A time for reflection

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John shares his thoughts...

27 March 2020.

Like everyone else in the UK facing the biggest crisis of our life- time our situation is unique, and in the business world, every Family Business is unique, I have heard it a hundred times in my thirty years as a Family Business Consultant. And of course, it is patently untrue on both counts. Many of us are facing isolation from our loved ones, facing working practices that seemed only for the self-employed; who often  work regularly from home, losing businesses that we have worked decades to build up, not being able to pay our mortgage and facing real financial hardship, with many folk furloughed with an uncertain employment future. It has been said by many commentators, ‘we are in unprecedented times.’ I most certainly have never seen anything like it in my life- time, although I vaguely remember my own mum and dad talking about life during the second world war; and there are echoes in many of the current conversations. I am currently observing the guidelines laid down by the Government and self-isolating at home with my wife Pauline and to date it has been fine.

Most of my professional life has seen me spend at least two nights of every week away from home. In the early days of our marriage, that could be as much as six months of the year away, so spending the next three or four months in isolation together I suspect will be a challenge for both of us.

The Positives.

I’m sleeping well, not something that has been the case in recent months. The last couple of months have been particularly challenging for several our clients and my involvement has been ‘up close’ and at times an emotional roller coaster. It has taken its toll and one night a few weeks ago, I really thought I was experiencing what I thought was a nervous breakdown. For the first time in many years I broke down and sobbed, I felt like the tank was empty. Pauline said, with real candour, ‘It sometimes feels like you care more about other families than you do about your own’. It was a comment that hit home, and I began to reflect on what I was doing to myself, my wife and my two daughters. I wasn’t giving them time.  

So awful as this Coronavirus is, it has forced me to slow down, given me time to reflect and spend time with my family.

We are cooking together, drinking wine together and generally talking about things we have not discussed in many years. My youngest daughter has been on her own journey of discovery over the last three years or so. Jenny was an ambulance technician for fourteen years and eventually burned out and left the service with a stress related illness. I cannot begin to imagine what it must be like for those front line workers at the moment, we can only pray that most of them come through unscathed and we abide by the Government Guidelines in order to give them as much time and space as we can. 

Jenny took off to Florence for eighteen months to study for an Interior Design qualification. On her return to the UK she decided that the good life in Florence had impacted her weight and took herself off to a Boot camp in Norfolk, where over a three- month period she lost two stone. They liked her at the Boot Camp, particularly her dedication and determination. The upshot of this was having completed a Culinary Course at the Ashburton Cookery School, Jenny was asked to go back to the camp as the manager. She has now lost that job, her boyfriend Jay, has also lost his job at the camp and for the last two weeks they have been living with us. 

They are currently exploring the possibility of opening a Wine Bar in Bridgwater and today have moved into their own apartment in the centre of the town. Being at home has given me the time and the space to help them with their business plan and who knows I may get the chance to fill one of my life- time ambitions and serve wine to customers and maybe even get to sing. If you see the sign ‘Class behind Glass, pop in for a Glass and some interesting ‘Spoon Food’, you never know it might be me serving you.

Our eldest daughter Lesley lives and works in Phuket. We also have a Grandson, Oliver, he is now thirteen. We last saw them this time last year and the plan was to visit in April. If you have a thirteen year- old you will know how difficult it is to get conversation other than the odd grunt, try doing this on Skype, its very challenging. 

The Coronavirus has hit Phuket hard. Lesley owns and runs a pre-school nursery and this is now closed. She does not have the comfort of a Government safety net and has enough money to last maybe three months. She is currently paying her Thai staff 50% of their wages, she may or may not get some of this paid by the Government. Lesley is convinced she will come through this and her nursery will re-open and her Thai staff will look after her as she is looking after them. 

Lesley got in touch with her landlord and this morning she emailed me with his reply. My reaction was tears, Phuket can be the craziest of places, great for a holiday, but can be hostile to foreigners trying to make a business work. Cash is king, no credit cards, no overdraft, no bank loan, Lesley lives on what she earns, and her business has always been seasonal. So, in the rainy season, numbers drop, so does income and therefore living on reduced income is a way of life and support between the employer and the employed is un unwritten contract and very much part of ensuring business survival, we could learn a lot. This is the reply to her email.

