Views from the Picnic Table

Chris Sargisson - CEO Norfolk Chambers

Not sure what day, time, or even what meeting it was.  Day 16 of captivity means time has become a bit blurred, but there I was, not secretly playing Zoom bingo, but staring into a screen of many faces, some people I know, and some I don’t.  Zoom Bingo, by the way, if you’re interested, is just like normal meeting bingo but specific to Zoom.  The top phrases needed to get a winning line being:

  • Can we all go on mute please.?
  • Sorry I was on mute
  • Hi, who just joined?
  • Turn your camera on
  • The sound of someone typing with a hammer whilst wearing a medieval jousting gauntlet. (my personal favourite)

Someone on the Zoom conference asks me a direct question:

“Chris, I hope you don’t mind me asking. I notice that you keep randomly saluting. Is this new Zoom etiquette? Maybe for when you agree with a comment?”

It’s true, I am saluting - but it’s nothing to do with meeting etiquette.

My office you see, or as I’ve stupidly named it, my ‘Inspiration Isolation Station’ is in a small room at the front of the house. The room is referred to as ‘the room that doesn’t exist’, as it’s a room that you normally pass through to get to a more important room - the downstairs loo. My wife, who often works from home, has the proper study, so it made sense that I’m in the room with the existential crisis.

But hey, it’s not that bad, a little chilly perhaps, due to a big bay window, at which I sit, perched on a picnic table, that normally spends 364 days in the garage.  My view from the picnic table is the driveway and a few trees, which single magpies and other birds often land in. Single magpies = Bad Luck.

Some years ago, I was taught by my daughter, that the antidote to bad luck, generated by seeing a single magpie, was to salute it.  Something that for years I’ve chuckled about, but completely ignored. Not now.  I salute every one of those bad boys, that pop into my field of vision. No more bad luck please/thank you.

So I explained to the meeting what was really going on, why I randomly saluted and after the ‘noise’ died down, it was suggested that my ‘views from the picnic table’ shouldn’t necessarily be confined to what I see, but also - particularly in these unusual times, when all our outlooks are being challenged and changed - it might be interesting/helpful if, whilst sat at my al fresco working surface, I also offered a view on what I hear and think!

So these are my simple views, thoughts and interpretations. I’m not an analyst, a specialist, an advisor, expert or insider.  I speak not just from the point of view of the CEO of the Norfolk Chambers of Commerce, but also the CEO of a 125 year old established business that employs people and is dramatically affected by C-19 as many others we look to support.

So here goes:

The many discussions I have throughout the day are best summarised as:

  • What is happening and what do I do about it?
  • Here are the specific issues facing individual businesses, how do we play our part in keeping as many going as we can?
  • What does the end of this look like, when and what happens to ensure we pick ourselves up quickly and strongly?

Let’s start with the first one.  What is happening and what do I do about it?’  

We have, as a result of the Coronavirus crisis, a liquidity crisis. Businesses face severe cash-flow problems, which is damaging balance sheets, eating up reserves and crippling investment.

In a lot of conversations, I hear businesses looking for comparisons between the Coronavirus crisis and the financial crisis of 2008 because, quite sensibly, its known and remembered so past behaviours and actions might indicate potential current behaviours.

Having been around and owned a couple of businesses in 2008, for me it feels different. The financial crisis of 2008 was a systemic risk, where in simple terms, our financial system collapsed (I think I’m right there, but a little out of my depth.) In this situation banks, venture capitalists, and all manner of financial institution stopped lending and growth stalled, whereas right now ‘lending’ is being seen as a strong solution to the liquidity crisis.  

Government is telling the banks to do different and do it quickly, make cash freely available and on favourable terms. If lending is a solution, then the approach to lending, in this exceptional situation, must change and that worries me.

Banks operate with a risk adverse legacy, heightened from the 2008 crash, so this approach will not sit comfortably.  As a result of 2008, I am assuming that their preferred business process is likely to be more around ‘it’s a no to your loan request - convince me to change my mind.’

There is also a paradox which, in simple terms, means that the banks will of course look at a loan though the lens of ‘If you were in a strong position before the liquidity crisis, then you can borrow quickly and on favourable terms’, however if you had limited, poor, or no trading history before then ‘quickly and favourable’ will not apply and that takes time. Remember - ‘quickly make cash freely available and on favourable terms’.

Also a change in approach and decision-making is best achieved when adopted by the banks frontline people, not by rewriting computerised loan algorithms.  Tech has revolutionised high street banking and so frontline people are in short supply and the high street is ‘empty’ both of banks and people due to ‘social distancing’.  Solving that doesn’t sound quick either.

But, given all that I am by nature a change evangelist, I do see dramatic shifts in behaviour and, even as I write, the news is coming though that the Chancellor has responded to the  calls of business to further relax the rules and allow more to access cash.

Don’t’ forget to explore all avenues to find your cash.  Including deferring your VAT and income tax payments; is it possible to furlough your non essential staff? And, depending on your size, some of you may be eligible for Small Business Rates Relief; and some for hospitality, leisure and retail grants.  Talk to your landlords about your rent payments and contact your suppliers – what options are available and what compromises can be reached?

Access to cash should be on terms that doesn’t just shift the challenge from now to repayment.  We must act now on the right terms so ‘how do I pay this back’ doesn’t becomes the loudest voice on the block.

‘Cash is king’ as they say, which actually was the phrase often used during 2008 financial crisis, as it will help businesses deal with recession which is more than likely to follow. I triple, ‘full admiral’ salute that.   

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