While the UK government’s management of the Covid-19 pandemic in Great Britain and Northern Ireland has come under much scrutiny throughout 2020, the support measures provided by the Treasury to help keep business and the country running have been of immense importance.
This rings especially true in the fishing industry, within which PDK Shellfish is one operator that has benefited from government support. Initially established as a sole trader in 1998, the company purchases large quantities of live shellfish from all the Scottish islands and several mainland ports. The shellfish is then transported to Oban on the west coast of Scotland, where it is sorted into customers’ orders and loaded into specially built vivier lorries for further transportation to Europe.
In conversation with The Leaders Council, managing director Paul Knight explained that given the firm’s operations on the continent, the senior leadership team at the company knew that as the Covid-19 virus began to take hold on the continent, its bite would soon be felt on home shores too.
Knight said: “As a business we buy live shellfish from different fishermen all over Scotland and the wider UK. Our UK lorries drive through the night, take the ferry to France and deliver all over the north coast of Spain. When Covid happened in Europe, we had people on the ground who could see how it was affecting the continent so we had an inkling of what would be happening in this country two or three weeks ahead of time.”
In spite of this foresight, it was still difficult to prepare for when lockdown restrictions would begin to be implemented in Great Britain.
Knight added: “In the movement of live shellfish, if restaurants, hotels and similar businesses are not open and people are locked down and unable to go out and buy it is inevitably going to come as a significant shock, and Covid was like a bomb going off. During a normal week of operations, our company costs £32,000 per week to run and when everything stopped, we knew that we could not keep ourselves operating without trading, because those losses would eventually cripple us with nothing coming in.”
Alleviating this problem was where government support was critical in helping keep PDK Shellfish running.
“A lot of people criticise government for their handling of all of this, but I feel that our government, both national and central, stepped in and helped us through the business explosion of Covid amazingly, beyond anything I had anticipated. In the first week of lockdown, the outlook was as if the world were on fire and I knew we could not stay open losing £32,000 per week with nothing coming in and I was concerned for my employees and did not want to just close the business and let everyone go.
“We were heavily involved with Seafood Scotland and Scotland Food & Drink before the government furlough scheme and support measures were announced and as we discussed what options we had, I expressed a willingness to take any support that was available to us to keep us and our employees going. When the government stepped in with these measures, it gave us the confidence that we would not have to close the business and would keep going whatever happened because we could weather the losses. We were awarded a grant of over £97,000, just shy of the £100,000 maximum, and I have never had a grant in my life for anything!
“If I was amazed by the grant, the furlough support was greater than I had expected on top of that. All of this support reinvigorated me with some national spirit and confidence that we were all in it together.”
The support from government which enabled the business to continue to operate then, rather remarkably, paved the way for a successful business year against all the odds. Before that success came, however, PDK Shellfish had to weigh-up how it could trade while most other businesses around them opted against operating for the first two to three months of the initial lockdown.
Recalling the experience, Knight said: “When we had the support from government, I made clear that we would hold onto employees who were furloughed as long as we possibly could even though we could only see three months ahead. We had to furlough some because we were worried about being able to retain staff if we kept everyone on, but there were some who were maybe a bit older and concerned about safety and I was very much against making anyone continue to work against their will. We had half our company workforce decide to continue working, and after a quite initial couple of weeks of lockdown where I was wondering whether to close the company, we could then recommence trading because the government was there for us.
“Around us, pretty much everyone closed. We do not deal with the big white fish boats but rather small and local fishermen around Scotland’s western isles, so we source our fish from the most rural and isolated places, so we are not a huge operator. However, Seafood Scotland in their daily Covid updates were urging operators like ourselves to continue to trade if we were capable of doing so safely, and with the platform the government gave us, we did. We were one of just two companies that traded in Scotland throughout the first lockdown and that was out of 20 to 30 that were like us. The dilemma we had was how we could trade while we were open, and others were not.”
After dialogue with one of PDK’s clients based in Europe, things then began to take a positive turn.
Knight said: “I spoke to one of our European clients, who was particularly bereft thinking that their business was in jeopardy, and I told them that we cannot simply give up and close our businesses and we had to find an alternative way of trading. Following that conversation, the client looked into their options and by the next week had set up internet sales and because people could not go out to restaurants, sales went through the roof from people buying into their homes.
“We always knew that, even though live shellfish is a luxury market, and the prices may be expensive, when people are locked down in the home and are bored with nothing to do, they are still going to need to eat and may well want to try their hand at cooking new dishes and sampling new food.”
With a way of keeping trade going then in sight, Knight explained that his company decided to purchase more produce from other fishermen whose customary buyers were inactive at that stage, which allowed the business to acquire more market share.
“While other companies around us closed, we took on produce from more boats which would normally be sold to other buyers because we wanted to do all we could for the local economy. I said to those that wanted to keep fishing that if they did so, we would pay for their catch. Although when the market began to open again after the first few months of lockdown and they then started to sell back to their usual customers, we enjoyed one of the best years we have had in the past ten to fifteen years because we stayed open and had more of the market share for that period. The client who took his business online ended up buying three times more produce from us than in normal times because demand was so high.”
Knight concluded by reiterating the point that without the support from government which allowed the business to take the gamble of remaining open, none of that success over 2020 would have been possible.
“The government stepping in gave us the impetus to gamble by keeping the company open and it was a huge success. It is down to them and the generosity of the bank in helping cover my employees that the company is still here. After two to three months of the initial lockdown, we had a larger share of catchments and at that point we started bringing closer to our full workforce back into operation. We kept operating and I would like to thank the government for that because all we then had to do was find ways of maintaining trade and bringing social distancing into our daily operations.”