Covid-19 brings harsh challenges but also positives for Warings Furniture

Published by Rhys Taylor-Brown on January 22nd 2022, 1:01pm

For decades, furniture manufacturer Warings Furniture in Norfolk has been the preferred supplier of interior and exterior furniture to leading hospitality groups in the UK and internationally. Primarily focussed on providing furniture for hospitality such as high-street dining businesses, hotels, pubs and cafes, the first UK Covid lockdown back in March 2020 saw Warings’ income streams dry up overnight. Sitting down on the Leaders Council Podcast, joint managing director Rachael Waring shared the company’s pandemic story and revealed how this challenge was overcome, and what positives have come from the experience of navigating such an unprecedented crisis.

In a candid discussion with podcast host, Scott Challinor, Rachael told of how prime minister Boris Johnson’s historic announcement that from March 24 the UK would enter lockdown to curb the spread of Covid-19 came as a moment she would never forget and would have ramifications that sent shockwaves through her business.

“Covid was horrific and none of us will ever forget that announcement that would bring about an off-the-cliff catastrophe for our turnover. With hospitality closing our telephones just did not ring, so we furloughed every single member of staff on the morning of March 24 when the lockdown entered force, excluding Graham Waring and I since we are joint managing directors.

“It was a surreal moment as we were left looking at each other with the phones dead thinking ‘what the heck is this all about?’ and ‘what do we do?’. In February 2020, our turnover stood at £1.2 million for the month and then by the beginning of April, we found that we had turned over just £60,000 for the month. That drop-off in income was catastrophic.”

Rachael went on to share her dismay at a gap in UK government support for businesses such as hers that worked in the supply chain. While hospitality businesses had been helped with grants, business rate holidays and reductions and an emergency cut in VAT, Rachael explained that these measures were not reciprocated for those supplying such companies.

“I am really pleased that our clients could access this support but there was nothing for the supply chain. The likes of us, the food providers, and drink providers, cleaning chemical providers…all those that supply to hospitality were left high and dry and it became very, very difficult for us.”

Reflecting on how Warings Furniture was able to navigate this immense challenge, Rachael looked back with pride on how her business managed to survive with what support was available.

“I have to say we are really proud of how we managed the situation and approached it. It was a dramatic loss of income for us, so from the first day we looked to take advantage of every single mortgage holiday and finance break that we were eligible for. We needed to keep the cash we had in the bank within the business and get all the rates holidays that we could.

“We cut back wherever we could. We took our vehicles off the road and saved on insurance and fuel costs for those, and I even cancelled our milkman subscription for a year-long period. Every single penny we could save in the business and in our personal lives, we looked to save. This actually turned into quite a cathartic exercise because when you have been operating so long, various things creep up on you in the shape of monthly subscriptions that you realise you don’t really need. We were now forced to go through it all with a fine-tooth comb to minimise outgoings as much as we possibly could.”

Unfortunately, balancing the books came as an unwanted milestone for the business as it was forced to carry out the first redundancy programme of its history.

Rachael said: “We did have to go through a redundancy programme which we had never done in our entire 30-odd-year history. So, this was a new process to us that we had to look into and it was new and quite sad ground for us to have to let go of good people. We kept all our skilled staff on board in anticipation of the bounce back when the economy eventually reopened, and now we’re starting to grow again which is where we are now. We are still building back to pre-Covid turnover levels but profitability is good because we offloaded all the expenses we did.”

Although the company has ridden out of the storm and is now in a position to expand again, Rachael revealed that the whole experience of managing through the peak of the pandemic’s various waves has made her think closely on how the business manages its processes and grows in future.

“Before Covid, we ran seven-and-a-half-tonne trucks in our fleet, and you have to have an operating licence for each and you have to have these vehicles serviced every few weeks. We got to the point where we had one employee that purely managed our vehicle fleet. So we got rid of the contract for these large vehicles and we operated with our small three-and-a-half-tonne truck which was easier to manage and less expensive. Because we might have only done one delivery per fortnight in the first month or two of lockdown, this was ideal for us. It made us more cost-efficient, and we also avoided the crisis around the shortage of HGV drivers because we no longer needed them. Employing drivers for the size of vehicle we then used was far easier.

“We also started packing the vehicle ourselves rather than having a team of people do it, and instead of industrial packaging we packed the furniture in reusable blankets which made us far more sustainable and cut our adverse impact on the environment. So, on reflection I would say there are always positives and lessons to be learned in a crisis. I would say we’ve been very good at harnessing all of that.”

Rachael was also optimistic for the future of the business, with expectations that turnover will revert to pre-pandemic levels in 2022.

“We are expecting to get back to the pre-Covid level [in 2022]. The trick that we need to pull is not to let expenses run away with us again and maintain the controls we have put on things during the pandemic. Inflation at the moment is horrendous so supply chain management is critical.

“Sometimes in our industry, companies like us are tied into long-term contracts with clients on fixed prices that cannot be changed. Now we are coming out of those contracts, prices need to filter through to the clients at times which can be a bit of a shock but that is the reality. We are optimistic that things in our sector will calm down, but we must have our wits about us to stay competitive, do everything in the most cost-effective way for our clients, and then they can buy their furniture from us at the least cost to their business. We are very optimistic of doing that.”

Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

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Authored By

Rhys Taylor-Brown
Junior Editor
January 22nd 2022, 1:01pm

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