Corporate Affairs Director, Greg Sage, usually works between Bury St Edmunds and London, dealing with government and media. during the pandemic he worked from his spare room.

Pubs were placed front and centre of politics like never before

In early 2020 we were very focused on Brexit, putting plans in place to ensure food supply from Spain and Italy. At the same time a few of us were keeping an eye on Covid-19 as it spread from Asia to Europe. By February, hand sanitiser started to appear on desks.

Myself and other members of the crisis group began talking about what we would do if we caught the virus. We realised that we ought to put deputies in place in case we became ill. And it all became very real when our CEO, Nick, caught Covid.

Crisis Situation

Over the years I’ve taken part in various crisis simulations. As the scale of Covid-19 started to unfold, the daily headlines became more surreal and reminded me of a simulation I took part in after the bird flu outbreak while I was working in Asia in 2005. Back then the mocked-up BBC news bulletins seemed so far-fetched, but incredibly it was now all playingout for real.

In March 2020 there was big uncertainty over whether pubs would be forced to close. The Prime Minister announced that he was sure that ‘pubs would do the right thing’, which unfairly threw it back on to us.

After a few days of uncertainty, the Prime Minister finally made the announcement about pub closures. But it came at 5pm on a Friday – the busiest time of the week. I thought that was a crazy decision. I worried how pub managers would deal with that as people rushed for a last pint. We were then told to work from home and schools closed, too, as we went into lockdown.

It was a fast-moving situation. The following weeks were spent working closely with trade associations and government to ensure that hospitality was looked after during the pandemic and making sure we were telling our team members what was happening and what it all meant for them. I think we were all fuelled by adrenaline. There was a sort of Blitz spirit.

We had to balance supporting our team members and tenants and protecting jobs, while trying to work out how long this was going to go on for.

Lobbying For Help

I spent a lot of time working together with our competitors and trade associates with a common aim of getting help for our industry talking to government. The urgency of getting financial support meant that we were having daily meetings with ministers, MPs and government officials.

In addition, the media wanted to talk about the plight of pubs, which was important as they really helped us to tell the story of the threat to our industry. But this meant that we had media calls coming in 24/7 and had to respond quickly to generate stories to help highlight the terrible situation we were in.

As the government became more focused on pubs, we were able to raise the profile of Greene King, too. We had some really difficult discussions, and some well-publicised arguments, but it was great to see the industry speaking with one voice and I think we came out of the pandemic with a reputation for being a responsible business who did its bit representing all our interests. Needless to say it was a huge relief when the Prime Minister and Chancellor responded with support for our sector and all the people that work within it.

Of course, all of this was done while working from home. My wife and I both have busy jobs so we had to split the day to share the home schooling while juggling meetings and working late to catch up. But I found it a real challenge to manage work alongside playing the role of teacher. I remember being on a call with government officials but I had to put myself on mute while dialling in to a 'show and tell' Zoom lesson to talk about pirates!

Vital Support

With 99% of our team furloughed it wasn’t long before concern grew about the financial hardships some team members were experiencing. Our executive board and leadership team volunteered to take a pay cut and the money saved went towards a new initiative to help support employees that needed it most, with a top up from central funds. I called the Licensed Trade Charity to ask if they would independently manage the process for us, and the Support Fund was launched.

The charity did a truly brilliant job and we set a scheme up from scratch in just a couple of weeks. In total we donated £1.1m in grants which helped over 4,000 colleagues in desperate need.

The biggest thing I’ve taken away from this pandemic is to stay true to your values. It would have been easy for the decision makers to take a tough view in such a challenging climate, but we’ve done our very best to protect as many jobs as possible, while assisting our tenants and helping out as many people as we could along the way. We’ve had a terribly challenging time – and the third lockdown over winter 2020/21 was very hard - but we came out the other side having made some very positive changes.