If ever there was an unforeseen and unprecedented obstacle for Peterborough businesses, it was the coronavirus pandemic.
City firms large and small – not all, but a significant percentage – have been hit very hard.
For many, the impact of lost revenue is not something which can be easily reconciled; figures on spreadsheets are only half the story, they are braced for the aftershocks of lost business and consumer confidence.
However, as city MP Paul Bristow tells The Peterborough Hub, there is plenty of reason for optimism in the local economy in the years to come.
And two small businesses tell us how they coped with lockdown and what changes they made to emerge even stronger.
Plenty to be optimistic about in city’s future
City MP Paul Bristow has been hugely impressed with the way Peterborough businesses have responded to the challenges of the pandemic.
He acknowledges there will be “bumps in the road” as the economy is fired up again but insists that the city has much to be optimistic about with hundreds of jobs being created by Aldi, Waitrose and homewares retailer URBN and the creation of the £30million Anglia Ruskin University Peterborough campus.
Mr Bristow says the Government’s coronavirus support packages have been critical in keeping Peterborough businesses afloat.
“I’ve regularly spoken to all sorts of businesses,” he told The Hub. “Each of them have different challenges but what is common is that most of them have benefited from the Government’s intervention packages. Many, many Peterborough businesses have benefited.”
One such grateful firm was Loxley Barbers in Werrington, which gave Mr Bristow his first post-lockdown trim and told him they were quickly fully booked up again after re-opening.
However, the Conservative MP knows that the picture is not rosy for every city business but urged them to remain steadfast and positive.
“Hopefully they will find contracts and clients to bounce back.
“I’m a glass half-full type. The fundamental strengths of Peterborough – that it’s on the A1, it’s on the main trainline running north and south – are the reasons why historic companies have made Peterborough their home.
“We have the university to look forward to which will provide courses in science, technology and agri-tech.
“We have the potential to create tens of thousands of jobs and attract many new companies if we get this right.”
Reopening was daunting – but safety comes first
For Jimmy Dean, lockdown presented the first big test since he established The Barber’s Lounge ten years ago.
He admits to being worried for the future of the Oundle Road business during the pandemic.
And to suddenly have the health and wellbeing of its customers brought much more into focus provided a few sleepless nights.
“It was daunting, it really was. You’re dealing with people’s safety,” he reflected after a first week back trading. “However, it was a lot more daunting beforehand than it actually turned out to be.
“My wife, Michelle, helped us source the gowns, visors, sanitisers, barbicide and other stuff we needed to operate safely at reopening. We did have three barber’s chairs but we’ve taken that down to two and only have hard-backed seating rather than leather.
“We had a practice run on the Friday night before we opened with me and my two boys as customers so that we could be confident everything was set up right and would run smoothly.”
Jimmy, a 38-year-old carpenter who lives in the city, hatched the plan for The Barber’s Lounge with former schoolfriend and established barber Rob White. Jimmy insists that the business’s steady growth is largely down to Rob’s skill and dedication coupled with simple and fair pricing.
“We have a strong customer base because of Rob,” Jimmy says. “The first week back was very busy with no one having had a haircut for so long.
“We obviously need customers to keep coming, we’ve got to be able to build that trust again.”
With ongoing costs of operating safely an extra £200 per week, Jimmy is having to consider a small price rise – only the third in the business’s decade of trading – but it will be only temporary until the extra safety costs are no longer required.
In the meantime he’s assuring every customer of the very highest standards in the shop and the barber’s chair itself.
‘We’re a better, more rounded business than before’
Adapting quickly was key for Dan Ruscillo to keep his sports training company buoyant during the pandemic.
And he believes Body Aid Solutions has become a better, more rounded business as a result of the changes.
As the effect of lockdown bit, the business suffered a £20,000 revenue loss but Dan (38), was determined not to shelve the business until the storm passed for fear of what the long-term damage might be.
Instead he worked with freelance associates to produce online content – videos, voiceover Powerpoint presentations and other fresh material – to enable clients to maintain their training towards becoming personal trainers, gym instructors or sports massage therapists.
“At first, obviously we couldn’t run any face-to-face courses and therefore it was difficult to book people on,” said Dan. “It was very quiet for a while and I’m not going to lie, it wasn’t an easy time.
“We didn’t access any Government financial support, we just concentrated on making more material and help for everyone.”
Established for nine years, Body Aid Solutions (www.bodyaidsolutions.co.uk) operates at a number of bases around the country, including Stanground Academy, Stamford and Leeds.
With the Stanground site not available again until October 1, the use of Nene Park Academy has been arranged in the interim.
Dan, who runs the business from his home in Werrington, said: “We’ve worked hard to make the changes and I think it has actually brought on the company in terms of our policies and procedures. The feedback has been good and our clients have been pleased with how transparent we were.”
He added: “It’s been hard to make sure we could give the right support and get new business but we’ve managed to get a little bit, which is great.
“Like many other businesses at the outset of the pandemic, we just didn’t know what was going to happen but I’ve found it quite a positive experience.”