Back in early March, when I was in the Middle East on an assignment and watching the BBC World News, I began to see the impact of CV - 19 start to unravel in Italy, Spain and France – and then eventually the UK. In Saudi Arabia and the UAE too, the potential consequences began to become clearer. The hotel I was in became a lot less busy, some of the communal facilities had begun to close and flights back to the EU began to dry up. .
In the end, I left 2 days earlier than planned and got back to the UK. days later, flights back to the UK were fully cancelled. If you had said at the time, we would still be in lockdown some months later and with probably a while to go yet too, and we would have had over 40,000 deaths in the UK, I would have found it hard to believe.
At that time, I was wondering “are we over reacting to this?” – but in hindsight, a wonderful thing of course, it seems as if we were probably not reacting quickly enough.
Since getting back to the UK – we have all been home working – and it looks as if we will be for some time to come. What do I think we have learnt in this time? A number of things have crossed my mind:
- Embracing technology. We had started to use MS Teams internally over the last 18 months or so, but maybe less so externally. This, and other ways of communicating, such as Zoom, Webex etc have become a daily, if not an hourly, feature of our working lives. There is no going back now. I can’t really think of one thing I have needed to do that I haven’t been able to do using MS Teams as required. Future trips to Cheshire, London – yes in time, but maybe not as often in the past
- Travel - normally, I fill my car up with petrol twice a week, if not more on some occasions. The first instinct when talking to people is to say, “I will jump in the car and come and see you”. In the last 12 weeks, I have filled it up once. Have I missed thumping up and down the M6 – not at all. But ask me again in a few months’ time! As a business, our travel costs have shrunk considerably and our carbon foot print (formally worked out annually and reported by our parent company, Genus plc), will be much lower
- The general wisdom has often been, that when using remote technology to communicate with other people, if you know the person you are talking to already, this is fine – but if not, then this could be more of a problem. This, in our experience, has not been the case. We are all in the same boat. If you want something done - then this is the way it will be achieved. We have been busy talking to people all round the UK and then the rest of Europe, the Middle East, Central and Latin America, Russia, the US and in Asia. Some we know already. Some we didn’t beforehand -but we do now!
- International travel – I have spent, over the years, a lot of time in airports and on planes. I am not the only one of course doing this. A number of Genus colleagues also travel extensively. I am not sure that any of us are missing this too much – at the moment. Its one of the best bits of the job - Capetown, Lima, Jeddah, Santiago, Dubai, Shanghai etc - these are all great places to visit and a good deal is happening in their agri food sectors. In October, I was due to visit the Fruit Attraction event in Madrid. It is not clear if this will still go ahead and who of our clients will be there and what the arrangements will be, in regard to social distancing for the 90,000 or so who attend from 120 countries. I would, of course, love to be there for all sorts of reasons - but at this stage – who knows?
- Business per se – in the period from mid to the end of March, the world seemed to stop, as we all worked out how we would manage our businesses and organisations on a remote basis. Then we went for what seemed to be a month when clients seemed to be in some sort of limbo, but soon after that, we started getting enquiries again for new business to go with existing work we already had on. Keeping close to clients to understand what they are thinking and understanding how we can help them is all part and parcel of what we do. It has never been more important now. As is responding positively to enquiries, leads and other external contacts
- Actually doing the work - of course, the ability to do desk type research remains largely unchanged. Talking to people around the world - importers, producers, exporters, processors, government agencies, trade associations etc and anyone else we need to discuss projects with – well – see point 3 above!
- We have found it perfectly possible to do this, as long as you don’t expect people to be always available at the drop of a hat to do it. So, the normal rules apply. Approach people in the right way, be flexible as to when you can speak and have something interesting, relevant and worthwhile to discuss with them. And please and thank you go a long way too
- Client impacts - there hasn’t been an agri food business or farm that hasn’t been impacted by CV19 in some shape, form or manner. In some instances, it has shown how fragile our supply chains both domestically and internationally are - in others, how robust they can be too
- The big ticket items our clients are looking at though, won’t go away: developing sustainable and secure supply chains from farm to fork, understanding what is happening in world markets in what are truly unprecedented times, understanding the direction of travel in terms of international trade talks and issues surrounding market access, having a good feel for both customer and consumer behaviour and how this might (will !) change over the next 3 – 6 – 9 - 12 months and beyond - are all still key areas for our clients to be well informed on
- They are also all areas which have been accentuated by the CV19 pandemic. They are all areas we have been working extensively on, not just for the last few months, but over the last few years. We are of the firm belief, that if something needed doing in these areas in early March, it almost certainly needs doing now too and putting it off for too long is not a good idea.
What else? At a very human level – the importance of friends, family and colleagues and the need to keep in touch – even over things that might not seem that important maybe, the attraction of online shopping, the ability to find a good pair of hair clippers is invaluable (!) and if we didn’t know it already, we have, in this country, a great NHS and social care service per se. Oh - and there are a lot of back episodes of “Minder” and “Hill Street Blues” to watch, if you want to!
The UK and international agri food sectors are always full of surprises, shocks and challenges. In the last 10 years there have been plenty of these: the GFC crisis of 2008/9, dealing with climate change, volatile input and output prices, BREXIT, the changing nature of the UK retail sector, the way we use new agri tech solutions etc – and more besides. It is fair to say, that we see the rest of this year and beyond as being as challenging as maybe ever before.
At the same time, change and challenge brings opportunity to those who are well prepared and well informed. Helping clients to do just that is just what we do at Promar. The last 3 months have been challenging, at times frustrating, worrying and uncertain, but at the same time, there has also been a sense of exhilaration in “stepping up to the plate” and helping colleagues, clients and other stakeholders to our business face the future ahead, - and in some sense, just look “to get on with it” – or as much of it we possibly can.
As said – just my views and thoughts…. but I hope some of what I have said makes sense and rings true to others as well