They’re the unsung heroes of the pandemic: the companies that have adapted their own unique skills to survive – and to help others – during the crisis.
All over the UK, businesses have been finding brilliantly innovative ways to keep jobs open for their staff, serve their customers and contribute to the community. Now, as they begin to get back to their day jobs, we celebrate some of the inspirational companies who’ve gone above and beyond to help others during the coronavirus crisis.
‘I took a supermarket job to save my company’
When the managing director of one of Britain’s oldest watchmakers locked his office door for the final time as the country went into lockdown, he took a moment to look at a portrait on the wall.
It was of his great-great-great-grandfather, Edwin Fear, who had launched the eponymous firm in 1846, when Queen Victoria was only a few years into her reign.
‘Since then, Fears has survived two world wars, Spanish flu and the Great Depression,’ says his descendant Nicholas Bowman-Scargill, 33, who now runs the company. ‘As I closed my office that night, not knowing if I’d be returning, I looked at his portrait and thought, “I’m going to do this and get my company through it”.’
And he did, in the most extraordinary and selfless way.
That night, unable to sleep, Nicholas composed his CV and the next day took it round to every supermarket near his home in Canterbury, Kent.
He’d worked out that if he didn’t take a salary during lockdown, cash reserves meant he could continue to pay his three staff and watchmaker until mid-August. But if he got another job, he could keep the prestigious firm – whose watches sell for around £3,000 each – going for even longer.
‘That Monday, Asda called to offer me the 2am–8am shift five days a week,’ says Nicholas. ‘It was walking around the aisles fulfilling their home-delivery orders.
‘For the next two months, I’d get up at half-past midnight, walk to work – my car broke down that first week and no garage was open to fix it – come home, get an hour’s sleep then get up again and run Fears until 5pm then go back to bed.
‘Working at Asda was tough – I did 16,000 steps a shift and have never been so fit and healthy. But the moment I got that first pay cheque, it was absolutely worth it.
‘I needed a bit for our own personal bills, and the rest I could put back into the business.’
Despite the exhaustion, Nicholas had no regrets.
‘I had a few friends message me to say, “What an absolute comedown for you”,’ he says. ‘But it wasn’t a case of, “This is beneath me’ – I was glad of the work.’
He spent two months working for just above the minimum wage before leaving when business at Fears began to improve.
‘In March we were looking at having our best year yet, with several new product launches,’ says Nicholas. ‘But in April we made just £145 in sales, which is petrifying.
‘However, that month we started to get more inquiries, and in May they started turning into orders.’
Throughout the hardship, one thing spurred Nicholas on. ‘Our 175th anniversary is in January 2021, and even if the entire economic system collapses, we still have to be going.’
The fogging machine that kills coronavirus
When lockdown began and hand sanitiser became almost as precious as gold, hygiene experts at Micro-Fresh realised they could help other businesses by producing their own.
Within 24 hours, the company had developed a spray for hands and surfaces, which they donated to hospitals, care homes and charities.
Soon the Leicester-based firm, which usually makes anti-fungal technology to keep items such as bedding, shoes and sportswear fresh, had branched out into making face masks.
Not only that, it has now produced a ‘fogging machine’ that kills any viruses in the air, and could help make it safe for us to go back to our gyms, restaurants and salons in the near future.
‘When lockdown was announced, we decided to support the business community by pivoting into products applicable to the situation,’ says chief commercial officer Jigna Varu.
‘We were acutely aware of the needs of the front-line staff who were fighting for their own safety, and we did not want them to be in a compromised position.
‘Within 24 hours, we had formulated our version of a hand-sanitising spray, which proved popular as we are a trusted brand in hygiene.’
This impressive pivot meant that not only did the company not have to furlough any staff, they actually had to take on some extra workers. It also led to requests for more products.
‘We were constantly receiving enquiries about other personal protective products,’ says Jigna.
‘Since we were in the textile market already, we started manufacturing masks.
‘They are durable, reusable and can last up to 100 washes – with weekly washing, that’s up to two years’ wear. We are all about sustainability and innovation.’
Micro-Fresh is now going back to making its usual anti-fungal technology but with a slight difference – one unexpected benefit of recent experience is that the firm has found out its product is also anti-viral. And it doesn’t just guard against Covid-19.
‘It can protect against pathogens such as MRSA, E-coli, salmonella and listeria,’ says Jigna.
‘As retailers and offices are now looking to return to work, the question of how to ensure our workplaces are as hygienic as possible arises, and we were asked about the possibility of Micro-Fresh on as many surfaces as feasible.’
So the firm developed Sanitaze, a portable fogging machine that kills viruses and bacteria in the air, while depositing a layer of Micro-Fresh over all the surfaces in the area to prevent germs being spread.
‘Restaurants, gyms, salons – so many businesses looking to reopen have shown interest,’ says Jigna. ‘Within two weeks of speaking to local people about Sanitaze, we had to set up a separate entity within the business.’
The campervans that saved a care home from coronavirus
When Covid-19 was first recorded in Inverness earlier this year, care home manager Victoria Connolly was absolutely determined none of her residents would catch the virus.
So she did something extraordinary: she asked her staff if any would be prepared to give up their family life for several weeks and live in.
Incredibly, 14 selfless volunteers agreed, meaning that no one would be coming from outside into the Isobel Fraser care home, and risk spreading the virus among the 27 vulnerable residents.
But then Victoria had another problem – where to house them. ‘There are a couple of rooms upstairs I could fit six people into,’ says the 38-year-old.
‘Then I thought, “Where am I going to put everyone else?” I have a friend with a campervan, so I asked her if we could use it. She agreed but I needed more, so she suggested I hire one.’
Victoria called Highland Auto Campers, where owner Mark Jarratt immediately agreed to supply three vans – one brand new, two just a year old – at cost.
‘We just wanted to help,’ says Mark, 44. ‘The campervans were sitting quarantined, and it’s good to do something for the community.’
While the vans – called Hector, Ruby and Oscar – usually rent for £130 a night, the home paid just £250 a week for each.
‘We gave them a thorough clean before driving them over and setting them up,’ says Mark.
Six people stayed in the vans for the next three to five weeks.
‘They really enjoyed it,’ says Victoria. ‘The vans were warm and comfortable – most have said they’d take them out on holiday.’
Most importantly, their sacrifice was worthwhile – no one at the home has yet contracted the virus.
‘We would have done anything to keep the residents safe,’ says Victoria, who left her own husband and two young children to live in.
‘I was terrified the virus would get in, and as soon as it does, it seems to spread really fast.’
Now Ruby, Oscar and Hector are back at Highland Auto Campers, raring to go as soon as campsites reopen. While they were almost fully booked for spring, the company had to turn customers away. They are now taking bookings from mid-July.
‘We were proud to be able to help,’ says Mark. ‘We had great feedback from the care home, local people and lots of our previous and potential customers. We’re a fledgling business, and it gives you a warm, fuzzy feeling.”