How to transform a company in a time of crisis?

May 12, 2020


Europe saw it coming, and waited. With Coronavirus (COVID19), business was just too slow to join the dots. It’s true, of course, that some wise folk foresaw global shutdown but many, possibly most, were in denial. When planes stopped flying, when sports stopped, when conference after conference was cancelled, the reaction was shock.


For many businesses, the choice was simple: stop, mothball and hope things would be OK, or transform. And transform quickly. Against the odds, that’s what we have managed to do and that’s what I want to share.


I’d like to say it was easy and obvious, but of course it wasn’t. Our success was based on previous successes, and on plenty of previous near misses. Crucially, it was based on our understanding that we could put all of that to good use. In three weeks we transformed our business. Over two months we doubled sales over the same period in the previous year. We did it by re-purposing our business. You can do it too. Here’s how.


Take Stock


I mean this literally. If you have warehouse full of goods, sell them if you can. If not, they need another destination. Find out who could use them and give them away via a charity – it’s far better than having them sit there. You’ll be helping someone else. It’s a big step, but you may need the warehouse space soon. Then move on.


Take stock of resources, include cash reserves. You’re going to need to dig deep. And finally take stock of your human capital. It will be much greater than you imagined. Get everyone thinking and show the respect of listening to other people’s ideas. This is not only good sense; it will create another priceless asset, loyalty.


Establish the risks


You’re dealing with risks: some small, some very, very big. Get to understand them properly. Make sure your team understands the risks too. You’re looking for the risks which are known and controllable, while doing everything you can to avoid risks that you may not even know about yet. (You need to think about what those might be too, though.)


The aim is to stay in control, so you need all the accurate and up to date information you can get. Meanwhile, you are already working on the key part of the plan: identifying the products you can create to sell instead of the old ones. Think back to those projects which never got started. Most will be duds, but there will be several that really were great. To minimise your risk, do some good quality, speedy research. Sound out your clients and anyone else you respect. Listen to what they say and use it to inform (not necessarily make) your decision as to which route to follow.



Re-purpose at scale, quickly


This is key. A big problem will not be solved by a small response. Take your new products seriously and put all your resources into making sure they are really well made, attractively packaged and intelligently marketed. If your new product already exists, do it better than everyone else. Do everything well and keep reminding your clients, old and new, what great products are coming their way.


Enlist their support to get more people interested. Back at home do whatever it takes to make your new product in enough quantity to fulfil your promises. This can be expensive – we repurposed production lines and invested in new factory space – but it’s necessary to build momentum. If you need new skills, bring in new staff. Dedicate resources and secure supply chains. Don’t (like I once did) put all your hopes on one single product. Innovate and keep innovating. Keep bringing new products to market – for about two weeks, we did it nearly daily.


Be honest and transparent


Be honest. The livelihood of your employees is at risk, just like yours. You owe it to them to be transparent. For successful transformation, an incredible team effort is required of everyone. Explain what’s happening and keep everyone on board. Keep on insisting on accurate information – use it to direct your choices. For example, adapt your new product range if a raw material is in short supply. Listen to feedback. Acknowledge, and use, good ideas.


Be passionate and be human – and very determined


You won’t get this done unless you’re passionate about the new direction you’ve taken. With passion comes sacrifice – you’ll be short of sleep and have no leisure – but make it clear it’s worth it. This is not about boasting. It’s about being committed and determined because you’ll need to be. If you get it right, your team will be with you. The very hardest part may be relatively short lived, so it is manageable. 

Think in several dimensions


I’m writing this as a list but really it happens in parallel. While you’re thinking through details of this week and next, you are also thinking about the changing markets months ahead. You’re working out how to sustain this acceleration and turn it into long term growth. It takes effort to do this and it’s intense - it’s two month’s work in 2 or 3 weeks.


So, what about us?


Our core business is promotional clothing and socks with creative packaging; currently not with a large market, although it will come back. So now we also have a versatile range of hygiene packs including sanitizer gel – things people really want – which are best quality at super competitive prices. All independently quality assured products made in the EU.


Six weeks after we stared fear in the face, we have more staff and more production lines than ever before. We also managed to donate a lot of hygiene products and sanitizer gels for hospitals in need. Our market share has more than doubled. In a month’s time we’ll have a warehouse five times bigger than the one we have now - and we still make great socks!


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