Born in Halifax, brought up in Hull, Rob Bell has worked in over 30 countries across the globe.
“I’ve worked in marketing and logistics across all sorts of industries: Retail from Japan to India, Europe to North America; Dairy worldwide; Leather in Europe, India and Zambia; port operations in the UK, the Middle East, Asia and Latin America; and now on-line marketplaces with all four corners of a much shrinking world.
Always, I come back to the North of England – I am fascinated and inspired by its roots, history AND its futures.
Let’s get down to brass tacks. I struggle with the phrase “post-industrial”. It is as if, in the North, it is all over. Nothing could be further from the truth. In March 2020, we produced 1 per cent of the PPE that we needed here in the UK. A couple of surges later, we now have the capacity to produce over 70 per cent of our needs. Then, there is the High Street – yes, it does feel like the Somme after day one. And yet, as the big supermarkets close their speciality meat, fish and delicatessen counters there is scope for others to “pop up” in revived markets or, sell on-line and deliver to the door.
There is no one solution fits all but, it is better to talk things through than to curl up and wait for a better yesterday. New normal? Are we ready for it or not?
For business, lockdown 1.0 was all about cash flow; 2.0 is more to do with “to be or not to be”.
Bleak stuff as we work from home and others run the gauntlet building, delivering and serving customers across the High Street or on site. Meanwhile, across TV, radio and social media the R factor per area takes on the aura of the weather report or the football results. Now we are talking Christmas and next up Brexit – a perfect storm.
Enough said. There are over 5 million firms, big and small, VAT registered and not across the UK. There are no miracles, just hard graft. In the next few weeks we’ll explore how best to survive, thrive and prosper in these choppy waters.
We’ll start with the ugly state-of-play. More a focus on what trends were already out there before the Covid accelerator and the sunny uplands, and form filling, of Brexit arrived. Online shopping, home deliveries, zoom, the uncertainties of imports and exports, the North South divide – they were all out there.
Let’s get started. In the coming weeks, there will be more talk on business challenges and features on specific ideas that you might want to try.
Remember the office – that converted warehouse with the exposed brickwork and zany colours across an open plan layout, ping pong table in the corner and the news on a 24/7 channel at reception.
The upmarket coffee machine wafting creative smells across all our routines. Or, were you cooped up in a pokey corner of a building that would make battery hens claustrophobic. Whatever.
Then, you were home alone – or with flat mates competing for table space and zoom call silences. Suddenly, everyone was invited to your soundtrack as walls of faces replaced the bare brickwork in the office. Amazon parcel arriving, a barking dog, kids on isolation from school, spring cleans before calls – all broke the routine.
A digital revolution had been quietly stirring and is now racing away. Jobs are really a set of tasks; some of these are best done in an office, others on site or from home.
AI and ML is picking up some of the routine and job descriptions are being rehashed to keep up.
There’s another way to see this. Firms can now be more flexible, reduce expensive London or metropolitan office space, hot desk for core business and training workshops, enable people to work from home or, in team pods where it suits.
Filing cabinets are long gone but, a tech stack of what software suits is now needed.
Then, there’s the business itself. Not got a budget and cash flow spreadsheet? You need one. If your business has this hard wired you are still not off the hook. Too many firms think accounting is what you do at the end of the year to minimise your taxes. All firms need to think revenues, costs and contribution every week of the year.
Then, we need to imagine future scenarios and answer the “what ifs?” – this is as much a skill as doing the job.
On revenues, are our prices competitive? Lots of businesses are sourcing services on-line at much reduced rates – are we aware of the impact that this can have on our business? What will happen to prices with Brexit?
On costs, have we checked prices and discounts available? Then, the details. Do we use on shelf packaging? What’s the point when online sales are delivered in a plain brown cardboard pouch? How many of your basic business assumptions are still standing?
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What about customers and suppliers? Who is still standing after the musical chairs of lockdowns? What is our core business? Do we have any machines, equipment or even staff that are under used? Before we trigger death of a thousand cuts on costs have we considered pivoting? For example, the gin still that pivoted their kit to make hand sanitiser. Does this strike a chord?
Brexit became tribal; remoan or looking forward to the sunny uplands. We are where we are and all need to defend what we have and grow business fast. For generations across the UK, Europe and North America manufacturers have been told that it is cheaper offshore. Not anymore. Think of the cash you tie up on products made in China as container ships slow down because of emissions.
Go local. Across the UK High Streets are struggling to compete with online buying but, it is tough to create the vibe, buzz and authentic experience of a shop or marketplace.
Many supermarket chains are closing their fresh meat, fish and delicatessen counters – difficult to find the skills and too much waste. This is an opportunity for speciality stores (and restaurants) to build back better – even with home delivery.
Reshoring manufacturing is happening. In March 2020, the UK made 1 per cent of its PPE needs. Today, a surge or two later, the UK has the capacity to make 75 per cent of the requirements. Manufacturing back in the UK will transform whole markets, regions, firms and the need for skilled labour to make this all happen. Can your firm benefit?
Only 10 per cent of UK firms export and a further 15 per cent do so as part of global supply chains. Things are changing and opening up – online marketplaces can help.
Clearly, overseas trade missions and exhibitions are all on hold but this doesn’t mean that export has to stop.
These days supply chains compete, rarely companies on their own. This means opportunities can open up with places like Canada. They speak the language and there is a trade treaty in place. We could reshore the bolt and they could make the washer – it may seem obvious but reshoring can still mean collaborating with others overseas.
Here’s a thought. Much of global growth is taking place in developing countries where their middle classes – with the cash to spend – are growing fast. Have we got the products that will appeal? What about Indonesia; destined to be seventh biggest economy by 2050.
And then, there are the big issues out there; net zero, water and health. These are the drivers of the global economy up to 2050. Every product responds to a need – or has no market. Now, we have to filter these needs through these challenges. Are we using plastic; can we see options in natural polymers? Are we using embedded water – a hamburger costs 2400 litres. Vaccination matters not just the vaccine. Do we have the glass vials, packaging, nested pallets or the transport to go the last mile? What percentage is of our business is new every year? Is our online presence growing? Can we export on line?
Next up. Let’s look at every firms short, medium and long term agenda.