Planning and managing your business through the covid-19 crisis...OUR STORY!
BUSINESS CONTINUITY PLANNING & MANAGING A BUSINESS THROUGH A CRISIS
Perhaps if you have previously had to manage a business through a crisis you may have been better prepared for the current Covid-19 crisis. Previous crisis that I have experienced include the recession of the early 1990’s, 9-11, the first Dot Com crash, Foot & Mouth outbreak. The difference between previous crisis and the present one is that those previous ones were locally or industry specific infectious but were not contagious across the entire globe as is the present crisis. The other difference is how much more globally connected we are now via supply chains & logistics & mass tourism than was previously the case. This has largely been enabled by technology for travel (uber; low cost airlines; Airbnb; Booking.com) and the click and deliver consumption of cheap goods (Amazon).
So, were you prepared? Did you have a documented Business Continuity Plan (BCP) in place that had been reviewed & agreed by your executive and management teams? Were your staff aware of your BCP, and if not, when were you going to share that good news with them?
We run a multi-site fuel retail business and we too, did not have a BCP in place to cover a pandemic crisis until February 2020. It was in the lead up to, and during, our Period 10 business performance reviews in February that I had the uncomfortable feeling that we were not fully prepared as a business for what was coming, and to paraphrase that old saying, by failing to prepare properly we were preparing our Managers to fail. The spread of the virus was accelerating and there was still only limited testing for the virus being carried out.
DOMESTIC CONTINUITY PLANNING
Funnily enough, our BCP was triggered, and partly informed by our domestic plans, as my wife (our MD) and I were scheduled to fly to India for a double family wedding at the end of March. Our two daughters were between them, going on a University field trip, flying to France for a French Exchange visit & Easter Rowing Camps & attending GB rowing trials between the end of March & mid-April. Furthermore, our younger daughter is a kidney transplant patient, having had one of my kidneys when she was 2 years old, so she is in the “at high risk group”. We had to prepare and put in place, Domestic Continuity Plans (DCP) for medicines, communication plans with teachers and coaches, transport to & from the airports in our absence and what we would need to do if we became stranded in India if the crisis really took hold. We changed our domestic plans in response to the developing crisis, so only one of us would fly to India to ensure that our girls had one of us here with them. Because of my daughter’s congenital health issue, we had been contingency planning in the form of DCPs for the past 15 years, to accommodate the management of our businesses, family trips and holidays, residential school trips, serious illness that had required lengthy stays in hospital, as well as regular hospital check-ups. Did we have an equivalent and appropriate plan for the covid-19 crisis for our business? Not really!
IT’S GOOD TO SHARE!
It was during their Period 10 business performance reviews in February, that I informed each of our Site Managers and our senior management team that we needed to prepare an up to date BCP. I arranged to meet, or where that was not possible, to have a conference call with, the key partners in our supply chain. In our industry, this is the fuel partner, fuel logistics partner and shop supply partner. I asked our partners to share with us their Business Continuity Plan in the event of widespread infection as a result of Covid-19. Disappointingly, one of our partners only referred us to a standard generic statement relating to Covid-19 on their ordering hub.
I put together a 6-scenario list, with likely impacts on supply chain for each scenario based on the responses that were received from our supply chain partners. Then as a management team we collectively added mitigating and risk management steps and actions against each listed scenario.
To the 6-scenario plan we added a Communication & HR plan. Once this was agreed, we published the summary of our plan as a pdf document under document version control, and issued it to our Site Managers, along with any relevant Covid-19 guidelines from the government website and document templates drafted for us by our excellent HR partner (outsourced on a Pay as You Use basis).
I then shared the pdf summary of our BCP with our staff, Nat West, auditors, insurance brokers and our supply chain partners by the end of February. I also modelled 3 high level cash flow projections based on business volume reduction assumptions of 25%, 50% and 75% for the management team.
We had gone from not having a BCP in place for a covid-19 type pandemic, to having a 6-scenario plan with HR and communications pan plus a set of high level cash flow projections under 3 different scenarios, shared with our key stakeholders within the space of 15 days.
