Business management

Light at the end of the tunnel

We can overcome this crisis if we’re clear-eyed about the challenges we face, CBI president Lord Bilimoria told delegates at a recent NatWest Futurefit conference.

The founder of Cobra Beer and president of the Confederation of British Industry was reflecting on how much the world had changed in the past year, recalling that there was once a time when few of us were familiar with the word ‘lockdown’.

“But necessity is the mother of invention,” he said. “We’ve seen that time and time again. Look at what we are doing now. We are not meeting at a big conference centre – we are doing this using Zoom. We have adapted around the world.”

A springboard for change

The brutal facts of our current realities are testing many business leaders, and their employees, to their limit. But Lord Bilimoria argued that those entrepreneurs who can look the crisis full in the face and use this as a catalyst for innovation will flourish the most.

“There is one word I think that sums up entrepreneurship more than any other, and that is you’ve got to have guts,” he said. “You have to have the guts to do it in the first place. But, more importantly, you’ve got to have the guts to stick with it when others would give up.”

He admitted that in the course of building Cobra, he nearly lost the company three times, and has learned three lessons that enabled his business to survive. First, that a strong brand is critical for longevity. Second, that “you have to have the support of your team and, if you have a family, the support of your family”.

This crisis is distinct from others in its requirement to put the welfare of others first, not least the people who work for you

The third is to always practise integrity in your dealings with others because, he argued, this crisis is distinct from others in its requirement to put the welfare of others first, not least the people who work for you.

“It is better to fail doing the right thing than to succeed doing the wrong thing… Have you as companies looked after your employees? Have you cared for them? Because they will remember that – and if it is the other way around, they will remember that as well,” he said.

Help others from the bottom up

Making these changes isn’t just about kind words; it is also an opportunity to find new ways to create lasting bonds with the community, said Lord Bilimoria. He pointed to the efforts of many of the 7,000 restaurants Cobra supplies in preparing free meals for NHS workers, even though the pandemic had closed them to paying customers. Also, the partnership in May 2020 between Cobra and other leading businesses to help the British Asian Trust organise the ‘Big Curry Night In’, which encouraged families stuck at home to order a takeaway, with proceeds helping to feed families in South Asia that had lost incomes through Covid-19.

“The compassion that has come out has been wonderful,” he said.

His other piece of advice was not to think and act from the top down in a crisis, no matter how tempting it is. “What has worked is collaboration,” he said, pointing out that many of the most successful Covid responses, whether business loans, vaccine research or manufacture, were conceived from day one as collaborations between companies, or between government and business.

Lord Bilimoria argued there would be further opportunities for the UK to show leadership this year, too, by encouraging global collaboration. In 2021, the UK has the presidency of the G7, and, in November, hosts the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow. Given a spirit of post-pandemic global co-operation, there is potential for both to foster the collaborative innovation that will help the UK’s businesses emerge stronger from this crisis.

“We have shown through this pandemic that businesses have had the resilience and the guts to stick with it and we will have the confidence to really bounce back,” he concluded. “We’re being resilient, we can see the light at the end of the tunnel, and we’re going to be out there soon.”

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