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Determination during the downturn

Rob Pittam
Working Lunch

Rob Pittam
Rob Pittam finds businesses gritting their teeth and surviving.
As this long dark winter for our economy grinds on, I have discovered a new phenomenon - businesses refusing to succumb to the gloom.

A Dunkirk spirit seems to be settling at companies up and down the country.

Instead of "Don't mention the war," the new catchphrase is "Don't mention the economy."

These businesses aren't burying their heads in the sand ostrich-like and hoping it will all go away. Instead they are facing up to the problems ahead, but refusing to be cowed.

Keeping up production

EPM technologies at Draycott in Derbyshire is a good example. It is a business which has boomed as the economy has grown. Its owner, Graham Mulholland is just the type of person the government wants to encourage. A young entrepreneur who left school at 16 and went into business by himself.

A keen canoeist, he started off making fibre glass kayaks and canoes. He has built that into a factory making carbon fibre parts for the car industry. He employs 100 people and supplies Jaguar, Lotus, Aston Martin and five formula one teams.

Graham has seen orders drop but has kept production going at the same level as last year. He has not put any of his staff on short time working or cut overtime, yet.

Gallows humour

As an added act of defiance, if you call the company and get put on hold, you'll be listening to The Muppets.

"It just got to the stage where every time I picked up the phone, the caller on the other end was complaining about the state of the economy. So I changed our on hold music to The Muppets. Now when people come through, at least they're smiling."

It might be gallows humour, but Graham is insisting on leaving the wider problems of the economy behind at the factory gate. He's seen three competitors go out of business in the last month - two of them on Christmas Eve.

But he is determined to be bullish. One strategy is to make the most of the weak pound and try to win more orders in Europe.

Stay flexible to survive

And down in Buckinghamshire at a completely different firm, Garage Tek, I came across the same spirit.

Alastair Broom is building up a company which carries out garage makeovers. It is an American idea in which customers have their garages refitted in much the same way as people have their kitchens done.

It is the kind of discretionary spending that could be hit by people tightening their belt, but Alastair has thought of that. He called in his local Business Link advisors and came up with a new strategy. He has revamped his website, changed his marketing and is looking at bringing in new customers.

Whereas before most of his business was with high earners having a complete refit, which can cost up to 10,000, he's now lowered his sights. The company is offering to sort out just a part of the garage and is even bringing in a new DIY version of its wall cladding and shelving system. As a result it is winning orders with customers it would never have appealed to before.

Neither of these businesses would deny that times are tough, but they do have something in common. A determination not to give in, and a belief that if they work hard enough and smart enough they can get through the recession and still be in business when the economy picks up once again.

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