Year of the pivot: Four businesses which diversified to stay open

Business owners warn against straying far from core goals when adapting

Seamstress Audrey Wilson working at the Intosport clothing factory in Castlecomer Co Kilkenny which switched from making GAA kits to medical scrubs during the Coronavirus crisis

Seamstress Audrey Wilson working at the Intosport clothing factory in Castlecomer Co Kilkenny which switched from making GAA kits to medical scrubs during the Coronavirus crisis

 

Intosport managing director Jonny Dowling began to worry about the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on his business in early February, well before the first Covid lockdown was announced in Ireland.

The Castlecomer-based supplier of sports and leisurewear started to see a number of large orders for sports kits being cancelled ahead of Covid becoming a major cause of concern.

“Clubs and schools were the first to go and they are a mainstay of our business,” he says.

“When the lockdown was announced, we signed up for the wage subsidy scheme but knew we had to do more to ensure we’d be okay.”

Seeking advice from his local enterprise office in Kilkenny, Dowling secured funding that enabled him to purchase new machinery and reconfigure the factory floor for social-distancing purposes so the business could start making personal protective equipment (PPE) instead.

Intosport went from making GAA kits to hospital scrubs and reusable water-repellent gowns in response to the difficulties the Health Service Executive was having in securing PPE. The move enabled Dowling not only to keep staff employed, but to also take on additional workers to fulfil orders.

“It’s a similar process making gowns to GAA kits when it comes down to it. The biggest challenges we faced were around setting up the factory for social distancing,” he says.

“At the height of it all, we had 10 people here and took on another five staff part-time to cope. We were doing thousands of gowns for the local hospital alone,” Dowling adds.

Intosport managing director Jonny Dowling and Joe Finnegan cutting out patterns
Intosport managing director Jonny Dowling and Joe Finnegan cutting out patterns

The company was able to get up and running producing PPE stock within a short space of time and, while things have quietened down, in recent months Intosport is still fulfilling some orders for repeat customers as it focuses on getting back to its core work.

As if Covid wasn’t enough to put the business in a tailspin, the sight of Normal People star Paul Mescal wandering around in a pair of Intosport GAA shorts in the summer, brought added attention to the business.

“We gained a lot in terms of brand reputation over that and, more broadly, the move to make PPE went well,” he says.

“If I learned one thing this year, it was that you need to be flexible, but also not to overstep the mark. Change, but do it in a way that means you stay close to what you were doing so it is relatively easy to adapt,” Dowling adds.

Rethink the basics

Intosport is by no means the only business that has had to rethink the basics this year. If ever there was a time when ingenuity was a key business requirement, it has been 2020. The Covid crisis has hit hard on multiple fronts and, like Dowling, many business owners have had to pivot.

Recent figures from the Central Statistics Office (CSO) show State supports have played a key role in keeping businesses afloat. Between March and September, almost six in 10 businesses availed of supports, including the Temporary Wage Subsidy Scheme (TWSS), Employment Wage Subsidy Scheme (EWSS) and Pandemic Unemployment Payment (PUP).

While some businesses still had no option but to fold, others have been able to hang on by adapting their focus and facilities. Like Intosport, many have shifted more subtly, bringing their expertise to activities that complement their core offerings. Examples abound.

Co Derry-based Bloc Blinds, for example, went from making window blinds to face shields, while Dublin’s Reagent Genie developed a testing kit for researchers involved in developing a vaccine.

Some companies gravitated towards helping detect the coronavirus, including Randox, the Co Antrim-headquartered diagnostics company, which is investing about £68 million (€75.5 million) in ramping up Covid testing facilities. Meanwhile, surface-coating firm Kastus, came up with an antimicrobial treatment that is effective against the coronavirus.

Hospitality

The hospitality sector, which was among the worst-hit industries, also responded well to the exceptional circumstances in which it found itself.

Chef and restaurateur Niall Sabongi runs the wholesale business Sustainable Seafood Ireland (SSI), which counts numerous Michelin-starred restaurants as clients. While he’s looking forward to seeing the back of 2020 the same as everyone else, he says it has also been a year of learning like no other.

Among other things this year, he repurposed a vintage Citroën van and hit the road with his blue Salty Buoy food truck, selling lobster rolls, crab toasties and the like. He also turned to selling fish online and, more recently, teamed up with Mickael Viljanen, chef at The Greenhouse restaurant in Dublin, to launch a seafood supper delivery service.

