MT Special: How to thrive in a downturn

The economy may be in tatters, but MT reports on four firms for which bad times mean good business.

by
Last Updated: 14 Feb 2013

Here we are, looking forward to the green shoots of spring at the end of a long, hard winter. But the economic climate remains resolutely arctic: UK plc is encased in permafrost, with precious few signs of a thaw anytime soon.

Banks still aren't lending, despite having absorbed billions of pounds of taxpayers' money. Retailers have been tumbling like ninepins since January, having posted some of the worst sales figures in years. Even the mighty Tesco is starting to feel the pinch - its sales growth of 2.5% was beaten by most of its big rivals and marked the company's worst performance over the festive season for 15 years.

Meanwhile, manufacturing output is shrinking, despite theoretically being boosted by the collapse in the value of sterling. The days of the $2 pound and cheap trips to Europe seem distant memories. UK unemployment, say the pointy-headed forecasters at the Item Club, may hit 3.4m by the end of the year.

Under such circumstances, it's understandably hard to keep looking on the bright side. But here at MT, we think it's worth the effort - the power of what shrinks call a 'positive mental attitude' can make a difference when all about you is doom, gloom and disaster. If others are hunkering down and preparing for the worst, being the one who keeps their eyes on the horizon can pay handsome dividends.

So, to demonstrate that even tough times are not without commercial opportunities for those bold enough to seize them, we scoured the nation for a quartet of companies that are bucking the trend and thriving despite - or even because of - the downturn.

And an eclectic bunch they are, proving there's still no shortage of economic diversity in the UK. From a discount retailer planning to open 30 new stores this year, to a large outsourced services business that has just entered the FTSE-100. From a small business insolvency specialist that is in the throes of its first trading boom in a decade, to a genuinely innovative husband-and-wife start-up. No sniggering please: luxury handbag hire really is a clever idea, enabling suddenly cash-strapped businesswomen to continue to indulge their designer handbag habit - but for a tiny fraction of the cost of buying all the latest gear. Now that's what we call credit-crunch thinking.

SERVING UP GROWTH - SERCO

If you've had your fill of retrenchment and cutbacks, put a glass to your ear and eavesdrop on the conversation over at Serco. You'll hear a lot of talk about growth. It won over £400m of contracts in the second half of 2008, and has even celebrated breaking into the FTSE-100. Doesn't it know there's a recession on?

The Hampshire-based company handles everything from running the railways to serving school dinners. It's an eclectic remit, but one that leaves it well placed to profit from the downturn.

'We're on a very nice path right now,' says Chris Hyman, Serco's chief executive. 'In past recessions we've seen the same or improved growth. So we don't have to sit and think "we're in trouble".'

Hyman is suited to hard times. He fasts every Tuesday, doesn't drink, sings gospel and keeps fit. And he knows how to keep his company in decent shape, with its nimble portfolio approach.

'The ability to chop and change becomes even more important at times like these,' says Hyman. 'It's something we do actively. We're the largest air-traffic controller, we have more scientists than anyone in the UK, we do more rail services than any of our competitors, and more defence. But we don't call ourselves any of those things. We call ourselves a services company. That way, we can move around markets without worrying investors.'

It's an increasingly international mix too. Now recognised as the market leader, Serco can follow the work across the globe. It recently concluded a deal to buy SI International, increasing its leverage in the lucrative US defence industry. It won the Dubai Metro contract and bought InfoVision, the largest independent outsourcing company in India - a foothold in another rapidly expanding market.

And yet the company is not resting on its laurels. 'We sat down and said, "OK, let's assume this is going to affect us in the worst way, what can we do?",' he says. 'We've identified areas where we could push harder to be more efficient. Much of this will not end up in growth for us but will result in customers saving money and trading better. That's how you build good relationships.

'I'm very positive about the fact that we can manage our way out of this,' Hyman says of British business in general. 'Management should stay in touch with people on the ground and stay nimble. Decide what to do and do it quickly. We'll come out of this with a stronger economy. But we mustn't fool ourselves. It's going to be tough.'