So, we now had in place a BCP for covid-19 in addition to our Health & Safety, Environmental Impact, Cybersecurity, IT Systems and Power Failure contingency plans. We were better prepared!
FLEXIBILTY IS THE KEY
As we entered and went through March 2020, events began to move very rapidly. We had to abort our travel plans for India as the Indian government banned all travel to the country for non-Indian citizens until 14 April and the airlines started to cancel flights – we would miss the weddings anyway! The Chancellor announced a £330bn package of support for the economy, after having announced a package of c£30bn only a week or so earlier. We were witnessing at first-hand, an extraordinary situation developing across the globe as the covid-19 was finally declared a pandemic by the World Health Organisation.
We withdrew our youngest from school to shield her from the risk of infection and she continued her schoolwork at home as the school emailed her lessons.
Then….toilet rolls started to fly off the shelves as the government insisted that it did not need to impose a shutdown of schools or a country wide lock down…..and then announced that schools would be closed and finally, that that a lock down of all but essential services and businesses was being imposed. For nearly a whole day afterwards, it was unclear if Petrol Forecourts were being classed as essential businesses. The government finally published its expanded list of essential businesses and there they were, Petrol Forecourt Stations were on the list, so we were not going to close the sites!
ORDER TO CHAOS
The announcement of a lock down meant that the whole country was going to be trying to navigate through uncharted waters, and we were determined that we would do so successfully. We carry the responsibility for the livelihoods of some 90 staff as well as for the safeguarding of the assets and protecting the enterprise value of the business for our stakeholders.
Our documented BCP contained 3 key elements:
3. Clear Communication
Our business, and stakeholders needed to be able to rely on us as the directors to show strong leadership and it was important that no matter how we actually felt, we had to transmit a sense of calm to our management team and to our staff.
The HR documents to support our staff went through several iterations following various announcements from the government. The Managers were provided with a smartsheet that helped them to risk manage their site staff based on previous known medical history or underlying conditions. Our focus was to keep our staff safe, and to maintain the viability of each of our sites.
All staff identified as at high risk were asked to self-isolate whilst some members of staff approached us directly to inform us that they needed to go into shielding to protect a family member, something we understood only too clearly from our own DCP!
Early on, we communicated changes to the granting of annual leave and other HR processes as well as copies of the various Covid-19 guidelines published by the government. We purchased & installed acetate till screens to protect our cashiers; put markings on the floor of the shops to maintain social distancing; introduced restrictions on the number of customers allowed into the shops at any time; displayed prominent hygiene and social distancing warnings and made tissues available to customers who were showing symptoms of a cold or flu such as coughing and sneezing; put up signs requesting customers to pay by contactless or card payment where possible; and provided trays to use for those customers still paying by cash.
Allied to the above, we put in place strict hygiene rules, including the provision of protective masks and gloves to our staff, regular disinfection of door handles and surfaces as well as providing protective gloves and encouraging all customers to use them when using the fuel pumps.
We protected our finance team by ensuring that they were equipped with the necessary technology to work from home and changed the business protocols and processes further by accepting scanned copies of all site invoices and reports into Head Office.
Finally, with a March year end, I proposed a change to the year end stock take process (just recently agreed with our auditors) to avoid their physical attendance at site to safeguard theirs and our own staff, which was signed off by the audit partner.
On the morning after the announcement of the lockdown by the UK PM, we produced a detailed 16-week daily cash flow forecast for 2 scenarios:
· 25% reduction in volume
· 50% reduction in volume
We shared our 50% reduction scenario with Steven Foley, our Relationship Director at Nat West – it identified an urgent need for a significant extension to our existing funding lines. Nat West too, were responding in real time to the unfolding crisis and there were no clear guidelines in place for them to process very quickly, funding support necessary for otherwise viable businesses.
It was unclear at this stage, if our business qualified for support under the government’s Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme (CBILS). I agreed with Steven Foley, that what was critical was to put in place funding lines, and what these were called and under what scheme we might or might not qualify was not initially important. It was also helpful at this stage to have already previously shared our BCP with the bank as Steven was able to ask me in which scenario, I thought we were operating in. The truth was it was a combination of scenarios 2 to 4 – real life is rarely as simple as an excel model of it!!
