Surviving the Pandemic: How to Trade out of Trouble

Covid Anniversary Blog

The Sewing Rooms is a social enterprise that uses sewing skills to improve the resilience, health and employability of some of our community’s most vulnerable people.

At the end of 2019, we were celebrating our move to new premises and the many opportunities for expansion that came along with having a larger space in which to work.

To help fund our lease and the hire of several additional employees, we had taken out a social investment loan and were just hitting our stride, having won several national manufacturing contracts, when COVID-19 appeared on the horizon.

Watching in horror as the virus got closer and closer to home, which for us is Skelmersdale, in Lancashire, we were filled with uncertainty, fear and sadness. What was going to happen to our newly refurbished manufacturing department? What about our entire business? What about the community we serve?

By mid-March 2020, we were staring into the abyss. Our entire commercial manufacturing business had screeched to a halt. We had no income. With everyone’s lives on pause for an indefinite period of time, we had to make the painful decision to furlough our employees.

Reacting to the emergency helped keep the panic from overwhelming us. As always, social impact remained the purpose of our business. As soon as we heard of the shortage of PPE for healthcare workers, we knew what we had to do.

In just one month, we galvanised 60 volunteers, secured a grant from the Big Lottery and started making masks. We were able to support volunteers working in their homes by giving sewing machines to people that didn’t have one and organising a steady stream of drop offs and pick-ups of packages of fabric, completed masks and any essentials we felt our volunteers might need.

All the while we were making masks, my mind was racing. How could we ethically and sustainably trade out of this emergency? When we made branded masks for Peel Ports, I saw the opportunity.

With commissions for masks from organisations including Wyre Council, West Lancashire Council, All About Food, One Manchester and Age Concern, we were able to bring our furloughed staff back to work on 1st May. Thank goodness for our huge new work space! We turned each office into an individual work station, allowing each staff member to work on a single sewing machine and in necessary isolation. To date, we have made 70,000 masks, donating 35,000 of those to key workers and the most vulnerable.

Start-ups often use the word nimble to describe their development process. I think it better describes the social enterprise way of working. We constantly adapt to changing community and business needs and often at speed. I think that is part of the reason for our success in pivoting our business so quickly yet still sustainably.

Now, as the number of people who have been vaccinated rises, we’re very tentatively starting to think about what parts of our pre-pandemic business to restart. We have our work cut out for us – both figuratively and factually – but we survived! Now it’s time to look to the future.

Paula Gamester, co-founder of The Sewing Rooms CIC. Watch Paula speak about the journey that brought her to social entrepreneurialism and the insights she developed along the way.

Temporary or Fixed? Changing Business Models in a Global Pandemic

From lack of hand sanitiser to toilet paper, cargo stuck in ports, crops unpicked in fields and a work force relocated to their homes; organisations and consumers are adopting new approaches to deal with these shortages. With amazing flexibility and agility some firms have shifted their business models, invested in people and processes, explored new markets and created new products, whilst others appear to be lost and floundering.

Some firms have found that the key components and products they might need are just not available. This might be because their suppliers are temporarily/permanently shut down, transportation issues, or there just isn’t enough stock to meet demand. How are they managing these challenges?

Going local? This might mean (re)localising their sourcing (either regional or national) even when the costs are higher. A key question would be what happens to the ‘new’ suppliers when the break in the supply chain is repaired? Will firms stay loyal to those that helped them out?

Ramping up production. We see flour mills and toilet paper manufacturers etc all maxing out their production lines. Investments in short term ramp up will need to be repaid, and major alternations need to be worth the investment on a long-term basis. Flour mills and loo roll manufacturers are cleaning up right now (some literally) – but what about tomorrow?

New sources of supply. Across the UK firms are reimagining their business models to meet this demand. In Scotland the Wee Farm Distillery has switched production from Gin to hand sanitiser. You can even have the refill bottle posted out – just be careful as it comes in an ex-Gin bottle! Will this become a permanent side-line, or just an opportunistic diversion?

Extending business models. Other firms are being creative in switching their delivery modes and customer base. Wholesalers like Delifresh have moved from supplying cafes and hotels to household delivery. New items get added almost daily to their inventory. Will this investment pay off in a new customer base post this crisis? Even the big supermarkets have reimagined and invested with Morrisons quickly scaling out (with some teething issues) a click-and-collect service. Can these firms use these opportunities to take this market share long term?

Investing in stockpiles. We may see firms increase their inventory. Opposite to a just-in-time approach this will include costs – for storage facilities, monitoring and the cost of these stockpiled assets. Organisations need to be able to absorb these costs and to manage those inventories which might have expiry dates -like personal protective equipment. Longer term, will shareholders agree to absorb these costs? 

Ultimately sourcing will be a balance between risk, costs and convenience. An article in the Journal of Psychology says it takes an average 66 days to form a habit – from the first day of lockdown that’s the 27th May. So I wonder how many of these changes become permanent?

Professor Diane Holt, University of Leeds, Centre for Enterprise and Entrepreneurship Studies and contributor to the ISR/Edge Hill Business School Research Training series.

Photo by frank mckenna on Unsplash