“SMEs are the lifeblood of the country”
Hannah Bernard was appointed Head of Business Banking at the height of the UK’s coronavirus lockdown. She describes how this “baptism of fire” has helped her identify opportunities to better serve businesses – and why setting SMEs on the road to resilience is the key to reviving the UK economy.
Hannah Bernard was appointed Head of Business Banking in April 2020, just weeks after the UK entered lockdown in an effort to contain the spread of the coronavirus.
Far from balking at this “baptism of fire”, Bernard says it offered an unprecedented opportunity to demonstrate the bank’s support for small and medium sized businesses (SMEs).
“I couldn’t have joined at a better time,” she says. “We’ve got this opportunity to ask, ‘Where are we? What do our customers need from us? How do we take things forward?’.
“SMEs are the lifeblood of the country and therefore it’s never been more important to look at how we support those businesses through a very tough time over the next few months.”
SMEs are the lifeblood of the country. There will be some that won’t survive, but the majority will – and we’re doing everything we can to help them through this time
Head of Business Banking
While for many UK businesses, income all but dried up during lockdown, for some – like e-commerce platforms and online retailers – it has never been busier, and they’ve found themselves having to scale at pace.
For Bernard, however, thinking beyond the pandemic should be businesses’ next port of call. “Society has changed. People have changed. Some of these changes will persist, some won’t – and I think the challenge for any business is going to be, ‘To what extent do I change my business to accommodate what might happen in the future?’.”
The road to resilience
Asked what businesses – including Barclays – have learned from the pandemic, Bernard is quick to answer: resilience.
“It’s the agility and fleet of foot that all of us, Barclays included, have had to learn. We’ve learned how to be more flexible and how to plan for unexpected events going forward. Businesses now understand how broad their customer base is – and the extent to which they could pivot if they need to.”
She cites a restaurant in Bristol, UK specialising in local produce, as an example of a business that has successfully adapted to changing circumstances. Finding themselves having to close to customers during lockdown, the owners launched an ingredients box service in their local community. “Those sorts of businesses have taken the essence of what the business is and then worked out how to adjust to the current climate in a really quick and innovative way.”
Barclays’ spectrum of financial support to SMEs – including free banking, overdraft extensions, capital repayment holidays, and facilitating CBILS and Bounce Back Loans – has been vital in keeping many afloat.
But Bernard says the bank’s commitment to SMEs goes beyond financial products, citing its free online ‘Back to Business’ programme, developed with Cambridge Judge Business School; a partnership with the community hub Nextdoor to help businesses connect with customers in their local areas; and the Business Bank checklist as just three recent examples.
The bank has also been running regular Facebook Live events, which allow business owners to ask leading industry experts questions about navigating the crisis. Recent discussions have focused on cash flow, local authority grants and the need for flexibility and creative thinking.
Without getting small businesses back on their feet, we can’t get the country back on its feet
Head of Business Banking
“We’re proud to provide a platform for business owners to hone their skills and access vital resources as businesses across the country continue to be impacted by coronavirus,” says Bernard. “We stand behind UK businesses and are always looking for new ways to provide help and support to entrepreneurs, business owners and sole traders across the country.
“Without getting small businesses back on their feet, we can’t get the country back on its feet.”
“Talk early and talk often”
Bernard says the bank’s nationwide team of relationship managers are a rich source of expertise for businesses and can support SMEs on a more local level.
“Our relationship managers are typically local people with local knowledge. These people are on the ground and have real sector expertise which allows small businesses to access information and get the help that they need quickly.”
She’s intensely proud of the way the network has responded to clients in need, telling the story of a relationship manager who connected a client with stock of hand sanitisers with local care homes in need. “They ended up building a network for different organisations and schools that needed it in the local area,” she says. “That’s a wonderful example of colleagues working for the greater good.”
For business owners worried about the uncertainty of the next few months, Bernard offers a set of “golden rules” to follow, including careful cash flow management, adapting to changing customer behaviour and adopting money saving innovations such as going cashless. First and foremost, though, is communication.
“Talk early and talk often,” says Bernard. “Talk to your relationship manager – early planning is much better than waiting until you really need help and then it’s all a bit of a scramble.
“Be really careful about how quick you think recovery is going to be,” she adds. “You need to pace yourself as the future is so uncertain”.
Bernard is under no illusions about the difficulties facing small businesses up and down the country. But she says she feels “optimistic” that many will come out fighting.
“Businesses will adapt, they will adjust, and they will weather what will undoubtedly be a tough period. I think there will be some businesses that won’t survive, but the majority will – and we’re doing everything we can to help them through this time.
“We’ve got advice, we’ve got tools, we’ve got extra support – all of these things are available if businesses choose to access them.”