By Kate Holton
LONDON (Reuters) – It took Lucio and Meera Santoro 35 years to build up their London design company and just a week to watch it fall apart.
Production has stopped, staff have been suspended and support from the government’s more than half a trillion-dollar economic rescue package is slow to come through.
The plight of the brand and product designer is just one example of how the coronavirus pandemic has pushed small British companies to the brink, with business leaders and owners warning government support may be too complex for some to survive.
The Bank of England has even warned of heavy “scarring” if banks cannot quickly start pumping credit through the arteries of the world’s fifth largest economy.
“Overnight the switch turned off,” Lucio Santoro, 60, told Reuters. “People do not need our products to live and the industry that we sell to has closed down. It’s come to a grinding halt. It is worrying and frightening.”
Britain has been in an effective lockdown for almost a month, with pubs and restaurants shut and most factories and shops closed, prompting official forecasters to warn of a 35% crash in April-June economic output and 10% unemployment.
Faced with potentially the worst recession in three hundred years, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government has guaranteed 80% of bank loans to small firms; vowed to pay 80% of salary costs to minimise redundancies; deferred tax; given grants and let many businesses off paying business rates for a year.
But the system is stuttering: banks had lent 1.1 billion pounds ($ 1.4 billion) by April 13, trade body UK Finance said. There are also reports from business groups that lenders, with 20% of the risk, are rejecting claims.
The salary furlough scheme opened on Monday, with more than a million staff put on leave. But that approach has frustrated some small company owners who need staff to manage stock and suppliers if they are to emerge from the lockdown.
“The idea is that you retain as many jobs as possible when we switch back on,” Lucio Santoro said of his firm which designs, produces and licences its brands on goods such as stationery, bags and 3D pop up cards. “But the business has to survive until then.”
The finance ministry said it had worked at unprecedented speed to help hundreds of thousands of businesses of all sizes.
The novel coronavirus has tested governments across the world to breaking point and on some fronts Britain has been found wanting. While the package of measures is comparable to efforts elsewhere, it has taken time to get it where needed.
In Switzerland, an emergency state-backed loan scheme of 40 billion Swiss francs ($ 41 billion) delivered 14.3 billion francs of loans in the first few days.
In the United States, a $ 350 billion emergency loan programme to help small businesses keep workers on their payrolls has already run out of funds.
In comparison, Britain has got 7.6 billion pounds of loans to big businesses with investment-grade credit ratings, but many small firms with tiny profit margins are either still waiting or avoiding loans they know they can’t pay back.
Bank of England Governor Andrew Bailey has ordered banks to speed up the process and has said a 100% state guarantee for the smallest loans may be needed.
Stephen Jones, the CEO of UK Finance, has said banks are working at reduced capacity due to their own staff shortages, and that a full government guarantee would help.
Finance minister Rishi Sunak said on Tuesday he was not convinced.
Billionaire entrepreneur and philanthropist John Caudwell says the government needs to step up. Along with 100% loan guarantees, he wants it to pay 100% of salary for the lowest earners to help revive the economy once the lockdown eases.
“Jobs are being decimated by the minute,” he told Reuters. “It desperately, desperately needs re-addressing now, today, before it’s too late.”
Britain’s six million small businesses employ 16 million people, or 60% of the workforce, the lifeblood of the economy.
Santoro Group has, until now, been one of the successes. On Tuesday, it was awarded Britain’s most prestigious industry accolade: The Queen’s Award for Enterprise for International Trade. It is the second time Santoro has won.
Founded in a studio off London Soho’s trendy Carnaby Street in 1985, its products are sold in more than 90 countries, including the MoMA museum in New York, department stores Harrods and Selfridges in London and shops across Japan.
It employs around 100 people, including two of Lucio and Meera’s children, and a couple of thousand indirectly via merchandise.
Once the pandemic hit, the retail industry shut and revenue dried up.
Thanks to careful financial management, Lucio says they can pay staff the 80% furlough as long as they are reimbursed by the end of April. Others are waiting for government cash first.
Asked how long he could last, he paused. “I don’t know is the answer.” They are reviewing the situation daily.
Santoro is lobbying for change as a member of E2E, a 23,000-strong network of entrepreneurs and investors that is itself struggling for support. Founder Shalini Khemka, who had a loan application rejected despite never asking for one before, has been inundated by members saying they face going bust.
“I’m receiving email after email after email,” she said. “Slowly we will see a domino effect of companies running out of cash. It’s a diabolical mess.”
Lucio Santoro remains philosophical. Having fought to build up the firm, he knows it will take a “hell of a lot of effort, energy, time and absolute determination” to succeed again.
“But we have our life, our family, our health. And we, like everyone, will do our damnedest to get through”.