COINING IT - POUNDLAND - JIM MCCARTHY

If you're betting on which businesses will weather this recession, you'd happily put a quid on Poundland. While most had a Christmas to forget, Poundland's same-store sales for the five weeks to 4 January were up 3.9% year-on-year; total sales for the period, including new stores, rose 24.3%. With plans to create 30 stores and 1,000 jobs in 2009, it seems to be succeeding not despite the recession but because of it.

And the flight to value is crowding its down-at-heel aisles. 'There has been a 22% rise in custom from the A/B groups in the last 12 months,' says CEO Jim McCarthy. 'They now account for 11 out of every 100 customers.' He reckons shoppers' snobbishness is rapidly evaporating. 'People at the top end have a challenge as well these days, so they're shopping more wisely,' he says. 'But the difference between this recession and the last one is, I think, that some of those behaviours will remain when the recovery starts.'

It was just before that last crippling downturn that Poundland was formed, in Burton upon Trent, by Steve Smith and his father Keith. The fledgling business survived, growing steadily to 2002, when it was bought by PE group Advent International. It now has more than 200 outlets.

Each stocks a baffling range of products, from garish plastic tat to baby pyjamas - all for a third of the price of a pint. There's a wealth of big brands, in improbable multi-pack and pick 'n' mix deals. Choose from Toblerone and Pepsi, Tetley tea, Colgate and Heinz baked beans.

But if the company has no fear of losing customers, getting people through the door in the first place seems to have been more of a challenge. 'Yes! Everything's £1!' shouts the sign above the door. Clearly, there are those who daren't believe such an offer actually exists. 'One of the most frequently asked questions in a Poundland store is "how much is this?",' says McCarthy. 'I'm reassured when people ask that. It means they genuinely can't believe the value.'

Value for money is what it's all about right now, and larger retailers like Tesco and Asda have muscled into the budget territory being staked out by upstarts like Aldi and Lidl. Poundland is secure in its position - bolstered by the simple appeal of its £1 hook. 'Poundland has held the price down for 19 years now,' says McCarthy. 'It's flattering to be imitated.'

If the most common question at Poundland is 'how much is this?', the second most-asked must be 'how do they do it?'. For McCarthy, the secret lies in its trading team, its growth record and a global approach to sourcing. 'We'll chase the deal, wherever it is, to get the best,' he says. 'And we don't keep people waiting. The certainty of getting paid, on time and in full, is a big draw for suppliers right now. In fact, the demise of other retailers is feeding our supply chain. We've bought many thousands of pairs of plimsoles from a recently deceased retailer.'

The coming year is sure to be tough, but Poundland won't be taking evasive action. 'We have a simple retail proposition that resonates with consumers at all levels,' says McCarthy. 'We're going to stick with the knitting.'

MONEYBAGS - HANDBAG HIRE HQ - JO AND JAMES TRAFFORD

Speedy, Saskia and the Giant Stud. These aren't names of porn stars, even if one of them was lustily stroked last summer by a Playboy bunny at a party in Las Vegas. No, these are the monikers of designer handbags with price tags of more than £1,000 - and their handlers are a mother of three and her police inspector husband, who live in the Midlands market town of Newark.

Jo and James Trafford started their online handbag rental company in July 2007, and haven't looked back. It was profitable by its third month, and now with more than a 100 designer bags and 250 members, business is looking good. December 2008 was the best month so far. 'We suspect that, going by the last six months, we're recession-proof,' says James, who looks after Handbag Hire HQ's accounts. If ever there was a man who looked less likely to know his YSL Tribute from his Balenciaga Giant Brief, it would be this rugby-playing copper.

But the principal force behind the business is Jo, who, fed up with a career selling quick-setting concrete, pipe repair kits and drill bits for an engineering firm, decided to indulge her inner passion for handbags. With James helping out and a loan from the bank, their website slowly grew, but it wasn't until the release of the Sex and the City film last year, featuring US handbag-hire company Bag Borrow or Steal, that things really took off.

