Roundtable debate: Being professional in the face of a crisis

With Boost Business Lancashire we brought our panel of experts together to look at the importance of the professional services sector in Lancashire and its role in helping businesses and the county’s economy move forward post-lockdown.

How can the professional services sector influence and inform the industrial strategy being devised for Lancashire and what role can it play in the situation we find ourselves in now?

SY: We’re looking for people from all different sectors to inform our industrial strategy going forward. It covers a range of different areas around people and skills, infrastructure, business environment, places. It is very much an ongoing conversation and we’re continuing to link into different sectors in the economy.

PRESENT:

  • Richard Slater, Lancashire Business View (chair)
  • Steve Brennan, Bespoke Digital Agency
  • David Cox, David Cox Architects
  • Lisa Kennery, Pierce
  • Ann Lancaster, Boost Business Lancashire/Orvia
  • Ian McCullough, Begbies Traynor
  • Paul Waite, Rowan Group
  • Heather Waters, NatWest
  • Stephen Young, Lancashire County Council

AL: As a result of Covid-19 everybody has been knocked sideways and plans have been put on hold. It is about supporting businesses to enable them to thrive and survive. It is important that the services address those needs moving forward. It’s not just about business strategy, there needs to be a lot of support available.

HW: It is vitally important that there is strong connectivity across professional services. Every business needs various elements of professional services and for me it is about how different organisations support each other and work together. It is about telling stories, sharing information and guidance – there is a serious need for information.

DC: We have an enormous enthusiasm for Lancashire and building that story of a confident county. If we can join together and get on board with that work, contributing to and sharing that story, that is the way we are going to raise the county’s profile.

LK: It is about collaboration and sharing information that we receive with our clients. The situation for a lot of owner-managed and SME businesses means that they can’t digest everything, so we need to break information down in a way they can understand it. It is also about guiding them in the right direction for support, letting them know where they can get grants information.

IM: When it comes to the work that we do, businesses recovery is always our first and primary option. Whenever we have a discussion with a director, we’re looking to do that. Points have been raised about collaboration, about information, and part of what we’re doing ties in with that. One of the things that we always say is the earlier people speak to us the better it is, and the more recovery options you have.

You may have a viable business; you just might have a slight staffing issue or it may be a lease or a legal issue. It’s then a case of signposting you to an appropriate accountant, to assist with payroll, or an appropriate lawyer to assist with employees, banks and funders.

AL: People may be just overwhelmed and just cannot prioritise, ‘What do I need to do next?’ So, that initial conversation with one of our business support managers is absolutely crucial, because we can just draw a line in the sand and say, ‘Yes, I might not have the answer, but I know somebody who has got the answer for you.’

What strengths can Lancashire’s professional services tap into as they look to develop?

PW: Lancashire’s got an untapped resource of high-quality people who choose to live and stay here. They would prefer to have opportunities on their doorstep. We’re also finding the private equity (PE) community is talking of Lancashire as a specific target market. Successful SMEs probably don’t understand what is available when it comes to PE and there is some education to be done. We’ve a lot of untapped businesses here.

There’s more engagement and ownership when you’re speaking to fellow Lancashire professional services

SB: We’ve many clients in London who really recognise something different about what our people bring. There is a brilliant sense of community and work ethic in Lancashire, real honesty and transparent people in our industry. There’s no-nonsense if you hire a Lancashire business. The qualities of being based in Lancashire come right to the surface as soon as you look to do business elsewhere. I’m sure that could be marketed.

IM: There’s more engagement and ownership when you’re speaking to fellow Lancashire professional services. On a number of panel jobs, we are compelled to use Manchester or larger city lawyers and accountants. Our preference, if we can, is always to engage locally. You get a comparable service at a much more competitive price, with much more engagement, ongoing collaboration, and assistance.

Which reset and recovery strategies are paying dividends for you or for your clients?

IM: The pandemic and lockdown has completely changed the way people work. The speed 

and efficiency of the response from phone and internet providers has meant that, particularly in professional services, a lot of us have been able to continue through Covid without missing a beat.

In certain circumstances the efficiencies have propelled things forward. As a company everything’s now sent electronically, documents are issued on our behalf by a central hub. We’ve saved significant costs and that’s an efficiency we’ll continue to adapt and continue to take forward as things go forward.

