Wendy Richards is a businesswoman who has enjoyed much success during her stint as managing director of The Nappy Lady Ltd. She first joined the nappy specialist and retailer in 2006, after 11 years working as a store manager with WH Smith Ltd. Since working her way up the corporate ladder of the company to become managing director in 2010, the business has secured multiple awards including being named the Best Independent Retailer at the Nursery Industry Awards in 2013. However, it would be the year 2020 that would bring about the greatest test of her tenure so far.
Like many businesses across the UK and wider world, The Nappy Lady was quickly forced to adapt to the unprecedented challenge of the Covid-19 pandemic. As factories across the world were forced to close or re-direct their supply lines toward the manufacture of PPE for frontline health workers, the business found its supply lines dwindling, and Wendy and her team had little alternative but to source different products and methods of bringing those products into the business premises. Furthermore, there was the small matter of how then to ensure her workers could continue to do their jobs safely.
Yet, it has been a challenge that Wendy and all at The Nappy Lady have taken in their stride, and in her own words, charting a course through troubled waters is simply part and parcel of a leader’s role.
Recollecting her experience of a tempestuous 2020 on The Leaders Council podcast, Wendy said: “In any context, a leader is there to inspire people and help them improve themselves, learn and ultimately you have to bring them with you on the journey you are on. So, when that journey takes you through tougher times, leaders must be adaptable and flexible, and we have had to show these qualities during Covid.
“Before the lockdown itself was called in the UK in March 2020, our sales actually sky-rocketed because there were a lot of parents out there with babies and young children at home who were finding themselves unable to buy disposable nappies from the shops because people were already panic-buying. So, we were doing well as more people started turning toward cloth nappy products like ours.”
Yet, this period of strong sales came only as temporary respite, with Wendy soon having to rethink how to get product supplies into the company.
“Once the lockdown happened, all our supply was cut-off because the factories were starting to close, so we had to grapple with the challenge of sourcing different products, and we had to look at different ways of advising our customers too. Normally, we would run product demo sessions in our warehouses but that had to stop because of social distancing, so we took to social media and spoke to live groups and tried new ways to take information to our customers, as well as exploring new methods of bringing stocks into our premises.”
However, Wendy believes that The Nappy Lady’s standing as a small business left her and her team in an advantageous position when it came to finding ways of overcoming the challenges the pandemic had thrust before them.
Wendy explained: “Because we are a small company, we are more flexible, and we have a closer relationship with those we work with. We spent a lot of time speaking directly via the phone and other mediums to our suppliers and discussed various things we could do to help each other, and this close relationship proved hugely helpful.”
As well as having to re-jig supply lines, working procedures within the business also needed to change almost overnight to comply with new social distancing rules.
Recalling how the firm sought to navigate the issue, Wendy said: “When the furlough scheme was brought in, we decided to furlough most of our packing team as a first step because there was not enough stock coming in and therefore not enough work for them. Added to that, it was not practical within our warehouse premises to get everybody to safely socially distance because it was so small.”
The safety issue prompted Wendy to take a gamble by bringing forward plans to take the business to a larger warehouse, and it was a move which paid off.
Wendy added: “I did not want to risk the safety of my staff, so we brought plans forward that we’d initially had to move the business to a bigger warehouse so that we could bring staff back in future once we managed to get more supplies in and as of June last year, we were able to start bringing members of the packing team back. All our administration team were transitioned to remote working to keep them safe, so we set up video conferencing functions which were entirely new to us. To accommodate these changes, we had to revamp our whole technology system, find a way of being able to process refunds differently, and change virtually every aspect of the business. But we have done it!”
To make a success of the vast changes within the business, Wendy emphasised that maintaining close relationships with her staff and keeping communication flowing from a distance was paramount.
“At the start, nobody really knew how bad this pandemic would be and instantly I was finding myself having to have conversations with people who were worried for their jobs amid declining supply lines and sales. I sought to keep everybody as calm and reassured as possible and after several weeks people found their new working patterns and bedded into them and were able to focus on their roles.
“We then had the furlough option which some could fall back on, and I have been closely working with my staff that have stayed on throughout on how to fulfil their working obligations.”
Paying tribute to her staff for their efforts throughout the crisis, Wendy continued: “It has been incredibly interesting to see how everyone on my team has reacted and coped with the changes and I am immensely proud of the adaptability they have shown. Everyone has managed it differently within their different backgrounds and circumstances and many have had to balance their work with managing children of their own at home, particularly in the early months of the crisis.”
Wendy also revealed that when it came to keeping the communication channels open, the company’s willingness to embrace technology was crucial.
“We have had to be flexible and extend our presence across numerous platforms to help keep in touch with everyone. We have not just used video conferencing platforms like Zoom and Teams, but also social networks like Facebook and WhatsApp. We have an array of options and we look at all possibilities with each of our team to help keep them informed. As a leader in these circumstances, you need to keep all avenues open.”
Indeed, in Wendy’s view, increased use of technology in the workplace and higher numbers of individuals working from home could be here to stay for the long-term in the UK business environment.
She said: “I do see remote working becoming more of a thing. Now we have seen it work, I can see more of our team carrying out their roles permanently from home. Through working this way, we have found ways of becoming even more efficient at what we do and cut out some of those needless processes that were slowing us down before.”
Despite having to navigate a vast array of challenges over 2020, Wendy remained determined not to lose sight of one of the key values she has always held at heart throughout her years in business: to give back to the community and help develop the business leaders of the future. It is a mission which Wendy has undertaken for several years, having closely followed the work of one of her idols aiming to accomplish similar goals in the entrepreneurial world.
“I closely follow the work of Sara Blakely, the owner of the Spanx company. She was a self-made success and 100 per cent owns her company like I do. She is not a businesswoman driven by profit, she formed her own foundation and gives back to the community as well as helping female entrepreneurs get off the ground.
“To help give back in our own way, we have our own charity which we raise money for through various projects and of course the sale of our products, and I like the idea of giving back to the community and the wider world around us.”
When two members of Wendy’s furloughed packaging team opted to volunteer in the community during the first lockdown in keeping with this philosophy, it left her overcome with a feeling of immense pride and humility.
“It was a lovely feeling when two members of my furloughed team went on to volunteer in their community during the first lockdown in keeping with our company values. Even though they were getting their wage through furlough, they were still looking to give something back. It is an ethos we will never lose sight of.”
Photo by Sandra Seitamaa on Unsplash