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John Gaunt, Joint Managing Director at Sunny Bank Mills in Farsley, Leeds, talks about the impact of COVID on his business and why he’s feeling optimistic about the future. 

Home to a vibrant working community, Sunny Bank Mills is a site that’s rich in Yorkshire’s industrial heritage. The beautifully redeveloped textile mills contain performance spaces, an art gallery, and an archive museum, as well as cafes, restaurants, shops, and businesses. 

In this, the first of a series of interviews with small business owners across the UK, we spoke to the Joint Managing Director of Sunny Bank Mills, John Gaunt. We wanted to know how his company has adapted to the challenges of the pandemic and how he’s feeling about the future. Here’s what John had to say...

After a very tough period, our research suggests that small businesses across Yorkshire and the Humber are now feeling much more positive about the future. Do you agree?
I think that there is a feeling of optimism. We’ve certainly seen a resurgence in small business enquiries. We’ve had quite a few lettings. We’re seeing new start-ups. Plus, the arts and cultural section of our business has restarted since the shops opened again. 

There is an undercurrent of worry because financial resilience is at an all-time low, but people are very keen to come back and that’s very positive. They’re coming in and they’re excited about restarting. There's a real sense of optimism and opportunity as we come out of the pandemic.

What changes did you have to make as a business during lockdown?
On the lettings commercial side, we just worked from home. We didn't furlough anyone, so, nothing massively changed there. But the Art Gallery, the arts programme and the heritage archive museum stopped. The team had to refocus on how to deliver the arts programme under those new conditions: developing a digital content e-commerce site, an e-gallery and an external gallery around the site.

As we hadn’t furloughed anyone, we had the hands to do that. Plus, we’d started working on a new website a few months earlier, so we had some of the technical capability. We’d sort of poked around at an e-commerce site, but the pandemic made us do it properly. We had to if we wanted to keep our visibility. So, it was a lot of work for the team, but they had the tools and the head space to do it.

Will you keep the digital element to the arts side of the business?
Yes. We’re committed to it. We want to make the whole arts programme more accessible to anyone who can’t get here physically. We’re going to put in the time and effort to present the e-gallery in a more professional way. 

Has your customer base changed because of the pandemic?  
On the commercial and letting side the big office enquiries have stopped, but we’ve been receiving more small business and local business enquiries (2-4 employees). 

On the arts and culture side we’ve expanded our customer base and reach. Our speciality is our hyperlocal community success, but our online presence means we’ve made some international sales. It’s nice to be sending art across to Europe and over to America. It’s not a massive change, but it’s a development.

Do you think those changes will stick, moving forward? 
Our online art sales will remain as an offer, but it’s not without its challenges. We won’t be becoming an international online gallery any time soon.

As a business, do you feel that the adaptations you’ve made has resulted in an improved business model? 
The lettings side of the business hasn’t changed, which proves the existing model is robust and flexible enough to work in different scenarios. We’ve had to focus on our digital output more for arts and culture. It was a choice of either be online or be invisible and drop off people’s radar. In my head, that’s what the digital investment was for: to remain present in peoples’ minds.

Were you operating online before the pandemic? 
Yes, but not in a proper way – we just had a website. For us, ecommerce art sales have dropped off a cliff now that people can come in, because in terms of the experiences we offer online and on-site, our physical presence is just so unique and beautiful. Having said that, we will continue to grow our online presence for the gallery. The digital output for our cultural exhibitions will expand, too. It has the potential to become a big part of our future funding bids because it lets us use videography to showcase our past exhibitions and successes.

A lot of the businesses we’ve spoken to say that their focus on the customer experience has dramatically increased over the last 12 months. Is that true for you? 
We spent more time refining the online customer experience: creating videos where people can walk through our spaces. That digital experience is a hook: it draws people to come to Sunny Bank Mills. Once they’re here it’s not difficult to sell the site.

Looking forward, what will be your biggest challenges? 
As a business it’s cash flow and maintaining momentum. Our financial resilience is at an all-time low. People might be running out of money at any time – it will come through at different speeds for different types of businesses. Our tenants have similar anxieties: we have over 100 tenants at very different stages of maturity. We have good relationships with them so they can talk to us about their predicaments. 

At the same time we have got our own cashflow to deal with – the mill takes a lot of cash to run, regenerate and develop (we are still piling a lot of money into buildings every year). Keeping the momentum up was key during lockdown to ensure we had people queuing up for space. And then there’s keeping the digital experience maintained and expanding, whilst simultaneously restarting the physical experience. That’s been a big worry for our art director. We have to focus on what really matters, but we can’t do everything. We have to be really careful about what we invest in.

So,  what are the biggest points in your favour?
There’s a real momentum to shop local and support local businesses. We are a focal point of commercial and creative activity in this area, so people wanting to buy locally is good for us. That’s what we do: local is our USP. Supporting the local community and local small businesses was always my aspiration, but for a lot of people that became a necessity during lockdown. So, I hope those habits are now embedded and that the hyper local trend is here to stay.