In his lockdown diary for ETN, this hard-working business owner talks candidly about the challenges ahead – and a product with promise against Covid-19.
Peter Wilkes is the managing director of Vale Brothers.
The Walsall based company owns equestrian household names such as Harry Dabbs saddles, Edward Goddard whips, KBF99 hygiene ranges, Equerry grooming brushes and E. Jeffries saddlery.
Thermatex rugs and NuuMed saddle pads are owned and manufactured by Vale Brothers at its factory in Cardigan, Wales.
“Vale Brothers is still open for business,” Peter tells ETN, “although we have stopped production of some products due to the decline in demand, which means of course we've been forced to furlough some staff.
“Our policy has been to follow Government guidelines, which clearly state that they want businesses to remain working where people can’t work from home.
“We also feel that working with colleagues who you’ve worked with for months is so much safer than a trip to the supermarket.
April sales will be down
“With regards to the manufacturing of saddles, we were fortunate to have a very healthy book of existing orders to complete.
“As the 'lockdown' continues, orders from across the world will decline because many retail outlets are closed and some saddle fitters have chosen not to work, or their countries are restricting their movements.
“Thermatex/Nuumed has a skeleton staff able to produce urgent requirements. We have numerous customers chasing deliveries and wish to continue to support them as much as possible.
“Sales in March were about 30% down on forecast, mainly due to other countries shutting down ahead of the UK. April sales will be 70-80% down.
Lack of joined-up policies
“We have continued to receive small orders from the UK and Europe and also the USA.
“Every country has reacted differently from a Government policy point of view; but the one thing they all appear to have in common is that none of the policies appear particularly joined-up. So many ifs, buts, maybes…
“I think only Germany can be shown to have got it right; they appear to have spent their money on testing and perhaps have better care facilities than most. But who knows if we are all even counting the numbers in the same way?
“Our staff have been very supportive, despite them not all agreeing with some of my decisions.
“As a business owner, I’m having to make instant decisions without time to fully analyse.
“Deciding to remain open where we have orders has added hugely to the complexity of my role. My job now contains far more personal issues involving people’s home lives, their relatives and the underlying health conditions of both employees and relatives.
“As a business owner, you get used to being salesman, IT manager and lawyer, but now we need to read up on medical issues and make decisions that are fair to all, which isn’t always popular.
Product has Covid-19 promise
“One area of sales that we are concentrating on is KBF99. The brand was originally launched in 2012 to help horse owners protect their horses from conditions including strangles and ringworm.
“We already know the additive [incorporated into grooming brushes and stable equipment] is effective against bacteria and fungus as tested at Coventry University with kill rates recorded at 99.9% & 99.6% respectively. (See http://www.valebrothers.co.uk/kbf99-horse-brushes.htm)
“Now Cornell University in the US has asked for samples to test against Covid-19.
“While waiting for these results, we have also contacted two UK companies that may be able to test KBF99 against coronavirus for us. We are very confident that it will kill enveloped viruses, of which Covid-19 is one.
“We are promoting the benefits of our pocket-size KBF99 brush to all households. It can be used as an alternative to hand sanitisers as well as on surfaces, parcels, keyboards, shopping trolleys and door handles.
“And because you don’t need water, this small brush is great for those essential trips out.
Accused of profiteering
“I have been accused of “jumping on the bandwagon” and “profiteering”, described as “disgraceful”, “a monster” and reported to Trading Standards.
“In each case, I have personally responded with the facts: A brush can’t kill anything, it’s what’s on the brush.
“Anyway, selling a brush at £8.75 that does the same job as anti-bacterial hand sanitiser - except it lasts forever and can clean hard surfaces - doesn’t seem too outrageous to me.
“We have had communication with the NHS, and once we get proof that the brush kills viruses, then we shall be approaching the likes of Boots, Superdrug and Lloyds.
“Minor problems are that we’re struggling to get the raw materials we need; and the testing process isn’t quick due to a backlog of products needing to be tested.
Ensuring jobs for the future
“We have taken out a large Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme (CBILS) loan, although not yet had the money, from HSBC. Without it, it’s hard to predict what we would have done.
“I do feel that it will be businesses bearing the major costs of the situation, with all tax payers having to cover the furlough costs.
“I anticipate the recession will be greater than anything we have ever known. But there will be an equestrian industry ongoing - and it will need good quality products.
“We will be operating in a different world for at least two years, with the financial affects lasting for ten years minimum.
“The next few months will deliver constant challenges which we shall approach with two simple objectives – keep everyone healthy and ensure we all have jobs in the future.”