I also approached our fuel partner, Jet (Philips 66) with a proposal to defer the direct debits for the next 8 days. In my view, this was critical in giving Nat West breathing room to process the extension of our funding lines without the panic of assessing the daily position against our existing facility limits. This proposal has since been agreed by Phillips 66 in the USA.
In the first 2 days following the announcement of the lockdown, our sites traded on a 25% reduction in volume, but by the 3rd day, this fell further to 50% reduction in volume and at the time of writing, our volumes have been maintained at this level which is in line with the cash flow forecast shared with Nat West.
Adjustments to inventory ordering and management have been put in place to manage working capital as efficiently as possible under the changed economic circumstances.
Most of our in-store bakeries have been closed due to a fall in demand for hot sandwiches, and a switch to brought-in sandwiches and bakery products made. The bakery staff have been re-deployed to the main shop counters or re-stocking of shelves.
The business already had in place a weekly Operations call on Mondays between our Operations Manager and the Site Managers in which month to date and projected full month volumes against forecast were reported and any gaps to forecast were discussed, along with merchandising, procurement, staff and other issues. This weekly call was upgraded to an Operations and BCP management call so that we were able to communicate directly and regularly with the sites on the rapidly changing trading environment, as well supporting our Operations Manager so that he did not feel overwhelmed.
We had planned a trial of our business communication cascade process for Tuesday 24th March, but following the announcement of the lock down on the evening before, the trial was upgraded to a real communication and we were all delighted that the communication cascade process worked really well.
Once the lock down was announced, we added a second weekly call on Fridays to cover both ends of the week, as well as setting up a BCP WhatsApp group. The latter has also helped to share moments of humour with each other in amongst the hard work. All unnecessary work related travel was ceased, meaning that the directors are now based in the South East of England for the foreseeable future whilst the business and its staff are based in the North East of the country. The physical distance has in many ways helped the directors to focus on the big-ticket issues and not get distracted by too much operational detail, which is being left to our very capable staff.
I communicated clearly to our Site Managers in our first Friday call that we had an assurance of ongoing support from Nat West to shore up our managers’ confidence in our business continuity, as they were seeing at first-hand, the reduction in volumes and cash receipts.
Our Site Managers already had delegated authority to place orders for replacement stock, adjust pricing policy to achieve at least minimum set margins to maximise footfall and margin, all wrapped together with full P&L and a large amount of HR responsibility for their sites. With the shortages in the supply chain, the sites were instructed to reduce their product ranges, and to focus on ordering available products that could be sold on quickly. They have also been given additional authority to temporarily extend their grocery ranges as customers avoid the longer journeys to large supermarkets.
Fuel wet stocks are being carefully managed so that stock from all tanks is being used before replacement fuel delivery orders are authorised. This means that some pumps are capped off to encourage customers to dispense fuel from pumps connected to tanks that still contain fuel stock but which ordinarily would be slow moving.
We have adjusted our fuel price to attract & maintain the surviving footfall and are liaising with several local councils to offer a home delivery service for the highly vulnerable and high-risk customers via volunteers registered and DBS vetted by the authorities. We have also put in place a service to NHS staff to phone their orders through and pay by card, then collect their pre-packed orders on their way home from their shifts as most of our sites are 24-hour sites.
…is always uncertain, but you can help to safeguard it for your business, your staff, your supply chain and your communities by early and effective planning, sharing and clearly communicating your plan with key stakeholders, developing and maintaining strong, open communication with your lender in normal times to avoid surprises and sharing of potential or actual problems and how you plan to address these with them. The investment that you will make by developing a strong and open relationship with your lender in normal times will pay you back when you need to lean on them in more unusual, and perhaps even, the extraordinary times twe are currently experiencing. Above all, treat your staff well, invest in them in normal times and support them and encourage them to reach higher and further than they thought they could manage and you will reap the benefits of them rising to the challenges that an uncertain future may throw at them.
Finally, we know that we have yet to prepare our Business Recovery Plan (BRP)….but we will, very soon!
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