Twelve months in the hot seat
By Steve Carter
Tuesday 10th March 2020, a momentous day for me, a career changing day, a day of excitement and trepidation in equal measures, for this was the day that I had been asked to step into the role of Managing Director at Advantia. This was a business that I had grown up with, admired greatly and learned from. It is a business that has always had a family feel about it and here I was being asked to help shape and guide it going forward. With a wonderful team and an equally brilliant group of dealers around me, it was a case of best foot forward and away we go, or was it?
What I didn’t know, and certainly wasn’t prepared for, was the rollercoaster ride that I would be in for over the next 12 months or so. In a little over 2 weeks the country would be in lockdown and I would be furloughing several of my colleagues. I know that many of you reading this will have had to do similar, or you may have been furloughed yourself, but whichever way you look at it, it was a horrible thing to have to go through. I think a lot of it was the uncertainty surrounding the situation and not being able to answer questions around when a likely return to work would be. For those of us left to steer the ship through the choppy waters, it was a case of turning our hands to tasks that we hadn’t undertaken for a while or, in some cases, ever.
The launch of Plan B:
I would then watch helplessly as our main wholesale partner took its final breath and we had to instigate our Plan B which suddenly became our emergency Plan B. In normal circumstances, a move of this magnitude is likely to take a good nine to ten months of meticulous planning and implementation. Unfortunately, we didn’t have that luxury and it seemed more like nine or ten minutes. I have to take my hat off to the team at Exertis who were superb and worked tirelessly with us to get everything up and running.
Day in and day out the Advantia and Exertis teams were on calls, adapting, enhancing, planning, drawing on each other’s experience. This wasn’t a supplier and customer working together, it was and still is, a proper partnership and one which benefits the entire Exertis customer base.
Any chance of catching my breath for a moment? No chance. Step into the ring the Spicers administrator.
Now there are certain job roles where you know you will need to be pretty thick skinned and if you’re not, then you don’t fill in the application form. These are the type of roles that, at school, your careers teacher gently nudged you away from when you showed the slightest hint of interest. I have a strong feeling that the role of the administrator falls into that bracket. What followed was several months of conversations that just went round and round in circles. There were many times when it felt like there was definitely two ways of looking at something; the administrator’s way and the wrong way. I look around my home office now and try to identify a solitary piece of wall that I didn’t end up banging my head against following one of the many calls.
While the debate with the administrator continued, there were other decisions that needed to be made, decisions which would instigate sleepless nights and a constant churning in the pit of my stomach.
Different ships in the same storm:
As our world changed before our eyes, literally on a daily basis, we knew we had to take a good internal look at our business and shape it in readiness for a post pandemic era, whenever that may be. Whichever way we looked at it, invariably the conclusion was the same, our team would need to be reduced in size while keeping the wide-ranging skill set in place. At this stage, the only crumb of comfort we could take was that we were not alone, businesses the length and breadth of the country would be going through the same process as we were.
What we had to do now was take people and personalities out of the equation, we had to focus on the roles and functions that would be needed going forward. That is a far easier statement to make than it is in reality, but in the end we got there. Having had to take people through a consultation process on previous occasions, you might think that the task would become easier with experience. It doesn’t. These are your colleagues, your friends, people you sit alongside on a daily basis, people you have socialised with, people you have a bond with. The one thing that experience has taught me, is if you go through this process with the utmost compassion, feeling and understanding the friendships and bonds will remain.
Throughout the course of the year, we were contacted by many manufacturers and suppliers who wanted to either start a relationship with us or strengthen an existing one. There were plenty of exciting opportunities presented to us, opportunities that would broaden our members products and services portfolio. Under normal circumstances, when we launch a new offering, we like to bring our members and suppliers together and tend to do this at the dealer days that we hold during the year. As that was not going to be possible, we would have to find some other means, so Zoom it was. Ok, so you can’t get up close and personal with products over a Zoom call but it more than served its purpose, in fact we launched many new products and services in this way.
Towards the end of August, wonders never cease to amaze, there appeared to be a slither of common ground between ourselves and the administrator. Having worked from home since March, I was beginning to understand what cabin fever was all about. Since the start of lockdown, I had only had one day off so had managed to grab a week in Cornwall at the start of September. I left for Cornwall knowing that an agreement with the administrator was nearly over the line and would hopefully be confirmed in a phone call from Bev, our FD, at some point during the course of the week. Now the only place in Cornwall, where you really don’t want to be taking a call, is on the road that leads down into the bay of St Ives. If you have never been there, it is a pretty steep drop from the main road down into the bay and is an area where mobile signal coverage can be a bit challenging to say the least.
So, when does Bev decide to call, halfway down that road that’s when. No sooner had the opening pleasantries been exchanged than Bev was gone. I can’t remember the exact words of frustration used but I do recall the stare and slight shake of the head from the passenger seat, a stare perfected over many years of marriage. The call was indeed to confirm that we could draw a line under this particular episode. There was still a lot of work to be done in the background, but a hell of a weight had been taken off the shoulders.
Over the years I have always admired the way in which the Advantia team communicates with its members and vice versa, and if ever there was a time when the communication levels had to be absolutely top drawer, it was over this last year or so. We knew that our members would be looking for help and advice on subjects such as furloughing, business loans, HR related matters, administration updates to name but a few. We had updates coming in daily, much of it with head scratching terminology applied.
Bev took all of this valuable information and sent it out to our members in regular bulletins which, at times, was on a daily basis. This was then backed up with phone calls for any of our members needing additional help. Given that Bev works on a part time basis for Advantia and the rest of the week as a church minister, which over the last year must have been emotionally draining, I had nothing but admiration for her efforts in both roles. Those efforts would go on to be recognised at the 2020 BOSS awards, when Bev was awarded an “Inspirational Individual” award.
It is now March 2021. It has been an extremely difficult, demanding, and painful twelve months or so and will continue to be for a while longer. That said, there are shards of light at the end of what has been a very long and dark tunnel. Those shards are growing a little wider every day as infection rates drop and vaccination rates increase. Spring is arriving and with it comes an air of optimism in that we can all start to return to some form of normality in the near future.
When I look at our industry, there is one word that springs to mind, resilience. The dictionary definition of resilience is ‘the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties, toughness.’ That sounds about right in our industry and that is why it is an industry that I am proud to be a part of.
So, here I am, having spent nearly a year in the hot seat. If I had had a crystal ball on Tuesday 10th March 2020 and could see what was going to unfold, would I have made a different decision? Absolutely no chance. I look at the team of people around me, I look at our members, I look at the relationships that we have with our suppliers and I could not feel more privileged, proud, or grateful for this opportunity.
Upwards and onwards.
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