Co-ops in the Time of COVID-19

As we enter our second tranche of a three-week lockdown, it is perhaps a good time to pause and reflect on the momentous events of the last month, its effect on Co-op and Community Finance (CCF), its clients, staff and board members. Our Operations Manager, Alain Demontoux, pauses for thought.

Here at CCF, half the team are used to working from home, with Ian Rothwell (Investment Manager) and Tim Coomer (Development Manager) both operating from their respective home offices in Southampton and Devizes. Anne Wilks (Accounting and Administration Manager) and I, on the other hand, had to quickly digitally dismantle the head office in Bristol and move it to our homes in Bristol. It felt like that saying, ‘if your house was on fire what would you take first?’! Whilst Ian and Tim work remotely, they are reliant on the back-office support we provide in Bristol in the form of our central servers and our loan and accounting management systems. On the Thursday before lockdown, I spent six hours on the phone trying to talk to Team Viewer in Germany to establish the remote working software for us both. When I finally got through, the poor guy at the other end of the phone said with a long, tired sigh, “suddenly the whole world wants our product!”

A month on, and it’s extraordinary how quickly we have adapted. A ten person Zoom board meeting yesterday made me think, “why don’t we do it like this more often”. My most overused phrase of this pandemic, in both a professional and personal context, has been that necessity is the mother of invention, and indeed it is.

We have been working around the clock talking to our borrowers and back-office clients. The key has been to establish how we can help and what they need from us in order to help them survive the financial and economic challenges of these unprecedented times, with needs changing daily. Our ability, as a small team, to react quickly is underscored by the fact the co-op and community sector is particularly good at communication, whether it be borrowers, clients or partners like the Plunkett Foundation, Power to Change and Co-operatives UK.

We’re also proud to have continued to lend through the pandemic with recent support for both employee owned PrimePac Solutions and Slaley Community Shop. We are very much open for business and are here to help.

There is no doubt it’s been a difficult few weeks, but we see some signs that direct government support, through the small business grant fund, are beginning to reach our borrowers. Couple this with our intervention for many borrowers, and fingers crossed for the much anticipated furlough schemes, and we can see there is light! As we start our second three-week lockdown it will be interesting to read these words again to see how the landscape looks then. Certainly, we are feeling the early shoots of a refocus towards what will be needed to support coops and community businesses when this is all done.

When some semblance of normal economic activity returns, we will be there, as we are now, to help and support the sector in any way we can.