CFO Richard Smothers, is experienced at leading a business during a crisis – so he was the natural choice to head up the Covid Crisis Committee.

Operating through Covid was like being the conductor of an orchestra

You could say I’m fairly used to working in crisis mode. A decade or so ago I worked in Thailand during a constitutional crisis and was twice evacuated from my home and also escorted out through the back door of the embassy under armed guard. I’ve lived with curfews and locked down buildings and I’m used to pandemic planning, too. Asia has had outbreaks of avian flu and I’d been involved in ‘pandemic in a day’ themed workshops, where you focus on the developing situation as it unfolds, hour by hour.

So, when I saw news reports about a new coronavirus in December 2019, the hairs stood up on the back of neck. I had knowledge of what to expect. By the time the virus reached Italy, it was time to form the Covid Crisis Committee.

Planning Ahead

As well as being responsible for finance I also have accountability for managing risk across the business, and knew that if the pandemic came here, things would happen fast. Early on I started to think through who would be on the committee, how often we’d meet and what to consider in terms of operating going forwards. We decided that I would chair the committee rather than our CEO, Nick, because he was best placed to deal with government, media and of course, leading communications across the business. I’d do the internal work, which was a bit like being the conductor of an orchestra, pulling everyone together.

Very quickly the committee went from meeting fortnightly to weekly, then daily to twice a day. We were well practised as a team because we’d just come through 18 months of Brexit planning. A different situation, but the concept of preparing for a big event meant there was experience of looking at various scenarios, and often with conflicting information. Practice makes perfect with these things.

By early March I went to an international rugby match and was mindful that being in a big crowd made me feel a bit uncomfortable. I felt it was the last time I’d be around that number of people in a long time. Soon after we moved to working from home.

Changes For The Better

Working from home meant a huge life change for me. Pre-pandemic I left home on Monday mornings at 6am and returned home on Friday night, spreading my time between Burton upon Trent, London and Bury St Edmunds. I lived out of an overnight bag and spent a lot of time on trains. My wife wasn't used to seeing me much at all - and suddenly, we were having lunch together every day. Being at home meant that I had more time to keep fit and do those jobs around the house I'd been meaning to do, and it made me think about post-lockdown life being a bit more balanced.

The business was fundamentally closed for most of the pandemic. During that time, we restructured; an organisational change that was due to happen, anyway. Just before the pandemic, myself and other executive board members had reviewed our culture and values. I’d say Covid-19 has stress tested and reinforced those core values, rather than break them. I’m really proud of how quickly we took those new values on board during a crisis, when it would’ve been very easy to go back to type.

We worked hard on many other changes, too. We launched the Order & Pay app across 1,700 pubs within six weeks of lockdown, got teams set up to work from home within six weeks, and rolled out takeaway services really speedily.

The business was fundamentally closed for most of the pandemic

Team Spirit

The thing I’m most proud of is how the senior leadership team rolled up its sleeves. We asked them to take a pay cut through two lockdowns – and that wasn’t easy to ask – but there was no debate, no question, no consideration... everyone felt it was the right thing to do. And the money didn’t just go into some kind of corporate bucket but was used for a real purpose, to help those experiencing true financial hardship. I’m really proud about that.

I was also really pleased that our teams overwhelmingly couldn't wait to go back to serving customers in pubs. And that's the same kind of spirit that those of us on the board had, too: we were really looking forward to having face-to-face meetings again. That's because we're a good team, that enjoys working together. We came out of the pandemic prepared for whatever might hit us in future, and in fact, we're now a better, stronger business because of it. Ultimately, we came out of it knowing that pubs are the centre of British society... and the pandemic didn't change that.