One of the benefits of being 57 is that I have lived through many crises.
I remember the Black Monday crash of ’87, which wiped trillions off the share prices of some of the world’s biggest companies. Back then, I was working in a bakery business in New York. We received a check from Bloomingdale’s – the iconic department store – and it bounced. It was for about $300. We framed it to remind ourselves that no one is too big to fail.
I remember the horrific outbreak of mad cow disease in the late eighties, when more than 4m cows were culled to try and contain the infection. Britain’s roads ground to a halt as they tried to stop it spreading from county to county. There have been other health scares since then, from swine flu to bird flu.
Then there was the dotcom crash of 2000. I was in a telematics business that was part owned by GE. The value of the company nosedived almost overnight. In 2008, the financial crisis sent many businesses to the wall. I was running Masternaut, my last venture, which I later sold to French airport group Airport De Paris. I owed the bank £6m at the time, and it called in part of the debt. I managed to reduce headcount and keep the business afloat, driving the business forward against the odds. It was a terrible time. People were losing their livelihoods, their homes, and their self-belief. There were many suicides.
Today, we are faced with another challenge: the outbreak of coronavirus. The spread of the disease is worrying, as is its impact on the elderly and those with respiratory problems. Like all the challenges that have come before, we must work together to get through this.
As business people, we must be in charge of our own destiny. We need to make contingency plans. We need to motivate our teams through this crisis. We need to sell remotely, work from home, and virtualise our operations.
At BigChange, we are fortunate to be in a strong position. We have no borrowings, and have a good cash reserves that can see us through the coming months, whatever happens to the economy. Even if the government closes schools and shops, there will still be a need for basic services, from plumbing to the maintenance of our roads. We will continue to be the platform of choice for these businesses. Engineers can avoid the office and deliver these crucial services through BigChange.
For those businesses in hard-hit sectors such as travel, entertainment and retail, the time has come to dig deep, innovate, and figure out a survival strategy. Some may introduce employee ownership if they cannot pay wages, others may trade shares for valuable supplies, or agree more flexible terms with customers that will now struggle to pay.
This is the time to work together, be kind, and give back to our partners, customers and colleagues. Coronavirus is likely to hit this country hard. We are getting involved in local initiatives to help the elderly and, through my work as a Northern board member of Business in the Community, I’m helping other companies to mobilise in partnership with welfare organisations. Instead of battening down the hatches, we need to open our hearts, and think of others.