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Back From The Brink: How To Recover From Disaster

Covid-19 may have proven disastrous for your business, as it has for many others. And getting up and running again may seem like an impossible challenge. But coming back from the brink is possible, even in the most extreme cases.

It’s a day that Karl Mason, co-founder and director of Masons Dry Yorkshire Gin, will never forget. On 2 April 2019, the day began like most others, but would end like none before. “About 8am I was getting ready to have a shower before heading off to work,” he recalls.

“An employee phoned to say our premises were on fire and it was big. It came as a shock. My wife Cathy [Masons co-founder and director] and I jumped in the car and headed off to the distillery, in Aiskew, near Bedale [North Yorkshire], about a mile from our home.”

 

Worst nightmare 

As they drove down the hill, in the distance the Masons could see a huge smoke cloud billowing up into the sky. Karl adds: “We were both a bit numb, wondering what we’d be faced with on arrival.” What greeted the Masons was every business owner’s worst nightmare. Fire had engulfed their premises, from which they had operated since 2017 (the business was set up in 2013). Fire crews were busy trying to curtail the blaze.

“Eight staff had been on site, but thankfully they’d escaped and no one was injured. That was the most important thing,” Karl stresses. “They were in shock, having had to run out of the burning building, there was no time to collect their personal belongings or car keys. 

“But we lost everything in the fire – about £300k worth of stock, the same in equipment and premises damage. The distillery was completely destroyed and the stills ruined. Everything we’d worked so hard to build had gone up in flames in a few hours.”

 

Rising from the ashes

Early the next day, staff assembled at the Masons’ home. “Someone brought a white board and we sat around our dining room table, others sat on the floor, because we didn’t have enough seats, and we created a plan,” Karl remembers. 

“We knew temporary offices in town were available, so we rang them. And we knew of distilleries that weren’t at capacity, so we could rent those and produce stock. It was a real time of staff coming together and just getting on with it.”

The Masons never once believed that their business wouldn’t survive. “A company’s only as good as its people and we just had amazing team spirit – full credit to everyone. And although it was a big blow, we never considered giving up. Why? It was our business; our livelihood; what our team were employed to do and what we all took pride in.”

 

 

High spirits

Karl describes himself and his wife as naturally resilient people. Neither allowed their emotions to affect them (later on it hit them more, he concedes). But their immediate focus was simply to start again, which gave them a new goal. 

“The support we received from local people and other businesses helped keep our spirits high,” Karl says. “It made us feel proud and humbled. And no one lost their job – we’re very proud of that. Our team pulled together and just kept going, often under difficult conditions.”

In March 2020, Masons moved into a brand new, purpose-build distillery in nearby Leeming Bar. Then came the Covid-19 lockdown, about which Karl seems philosophical. “It almost felt like we were already prepared for it – it was just like an extension of last year’s hardships.”

So, what advice does Karl offer to small firms trying to rebuild following the lockdown? “Never give up,” he replies. “And you and your staff together must stick together through the highs and lows. Don’t worry if you don’t have a detailed plan. If you have a good team, you’ll get through it,” he smiles.

 

Disaster recovery

Father and son Vernon and Aaron Page own and run The Barber Shop Shrewsbury. It is located in the centre of town, close to the River Severn. In February 2020, parts of Shrewsbury had to be evacuated, following some of the worst flooding for years.

“We had to close early on the Monday, because the river had risen so much,” Vernon recollects. “Later that night, the shop floor was under eight inches of water, but on the Tuesday night, we were able to clean up the silt, brush and mop the floor. We cleaned and dried things on the Wednesday, and I fixed the phone and electric sockets. I’m quite a practical person,” he reveals.

 

The Pages Barber Shop

 

The Pages opened up and traded for three days, before the river rose much higher on the Sunday night, breaching defences and leaving the barber shop floor under two and a half feet of water for three days. “The clean up process was even more arduous. The smell was really bad,” Vernon confesses.

 

Upbeat and resilient

“Some customers offered to help, which was really heart-warming. We lost a week’s earnings and our reception desk and one of our chairs was ruined. A few thousand pounds worth of damage was done, but we received a local council flood grant, which helped us. It was tough, but we were back up and running pretty quickly.”

Vernon describes himself as naturally “quite upbeat and resilient”, but hit a low point one day, while waiting for the second flood to subside. “I went down to try to get into the shop, but it was impossible. Walking back to the car, it hit me and I broke down,” he reveals. “I’m not normally like that, but I was sobbing like a child and passers by asked me whether I was OK.”

 

Floodwater damage

 

Vernon has a massive emotional attachment to his business, he says. “Originally, I found the shop; I ripped it all out; I laid floors; plumbed it; rewired it; decorated it – everything. It took me two months. The shop’s a big part of me. I’ve worked very hard to build it up. We love what we do, and we’re loyal to our customers, most of whom I regard as friends. 

“Although I was down, I wasn’t out. Then, not long after reopening the shop in March, the Covid-19 lockdown came; the government grants have really helped, thankfully we can open again soon. Business and life brings knocks your way at time; you just have to deal with them and pick yourself up again. It’s been a tough year, but what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. I firmly believe that,” he concludes. 

 


 

So, what are the key tasks you need to take to pull your business back from the brink after Covid-19?

  • Initiate a business survival strategy, answering three key points:
    • How bad is is the situation?
    • What is the solution to your immediate cash flow situation? 
    • How can you address the basic issues that caused the situation and prevent it happening again?
  • Get expert advice. Speak to your accountant or, alternatively, seek support through your local Growth Hub. The government also has a Business Support Hotline.
  • Find ways to cut costs. What are your biggest overheads and can they be reduced? It’s worth speaking to suppliers to negotiate on prices or failing that looking elsewhere. Also, think about where you can be more efficient. Every pound you spend unnecessarily will hinder your chance of survival, so assess all of your costs in all areas, and identify and eliminate all waste.
  • Tighten up credit control. Ensure you have proper processes that will minimise late payment and bad debts and improve your cash flow management. 
  • Increase prices. Even a small increase can make a big difference. 
  • Boost sales to existing customers. Those people who’ve bought from you before and enjoyed a positive experience will be more likely to come back to you – and may be sympathetic to supporting your business. 

Don’t forget too, that there is a wide range of Covid-19 support available to struggling businesses. These range from the government’s Bounce Back Loan scheme to the option of deferring Income Tax and VAT payments until later in the year. However, be mindful not to ‘kick the can down the road’ as these schemes will not last forever. 

 

For further support, read our guide: How to survive when a business gets into trouble

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Mark Williams

Mark Williams is an editorial consultant, freelance content writer, business journalist and editor. For 15 years, he has specialised in writing content for and about UK SMEs.

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