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Oxfordshire businesses show flexibility and adaptability in response to the coronavirus crisis

Rod Macrae has been hearing about the way businesses have responded to the challenge of COVID-19 – and the support available for SMEs from OxLEP.

There is no denying the major impact the coronavirus lockdown has had on businesses of every size and in every sector. Whilst the health battle continues, it is clear that the consequences for business are with us for months and perhaps sadly, years to come.

OxLEP, the Local Enterprise Partnership for Oxfordshire, has a role to play in helping businesses to weather this serious storm. For some enterprises, everything is on hold, others are working well below capacity and a few finding demand has gone through the roof. We live in strange times.

Nigel Tipple, Chief Executive of OxLEP believes that whatever the impact, the county’s economy will ultimately recover as the crisis eases: “We are home to some of the world’s most-innovative companies, respected academics, passionate entrepreneurs and small business community. Our goal is to help in accelerating our economic recovery for the benefit of everyone, both residents and businesses.”

“Oxfordshire’s innovation has already shown itself in the way people have adapted and responded” he explained. “For now, showing flexibility and adapting where possible is as much as any business can do. We can’t be sure of the timing, but this crisis will come to an end and Oxfordshire will be the great place it always has been to do business.”

The kind of innovations emerging from the severe slow down range from companies creating new products or markets to scaling up or downsizing in line with demand.

The Oxford Artisan Distillery, which makes gin and whisky, is experiencing positive and negative impacts all at once. It has had to furlough staff and halt most of its production. But not all of it. According to Tagore Ramoutar, its managing director and founder, making decisions early was essential: “We have decided to carry on making whisky. That’s because it takes 3 years to mature, so nothing will be sold until at least 2023. That’s not an innovation, but it is good business. We can’t afford to stop producing now because it will affect our sales in future.”

The biggest change for them has been an entirely new product – hand sanitiser for the health and care sectors. “We produce alcohol something essential for sanitisation” Tagore explained. “There is a massive need and we have been able to help by producing thousands of units. In fact, production has been relatively easy, but the most difficult thing is getting the containers. We are sourcing plastic containers from wherever we can.”

Despite the interruption, Oxford Artisan Distillery is going ahead with a further round of fundraising from its investors in September, demonstrating confidence in its future.

Adaptation has been a big part of the response too, at Kidlington-based food suppliers Savona. They experienced an almost instantaneous 75% drop in orders from the professional catering, pub and restaurant industries.

Savona’s chairman, Ken Knowland, said “By thinking flexibly, we have found new markets. Overnight, we changed from having fairly large clients paying on account to taking payments online. It needed a ‘quick ‘fix’ to the way we take orders and payments online, but it has brought us new customers. Those include small scale retailers, a village buying group and a pub group using their kitchens as a food hub for their local communities.”

Ken Knowland believes the virus will change Oxfordshire’s businesses with consumers behaving differently once restrictions are lifted. “Businesses who don’t respond to the change will miss out. One thing is certain and that is businesses which don’t adapt to change will find their competitors will leave them standing.”

Help and Support available from OxLEP

Amidst the hiatus and worry, there is an opportunity to look closely at how your business is done and to look at new skills, new approaches and new opportunities. There is a range of support for SME businesses to help you through the current economic crisis and to begin looking ahead according to Nigel Tipple:

“We have a critical COVID-19 support package and our existing support programmes like ISfB and eScalate have adapted to delivery online. There are workshops and other support from several of our programmes on topics ranging from businesses resilience, cash flow, cost reduction and diversification.”

“The enforced down time does open up the potential to acquire new business skills or to get advice about future plans” he said.

Critical COVID-19 support programme

To help businesses impacted by the Coronavirus, OxLEP Business is moving quickly to provide one-to-one; one-to-many and peer-to-peer support. That will include signposting people to the most relevant national support initiatives and advice.

You can sign up to the support programme for guidance on:

• Business resilience measures
• A better management of cash flow
• Implement cost reductions
• Looking at ways to diversify your business

Regional redeployment service:

If you have recently been made redundant, this service can match you with new work in sectors experiencing a surge in employment demand such as:

• Food retail
• Social care
• Logistics and distribution
• Working with Adviza, OxLEP Skills is promoting the service which engages employers needing to make redundancies to facilitate a smooth transition for employees into new work.

Existing OxLEP programmes

We encourage all businesses in Oxfordshire to look into our programmes and contact us if you feel you can benefit from them. We want to ensure all businesses can claim the grants and reliefs they are entitled to at this time.

eScalate: A programme for growing businesses with scale-up potential. It also supports SMEs that are social enterprise, social entrepreneurs, enterprising charities and other purposeful businesses committed to enabling positive social and environmental impact.

Innovation Support for Business (ISfB): ISfB is a programme designed to drive and commercialise the innovative business ideas of Oxfordshire’s SMEs and entrepreneurs. If you are doing things differently, adapting or changing the way you work in response to coronavirus, then this is innovative idea. Talk to the team and see if you can apply for grants or get support.

Skills for Business: Skills for Business provides practical support to small to medium-sized businesses to identify and evaluate their skills and learning needs including upskilling current staff.

To find out more about help and support from OxLEP Business: www.oxfordshirelep.com