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How the pandemic has forced us all to find new ways of engaging with clients

We all hope there is an end in sight now: The Coronavirus vaccines are being rolled out successfully and the Government’s roadmap to removing lockdown restrictions is progressing. David Fort, Managing Partner of Haines Watts Manchester reflects on how he had to adapt as a business adviser over the past 12 months, and what lessons will remain useful in a post-pandemic society.

The UK recently marked one full year since the first Covid-19 lockdown started. When the Covid-19 pandemic hit the country in March last year, the overnight shift to work-from-home represented a shift for many of our clients. Some of them had to scramble to provide their workforce with the tools necessary to login remotely, others were forced to furlough staff and close their doors in the haze of uncertainty.

What we have discovered as accountants is that we’ve also had to learn on the job too because none of us had encountered a pandemic before.

Covid-19 has been a real test and business owners have had to step up to the mark to make sure their businesses survive. If I look back 12 months ago, I’d have said some businesses that were struggling probably wouldn’t be here now, but with the money that has been available, plus furlough and the bounceback loans, we’ve been able to help many businesses to grow and flourish, despite the circumstances. Some of my clients have even been able to use the situation to expand and evolve.

All of our clients have learned lessons in being more agile and robust and with our help, they have changed their businesses for the better and come up with new ways to make money.

What is the sentiment like among business owners at the moment?

Business owners are trying their best to get through this and organise things for further down the line, but they still have this inherent uncertainty that there might be another wave and everything could be shut again.

David Fort

David Fort

Whilst the Government has extended furlough to allow those in the hospitality sector to keep the staff they are going to need as we exit this pandemic, many of them are frustrated with the time it is taking to get their hands on the grants and money which was announced in the Budget.

While the prospect of an April reopening has dominated many of my clients’ thoughts, especially those in hospitality, where we can see an excellent example of the difficult decisions that business owners have to make. Reopening as soon as possible seems like an easy decision, but it’s not: those that are able to have created outside social/eating areas, but still won’t be trading at maximum capacity. Some of my clients have asked me whether it is even worth doing or whether they should keep staff on furlough until the next stage in May.

The Government’s staged process does seem to be causing frustration because of a lack of clarity. It’s obvious that if the Government wants to give people quick and dynamic support, it needs to be something that they can control like the furlough scheme or not paying VAT or not paying Corporation Tax. However, anything that has to be applied for through a Government agency seems to be taking an enormous amount of time.

Clients are having to fill in a lot of different forms and have turned to Haines Watts for advice because they are finding the grant process really hard work and their business plans are taking more time to shape as a result.

The hospitality sector has been completely shut down and business owners are being asked to pull together three-year forecasts when they still can’t trade. I’ve had clients tell me that wherever they go, whatever they tap into, there is always something that makes it not as straightforward as they would have hoped.

What changes have your clients made, how effective have they been – and which are likely to be permanent?

I’ve been helping a couple of restaurant owners recently who are working with Manchester City Council on putting the logistics in place for a ‘Coming Out of Lockdown Food, Arts and Drink Festival in May. There have been challenges, so I’ve found myself helping them with VAT issues and with how their software systems can work with lots of different suppliers.

We have been working with the owners of a country house hotel during the pandemic who have invested their own money into the building and its grounds. They have done this because they see potential with the pent-up demand there is for the likes of christenings and weddings.

The hotel currently hasn’t got a license for eating outdoors or a change in use and we are talking to them about that now. They are convinced that we will see a bounce-back in the hospitality sector soon.

We also work with some caravan parks and they have done well lately, because there are going to be more people holidaying in the UK this summer than ever before.

In terms of the grant support, we have had a lot of clients coming to us proactively to ask for help. While Manchester City Council’s website does cover off a lot of information and that’s been good, every business is different. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach.

Our clients continue to turn to us when they are asked for their last three years accounts, or when they have to do a projection for the next 12 months, it’s clearer than ever that they need our help with that.

How will Covid-19 affect their business strategy as we move forwards? 

A nightclub client might think they are a hospitality business, but with a curfew of 10pm, that’s not going to work for them.  They need to be able to open between 6pm and 10pm and if they want to do that, they also need to apply for the correct license.

One of our clients recently sought support from Arts Council England and was successful. As a result, I then mentioned it to another client that happened to be a very old Manchester nightclub.

There were rumours that it might have to close its doors. While they are a commercial organisation, they are also part of Manchester’s history and so we suggested that they apply for funding from Arts Council England.

When the forms initially came through, they were only relevant to charities. So, the client didn’t know what to do because the forms weren’t relevant for a commercial limited company, so we had to help them through the process and their application is now under review by Arts Council England.

Sometimes, letting go of traditional roots is the only way to grow in a brave new world.

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