Niall Sabongi (centre) of Sustainable Seafood Ireland, at the the market re-opened at Airfield Estate, Dundrum, Dublin. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill/The Irish Times
Niall Sabongi (centre) of Sustainable Seafood Ireland, at the the market re-opened at Airfield Estate, Dundrum, Dublin. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill/The Irish Times

As if that weren’t enough, he was even able to get the word out about being left with about €30,000 worth of perishable stock after new restrictions came in September. He and his team quickly offloaded the stock to the public who queued at SSI stalls in farmers’ markets in Airfield, St Anne’s Park and Herbert Park, as well as the company’s headquarters in Clonshaugh.

“Looking back, I think I was lucky in acting as quickly as I did to the first lockdown by getting the food truck going, even though it was a gamble spending the money at the time. The response was great.

“On the wholesale front, it was a nightmare early on though. Our business evaporated overnight as restaurants shut. I’d always said I wanted to look at selling online but, at heart, I’m a chef/restaurateur-turned-fishmonger and knew nothing about the retail industry, so embracing e-commerce has been a massive learning curve for us,” he says.

“Overall, we’re not even at a third of our previous turnover but I’ve been able to keep all the staff on and have actually hired more and we’re paying some of our rent. Prior to Covid, the business had been doing really well.

“As it turned out, my focus ended up being on the core brands and working to make sure they’ll last forever,” Sabongi adds.

The entrepreneur says it has been an extremely stressful time, but he’s glad that, while the company expanded its activities, it didn’t diversify too greatly from its core business.

Like most business owners, he’s hoping that, with vaccines being distributed, 2021 will be a better year. He’s realistic, however, believing restrictions are likely to remain in force in some form for at least the first half of 2021.

“If there was anything I’d like that could help, it is that the Government would be a little bit more decisive. I’d like them to stop trying to appease everybody and do what is required. If they’d taken the advice of the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) earlier on, we’d not be in the situation we’re in now. They need to take the hard decisions required more quickly so that businesses like ours know where we stand and aren’t left in limbo,” says Sabongi.

Many restaurants and cafes pivoted during the year, and consumers eagerly supported them. Some met with success, but found the economics just didn’t make expansion worthwhile.

Vanessa Murphy and Anna Cabrera, who run the much-loved Las Tapas de Lola on Wexford Street in Dublin, lost about 40 per cent of seating space at their restaurant due to social distancing. They were among the restaurants that diversified into offering a click-and-collect service during lockdown. However, they found it just didn’t add up.

“We were completely closed during the first lockdown and then in September, when it was outdoor and takeaway only, we decided to give click and collect a go. It was very successful in that we sold out every night, but it just wasn’t economically viable.

“To produce the amount of food we prepare, there is a need for nine people in the kitchen because tapas are very prep-heavy. We also had three people on the floor and so between staff costs and the loss of alcohol sales, it didn’t make sense,” she said.

“We could have followed others by signing up to Deliveroo to increase the amount of orders we get, but our kitchen is small and with them taking a 30 per cent cut of revenues, it just wasn’t worth the hassle,” Murphy adds.

Travel sector

Travel was another sector that was hard hit by Covid but Aerospace Software Developments (ASD), which provides radio frequency identification (RFID) tracking solutions that are used by some of the world’s largest airlines, thrived during the pandemic.

Firstly, the company developed software to monitor the cleaning of aircraft seat covers that has been adopted by FlyDubai.

It also benefited from the fact that many transportation companies, including carriers, have used the enforced downtime to look at their processes to see how they might be improved using RFID. In addition, ASD tried new ways of working, including a fully remote installation for a South African airline, covering components such as oxygen generators.

“We’d always been onsite prior to Covid, going on aircraft with handheld devices to do scanning and tagging but, for the first time, this was done remotely. Knowing that we can do it has been good businesswise with another airline now signing up with us on the back of it,” says managing director Dave Browne.

With the company also involved in providing customs and excise solutions, ASD is expecting a busy 2021 given Brexit and with flying (hopefully) taking off again.

“We’ve been very fortunate and it hasn’t necessarily been by design. But like many businesses that have had to deal with the pandemic, we’ve gotten by through being prepared to adapt where necessary and I’m confident that things will be better in the new year,” says Browne.

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