Joe Hasan, MD of Croydon-based distributor, Catersales, reflects on industry capacity vastly reducing but demand conversely rapidly increasing, following lockdown:
I am sure everyone would agree that the last 17 months have been a rollercoaster ride. When Boris Johnson announced the lockdown it was like a bolt of lightning, all of a sudden we went from a full order book to a mass exodus of enquiries and prospects.
Having been in business for more than 35 years I have seen recessions due to war, financial crisis and political mismanagement but in each of these cases, like all my business contemporaries, our natural response has been ‘that’s life, we just have to work that much harder to maintain the status quo’. But there was always business to be had even if you had to work harder for it. The seismic shock at lockdown was that everyone just withdrew from investing and starting new businesses. Even the clients who were committed and could not cancel their orders put a hold on all works.
After 6 months of idleness I ventured back to work, and to my surprise, discovered that the phones soon started to ring again. This is human nature, sooner or later you have to put your plans into action, whatever the consequences. Now this is where it gets interesting: our weak and poorly competitors succumbed to the commercial rules of survival of the fittest. So industry capacity had gone down but at the same time demand had suddenly gone up. I am not talking about a 10% or 20% increase, here it jumped by 100%. So much so that we were struggling to respond to all the enquiries coming in.
Under any other circumstances that would be a great opportunity, but this is where the big ‘B’ word reared its ugly head. Weather you voted for Brexit or not, its consequences are here and we have to make the best of it. So the last 6 months have been both encouraging and frustrating in equal amounts. We have had more orders than ever and we are struggling to fulfil them due to import delays, lack of drivers, staff in quarantine and more documentation delays. In spite of all of this, it seemed our customers were still willing to wait and put up with the delays and inconvenience.
It’s a very odd situation to be in, it seems as though almost every quotation we put out results in an order. We would love to be able to take on all the work, however we have now discovered that there is a lack of suitable employees out there. We cover the whole spectrum of works for the industry so we employ building site tradesmen, apparently a rare breed now. They all seem to be rushed off their feet.
We fabricate bespoke counters in our workshops, which has been a 10 year development project and thank god for that as we do not have to import those items. But you can’t find experienced workshop craftsmen any more. The only area of recruitment that seems to still have candidates seems to be in the creative arts of interior design. So while there is plenty of business out there, it is impossible to expand quick enough to take advantage of it.
We have launched our island nation into the turbulent waters of worldwide free trade in the hope that the captain can see the trading nirvana over the horizon and guide us there, while we are in the boiler room madly stocking the fires. It will be a long journey and I for one have no idea how it will end, but like all business owners I am blessed or cursed with an overactive optimistic gene embedded in my brain.