot of time on the phone and it can become repetitive. We wanted to treat people well and make it fun.”