Hi Lesley.

Yes, things are not good all over the World. I am in Aussie now…… had to cancel all my travel plans. I fully understand your problems so if you want you can stay at the house and do not worry about paying rent money.

Once things start up again you can start paying rent again. Hope this will help you, Ben and the children. Its fine by me as I know you take great care of the place.

Have a good one.

Peter.

Lesley said. “Dad, from my landlord, feel unbelievably grateful, actually; I’m close to tears. This helps a lot.”

It’s strange that in a country where there is plenty for most of us, we see empty supermarket shelves, NHS staff unable to get the essentials, acts of incredible selfishness and at times out right stupidity. And in a country where there is a lot of real poverty we see sharing and support for one another that often seems beyond us.

I am grateful to my FBC colleagues for their support and comradeship during these difficult times and I am constantly thinking about the people I also count as colleagues, our clients.

The Impacts on me.

I too am seeing a massive change in the way I work. I am usually driving north on the M5 to a client or south on the M5 to a client. During a normal working week, it is unusual for me to spend two consecutive nights in my own bed. At 72 years of age I am self-isolating an attempting to work from home. I am finding this extremely challenging as I get my real professional buzz from working face to face with clients. We had our first remote team meeting yesterday and I found it difficult, both in content and in concentration. I may get used to this way of working; we’ll see. The biggest impact on me is having the time to reflect. Pauline and I went bankrupt in 1992 as a result of our family business failing. We had personal guarantees to the bank and our home was repossessed, so it is interesting to read the comments coming out about some of the bank’s demanding/wanting PG’s for business owners wanting to take advantage of the Business Interruption Loan facility  offered by the Government through the bank’s. I could wax lyrical about our experience of the bank in the late eighties; early nineties, they haven’t changed their spots. Take as much advantage of the situation as they can. Bibs and braces with their clients, rarely take any of the risk and make more profit out of the misery of millions of hard- working small business folk. Call me cynical and or bitter and you would be right.

So, on reflection, my best guess is that this period of isolation will have a profound impact on the way I spend what time I have left of my life on this planet. I will spend more time with Pauline, I will support Jenny in her new business venture in Bridgwater and we will spend more time in Phuket with Lesley and Oliver. My life has been my work, to the detriment of my own family and it is my sincere belief that it is unlikely I will go back to work with the same drive and commitment that once existed.

I plan to chart this next part of the journey and attempt to articulate feelings and actions as a result of my reflections.

The Impacts on our clients.

Some three weeks ago we met with a client we worked with some sixteen years ago. We agreed another consultancy project and were just about to explore dates for starting the project. They are in the travel business and you can imagine the impact the Coronavirus has had on the business. A well run, long established business is in real trouble and our hearts went out to a hard -working family who have seen their business almost disappear over- night. I am sure this is happening all over the country and it is not my place to be offering home spun advice, however, we do care deeply about the people we work with and they know that the phone is always on, the email will be answered and we are there for them and will continue to support them in whatever way we can.

We don’t know how many of our existing clients will come through this Pandemic and if they do, what shape they will be in and it will be interesting to see if the service we offer to families in business will be in more or less demand as they begin to rebuild. One thing is for sure, we will still be there for our clients, even if its just as a sounding board.

Final Thought.

My mum died when I was just eleven years old, my dad remarried, but was never the same again, he died a very unhappy man. I know that losing my mum through death and my dad at the same time through absence has been my main driver in doing the work we do. I was lucky in having a surrogate mum in Pauline’s mother. I want to scream sometimes when I witness what families in business together have the propensity to do to each other. When I see the relationships driven by envy, greed, jealousy, power and money, that’s when I want to scream ‘Do you not realise what you have’. Our families are all that we have in the end, yes, we have our friends, but they are not family.

So my final thought is ‘Look after your family’ it’s the only one you have and the only one you will ever have and if you are in business with your family take the time out to reflect on the relationship and maybe recalibrate and concentrate on what matters, support and compassion will get us through this.