Business not as usual
15th June 2020
"The BSE1 crisis was also a challenge mostly to do with the negative publicity, but I have never experienced anything like this" says Richard Balson, owner of RJ Balson & Son for the last 40 years. For a business that is now in its 25th generation, making it Britain's oldest family butchers; that is no mean feat.
But with sheer determination, hard work and perseverance, surviving a global pandemic is exactly what can be expected from a business that celebrates its 505th birthday this year. Founded in 1515 and a member of the Tercentenarian club2, the business has witnessed the rise of the industrial revolution, two world wars, 47 recessions, a clutch of banking crises, countless stock market crashes and the defeat of Napoleon, according to its website3. Covid-19 and the recent nationwide lockdown is yet another challenge that this relatively small family business has had to overcome.
I recently caught up with Richard to discuss his experience over the last few months, the lessons that he has learned and his optimism on the future prospects of their family business.
What was your experience at the start of the crisis?
"I could sense the uncertainty and fear factor in people. As an essential business we knew we would be staying open but we were not immune to the fall-out from the lockdown. In fact, we were really busy for the first two weeks at the start of the crisis in the UK with people panic buying. In an average week, we would normally sell 10-12 sacks of spuds. However, in those two weeks we were averaging 150 sacks knowing fully well we would not be seeing those customers for a while."
How has the crisis impacted on the business overall?
"We have continued running the business as normal with some changes in line with Government guidelines, such as reducing the number of people allowed in the shop at any one time. We source all of our produce locally in Dorset and Somerset, and we have had some disruptions to our supply chains but we expect to fully return to normal as the lockdown eases."
"There has also been a loss of trade from restaurants and pubs which has resulted in a 30% reduction in trading activity. In addition, Easter weekend, which is traditionally the busiest time of the year after Christmas in Bridport given the proximity to campsites and holiday destinations on the Dorset coastline, was completely empty. We made some other minor adjustments such as opening the shop from 7am to 4pm rather than until 5pm. However, the recent good weather has made shutting the shop earlier easier to deal with!"
What distinct qualities has enabled the business to pull through the current crisis?
"The business only has five employees, all of whom are family members. We have all been very lucky to stay healthy during this period.
Clearly being an essential business has been hugely beneficial as we have remained open throughout. Bridport is a thriving town with a number of independent shops on the high street, some of which have been hit very hard over the last few months due to their inability to trade. We are fortunate that we own our premises so do not have on-going rental costs."
"Over the years, I have seen a number of butchers try to grow too quickly by opening one shop, then very quickly another one, only to have to consolidate when there is a downturn in business. Whilst I have nothing against growth in particular, as a small and nimble business, decision making has been quick. We only have one shop open, we are a key part of the local community and a family asset for over 500 years."
Have you had to make any adjustments in aid of the local community?
"We have seen an increase in home deliveries during this period particularly to our vulnerable customers. But we have been making home deliveries since the 1920s, pretty much since the invention of the motorcar, so an increased amount of home deliveries has not been a problem at all.
I believe that people will want to support local businesses going forward and increasingly see them as an important component of a thriving community."
What do you think other family-owned businesses can learn from the experience?
"It is going to be a different world for a while now. Our business has a loyal customer base; we have served generations of the same families.. We believe in having credibility and conviction in what we are doing. Our customers know us and we know them. Taking care of our customers and offering a personal service is what we do well. Those same customers will stay loyal and value the personal service that they have been receiving from the business."
Do you think the experience of the current pandemic will help shape the business in the future?
"I have a son aged 40 who is not working in the business. But there are grandchildren who may join the family business in due course. Whilst the grandchildren may be too young to fully understand the gravity of the current crisis, they will have the values and know-how of 25 generations and counting, of the family to rely on should they wish to join the family business in the future."
1. Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE). Also known as mad cow disease that affected cows in the United Kingdom in the 1980s and 1990s.
2. A small group of family owned businesses that are more than 300 years old and still owned by the founding family.
Ola Adeosun is a senior wealth planner at LGT Vestra and leads the firm's Family business governance and succession service. Ola provides specialist advice to clients in all areas of wealth planning, in particular helping entrepreneurial families navigate their business, ownership and family structures. He is a Chartered Financial Planner and Fellow of the Personal Finance Society. He is also a full member of the Society of Trust and Estate Practitioners with additional qualifications on advising UK connected international clients and family owned businesses.
LGT Vestra belongs to the largest private banking and asset management group owned by an entrepreneurial family. Over the last 900 years the Princely House of Liechtenstein has successfully transferred its family traditions and entrepreneurial spirit from one generation to the next. We therefore truly understand the complexities and sensitivities in managing family wealth, governance and succession across generations. Our family governance and succession service provides entrepreneurial families with access to a specialist team to effect a dynamic governance framework and succession strategy.
Find out more about LGT Vestra at lgtvestra.com