SB: If we wind the clock back to pre-lockdown, we were always speaking to people about how well they understood their customer, how clear they were in communicating the value they could give. It’s become business critical now to have absolute clarity

Lockdown has been like a business boot camp with people saying, ‘We’ve got to get this in order now. We need to come out of this lean. Everything that we’ve been meaning to do needs to be done during this period, we can’t come out of this with the issues we used to have’.

DC: A lot of projects are either being delayed or shelved, so we’re having to be a little bit light on our feet as to what we’re actually asking people to do. We haven’t found working from home a positive experience, I think we work in the office much better together. I am looking forward to getting people back and finding out what they have learned from the past few weeks, having a frank discussion with the team to find out what they want to do going forward.

SY: It’s more important than ever that we have a really strong Lancashire message, and we get that message out. We need to talk about the benefits of our economy, four strong universities, amazing infrastructure, great workforce and great people. Then we need to link that back into our industrial strategy.

In terms of place-shaping and how we help the county reset, we’ve looked at four key areas. The first is ‘Open for business’. That is very much about working with tourism and looking at ways it can reopen safely.

We’ve also been in conversations with government about things like Eden of the North.

And we’ve also looked at our industry and the way we can support those that make things in Lancashire.

The third area is strategic infrastructure We have a £10bn pipeline in Lancashire. Weve had a conversation with government to say we would look for £2bn of immediate investment to start bringing those schemes forward.

And weve set up a sector watch tower, based on all different industries, looking at some of the big players, what the impact of Covid-19’s been on them, but also looking further down the supply chain.

In a very practical way, were trying to work with them on diversification and look for different markets to ride out the Covid-19 storm.

As an organisation, we have always tried to have a transformational approach to work. We want to have people working more agilely which has a number of benefits in terms of cost, the environment and such like.

AL: Looking at the different ways that people have coped with Covid, it has been stripping out all that periphery and concentrating on, Who are my clients, how am I going to carry on communicating with them? What is it that I’m going to be doing when I totally reset? Those priorities and those key messages have really had to be looked at.

PW: Once the immediate impact was recognised, the most important thing for us was to think about the future from a client perspective. What do they think the future market will look like, and how are they going to compete?

Were going to have to be led by our customers because we’re a professional services firm, so it’s what the customer wants at the end of the day. Thats what we’re doing at the moment, really understanding what each of our customers worlds are going to look like, and how we can set up as a business to be able to support them. Its about combining your client and your people strategy.

The qualities of being based in Lancashire come right to the surface as soon as you look to do business elsewhere. I’m sure that could be marketed

LK: Its making the most of the opportunities. The situation has enforced some technology onto us. Weve now got a paperless office and weve managed to carry out 80 per cent of our audits offsite through remote working. Its critical that accountants make best use of technology and make the most of being able to offer an advisory role, rather than it being in the background. Its about helping businesses plan ahead.

HW: Sometimes the conversations at the moment are around, Are you going to have to shrink to survive? and having those difficult conversations, and then talking about who they need to go and get some advice from. It is very much about the leadership though process at this moment in time.

One of our biggest issues is getting business owners to engage. There’s got to be a better way of communicating, because at the moment there’s an awful lot of people all trying to help, but we’re all doing it at the same time and trying to talk to the same people. Thats where we’re losing that opportunity to help businesses restart.

What’s the best way business support services, whether private sector or public sector, can add value to other businesses? 

HW: Collaborate. 

PW: Its the shared insight for me, actually taking a piece of insight you’ve had from one client and making sure you share that across others. 

IM: I’d say adaptability. We’re talking about businesses changing, pivoting, learning, strengthening. It’s always been a truism that a business that adapts to changing times and challenges is the most successful.  

SB: This is the time of fastest ever learning. We can have three years of development of a business in three months, that’s what’s happened. The way to maximise and speed up that learning is listening and understanding. Listening to lots of different voices and packaging it up and sharing it. 

LK: Simplify the information that we receive, and then amplify it to others around us, clients and others alike. So, we need to share.

DC: Adaptability and flexibility are going to be really important in the next few months and an ability to act very fast. Property and construction are going to see some unpredicted opportunities arising very quickly and the people who are the most flexible are going to be able to take advantage of that.

AL: Communication is key, and simplify that communication.

SY: Its about learning from what’s happened, it’s about adapting that learning into business processes going forward. Its about coming together as a wider Lancashire economy, and taking that quite clear message forward in terms of what we’re about and what we’re looking to deliver.

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