“Covid-19 has given us all a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to stop, reflect, think, and reinvent.” That’s not the view of a wine or spirits producer, retailer, independent wine merchant, or restaurateur. But Richard Eagleton, chief executive of McQueens, that is usually creating floral displays for the Oscars, Royal weddings and the finest events of the year. His business too has been hit by the full force of Covid-19. But rather than lick his wounds he genuinely sees this as the time in all our lives to achieve what we never thought was possible before.
It’s a time to only focus on the circumstances that you can control and with the right mindset this can actually be a game changing opportunity for your business, says Richard Eagleton of McQueens – the business that “tells stories with flowers”.
The word unprecedented has been used an unprecedented number of times in the last few weeks.
In fact, there’s nothing unprecedented about a pandemic arriving in the UK, nothing unprecedented about social distancing (the people of Eyam pioneered that curve-flattening strategy in 1665 when the Plague arrived), and it’s not the first time that our government has stepped in with billions of our money to avoid a greater economic disaster.
What is unprecedented is the sheer volume of people working from home using technology that works and, shockingly, actually getting some real work done! What is unprecedented is the awareness of mental health and wellbeing of colleagues working – or not able to work – at home and our willingness to talk about it. What is unprecedented are virtual DJ club nights with tens of thousands of people logging on and getting their dance off.
Pandemics have the power to alter the course of history, to be that moment when ‘everything changed’, to unleash amazing ideas, to be a teleporter to a new world – and this one is no different.
As chief executive of McQueens Flowers, an international luxury floral design brand in London, New York and Seoul with 95% of our sales coming from 5-Star hotels, high-end restaurants, weddings and corporate events – all of whom cancelled over a period of a little more than a week, along with dozens of cancelled bookings in our flower schools – there was a moment when I thought things couldn’t get any worse.
Swift and decisive action
My initial reaction to rapidly unfolding events was a mixture of panic, disbelief and confusion, but we took swift and decisive action to cut costs, furlough 95% of our workforce and conserve cash as I watched our sales plummet to zero – all strategy and business plans gone and forgotten.
But Covid-19 has given us all a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to stop, reflect, think, and reinvent. If Friday 20th March 2020 felt like the sky had fallen in, by Monday 23rd I’d embarked on my very own ‘Madonna moment’ to reinvent the business – determined to take that teleporter to a new world. The time for tears is over. This is not a time to ‘wait and see’.
Of course, I feel terrible for the people who are currently furloughed and may not return, and for those businesses that don’t yet have hope for the future (businesses that may not even survive), but I vowed to only focus on levers I can pull to make a difference – and not worry about those things I can’t control.
There’s something incredibly exciting about having absolutely no sales at all. It feels like we bought the business for a pound, and every sale from this day forward is a step along the path to glory – and every one of those sales to a customer who shares our renewed vision and likes what we are selling. I kept a tiny team around me, and I’ve never seen them so much on fire and full of ideas – and we’re using ‘intrapreneurship’ to make it happen.
After a brief pause to enable us to work out how to operate safely with social distancing and revisit our business model, we’re back up and running with online sales delivered locally and nationally – and business has never been so good. Whether it’s because we’re now so focused on what is usually the smallest part of our business or demand has rocketed I can’t be sure. I suspect a combination of both.
Perversely, falling and zero sales are an opportunity to improve margins. While your customer is reducing their regular spend, you have the ability to reduce your cost of goods by just a little more than they are cutting back – thus increasing your gross margin. And when starting back up from zero sales, you can use whatever new world pricing model you wish to.
Business should now be thinking about their start back up plan and, most importantly, reinventing themselves and writing their ‘what next’ plan. Life will never be the same again. Working from home will recalibrate employers’ approach to offices full of drones; home delivery will be fundamentally core to businesses that previously thought of themselves as visitor experiences, and so on. It’s exciting stuff!