Members include businesswomen who want a different bag for the boardroom each week, celebrity addicts who want to emulate their favourite WAG, and women after something special for a wedding, 21st or 30th birthday party. Many live in London, Manchester and Liverpool, but, curiously, also in the Borders region. Handbag Hire HQ makes its money in three ways: the monthly membership fee of £7.50; the charge for the hire of a bag (which ranges from £10 a week to £95 a month); and gift certificates, which proved popular for Christmas and are expected to do well for Valentine's Day. Altogether, this brings in enough for Jo to take a salary and to fund regular shopping trips to London to buy new bags - her last spree set her back £3,500.

Jo's focus on customer service means she has built up friendly relationships with many of her members. And because she is in such regular contact with them, she is well placed to witness the effects that the recession is having on female consumers. 'Before, most of our members were people who would go to the high street to buy their bags and hired a bag as a bit of a whimsy,' she says. 'Now, we have people who have been working in the City, may not be working in the same job now, but are used to having the beautiful bags and want to keep the lifestyle going.'

Why fork out £1,010 on a Fendi B when, for £90, you can lust over it for a whole month, all to yourself?

INSOLVENCY PAYS - BEGBIES GROUP - GRAHAM MCINNES

There aren't many firms where a recession is actively good for business but, like the undertaker for Tombstone when Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday were in town, Begbies Traynor is one of them.

Begbies Traynor is a specialist SME insolvency practitioner, and is usually brought in only when things have come to a pretty desperate pass. 'When we get the call, it's almost always because a firm can't pay the wages bill,' says Graham McInnes, corporate development director for parent company the Begbies Group. Almost every other payment can be ducked, deferred or ignored somehow, he adds, but the wages have to paid - or else.

Sometimes it is engaged by a struggling firm direct and sometimes - 'when the directors are in denial' - by the firm's bank, accountant or solicitor. Either way, it has to act fast. 'There's a huge amount of legislation surrounding insolvency nowadays,' says McInnes. 'But the basic steps are, first, identify what assets there are and stop them disappearing; second, decide whether the firm can trade or must be closed immediately; and then look at who is owed what money, and the order in which they should be paid.' The bank is first on the list, then the Government and staff. Suppliers and customers are last. 'Dividends to unsecured creditors are typically only one in 10,' says McInnes. Of course, Begbies' own cut has to be allocated, too.

Predictably, Begbies' 750 staff in its 40 offices have been doing a brisk trade. First-half revenues are up 37%. It has ministered the last commercial rites to companies ranging from a Cornish wetsuit importer, numerous estate agencies and the London branch of celeb eatery Planet Hollywood, to a Liverpool-based firm, maker of the Union flags Captain Scott took on his ill-fated polar expedition in 1912.

As well as insolvency, Begbies also has a corporate finance arm, a tax consultancy and a newly formed forensic accountancy section. The forensic business is doing well - it's handy for tracing assets - 'such as where a company director has hidden his yacht', says McInnes. But it is the SME insolvency work that is really booming, currently accounting for some 80% of annual revenues of £70m. That's double the level it was at five years ago.

After a decade in which the market was 'flat as a pancake', Begbies started to see an insolvency boom in the making back in 2007. If anything, it was a bit too prescient. 'All the indicators were telling us to expect rising insolvencies - over-leveraged balance sheets, supply outstripping demand... So we geared up for it in 2008, but we were nine months too early,' admits McInnes. Events have proved that if the timing was a bit off, the basic premise was not.

McInnes, who says he is old enough to remember not only the early '90s recession but the one a decade before that, says the difference this time is that the banks will not lend, even to sound concerns. 'Businesses that would in the last two recessions have been able to get the bank to tide them over are being starved of working capital. Quite a number of viable firms are at risk because of this.'

But he says the upside to this squeeze is that there are plenty of strong businesses out there, which should bounce back quickly - if the recession doesn't go on for too long. If it does, then even the likes of Begbies could start to feel the pinch.

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