Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Soup To Nuts

In the warm glow of yesterday’s sunset (perhaps the last rain-free evening for a while), I watched a squirrel dash across the road outside my house with what looked like a green Ping-Pong ball in its mouth.  It’s that time of the year again…the beautiful walnut tree in my neighbour’s garden is laden with a heavy crop and the squirrels come from miles around to strip the nuts and bury them as provision against potentially tough times ahead. 

I can’t help but feel that the current economic uncertainty is having a similar effect on people – many fear a double dip in the markets, a collapse in property prices, a decline in public services and increased social unrest.  Certainly there are indicators that things are not going to be easy, in no particular order, I have been made anxious by the following over the past two days:

  • retail sales being down (weak consumer confidence and inflation both named as primary causes)
  • plummeting share prices around the globe
  • mortgage application numbers decreasing (hardly surprising given that a UK  couple on average earnings would currently take over 20 years to get the average deposit required on a two bedroom home),
  • sharpest fall in new orders for the UK construction industry since 1980
  • jobs market in the US stalling
  •  famine and climate change ongoing and increasing in Africa and other parts of the world
  •  revolutions and civil unrest across the Middle East, Africa and Asia
  • corruption in the Media
  • the International Monetary Fund approving a further €1.4bn (£1.2bn) payout to Ireland on Friday as part of a wider European bailout
  • significant increase in the number of dogs being abandoned by their owners (up 13% from this time last year) primarily “due cost of upkeep”
  •  US government pursuing a significant number of international banks to try to recoup monies lost during the financial crash of 2008 (the repercussions of this could be wide and deep if others feel they too should/can be compensated)
  •  leading French Fashion houses currently valued higher than certain French banks (Hermès is deemed to be worth more than Société Générale)
  • harsh and unusual weather conditions
  •  concerns over the Euro zone intensifying. 

It’s a foul sounding soup of issues - enough to turn anyone's stomach.

However, I have great faith in people to cope and thrive in difficult times.  With a combination of resilience and focus it is possible to achieve great things.  This was brought home to me when I went to the Dirt exhibition – at the Wellcome Trust’s galleries opposite Euston last week.  I was surprised, but delighted, to find a significant part of the exhibition focused on the Glasgow Royal Infirmary under Joseph Lister’s direction from 1861 onwards.  My paternal grandmother was a farmer’s daughter, brought up outside Ayr near Glasgow in Scotland.  She qualified as a nurse and worked at The Infirmary for a while.  I know firsthand how keen she was on hygiene – no doubt a habit learned in Scotland and a credit to Joseph Lister.  Responsible for the new surgery block, Lister noted that about half of his patients died from septicaemia and blood poisoning.  It was almost safer not to go to be treated in hospital in those times.  Rather than accepting the situation, Lister undertook focused research to reduce the death rate.  He read Louis Pasteur’s paper on rotting and fermentation caused by micro-organisms and then experimented to find ways to prevent sepsis. This experimentation lead to using carbolic acid to disinfect instruments and hands before and after surgery. My grandmother was a huge fan of carbolic soap and even now, two decades after her death, the distinctive smell brings back memories to me.  Lister's methods were picked up around the world and he is now considered "the father of modern antisepsis" – a great legacy.

Another impressive legacy forged in tough times is Marks and Spencer.  The business was founded in 1884, when a Russian emigrant, Michael Marks established a penny bazaar stall in Leeds.  He wanted to expand his business and so partnered with an English cashier called Tom Spencer to open a couple of shops.  (Ironically my grandmother married an Englishman and, after living in the Middle East for a few years, they moved to near Leeds and she was friendly with the Marks family).  Mr. Mark’s son, Simon, ran the business after both founders’ deaths early last century.  He was brave and innovative.  During the 1930’s he commissioned a lady called Flora Solomon (a fellow Russian and also the mother of the founder of Amnesty International) to set up an employee welfare service (the forerunner of today’s HR).  Under Solomon’s direction Marks & Spencer provided a range of services to employees of the firm, including subsidized medical care, pensions and camping holidays.  The company was influential in inspiring the British Welfare State and healthcare provision.  Marks & Spencer kept abreast of technological advances at the time (e.g. synthetic materials) and opened their own research laboratory to scientifically test and develop new fabrics in 1934.  They were also attuned to the social and economic environment.  In 1935 a series of café bars were opened which providing inexpensive, well produced, nutritious mass catering (very popular during the time of food rationing as was the self service approach which they introduced just after World War Two).

There are numerous other examples I could cite of businesses and individuals thriving in what appear to be times of adversity.  Paxton and Whitfield, famously mentioned by Winston Churchill, who said ‘A gentleman only buys his cheese at Paxton & Whitfield.’, being a case in point – since its founding in 1742, as a cheese stall in Aldwych market, the business has kept abreast of the times and customer demands.  (Even moving away from pure cheese purveying in the 1930’s and 1940’s to become a more general grocery shop, during rationing).  More recently, the business has been at the forefront of market changes and innovation: championing traditional artisan cheese makers from rural Britain and being one of the first cheese companies to establish a website.  The company is now a trio of shops and an e-tailing business that is going from strength to strength. 

It is important that we don’t let the current environment spook us or scare us into inactivity.  The turmoil economically, politically, ecologically and socially does seem a disturbing and distasteful soup.  However freezing or ceasing from focusing on the goals ahead would be foolish, as would not reappraising objectives in case there are new opportunities to be seized or better options than those we initially devised.  Like the squirrels harvesting the nuts, there is sense in being prudent and planning for the future.  I am sure that we all would like to leave a legacy that is as strong, supportive and inspiring as a walnut tree.


  1. Great title and indeed an unpleasant sounding soup. I enjoyed reading your examples of overcoming adversity, in part because i own my company and that's what a lot of running your own business seems to be about :) I particularly like the Paxton and Whitfield example. Seeing small business succeed is good for the soul. I'm off for some cheese

  2. Hi Kate - a timely post. I too went to the Dirt exhibition recently - i took the whole family! It was indeed an eye opener and a great reminder that we can progress and overcome adversity as you say.

    You have some great examples there although for me personally, M&S have totally lost their way. Its become just another corporate with completely nonsensical internal wranglings and politics. Its an ego house and suffers as a result.

    Also, i have been very mindful that, whilst we have an apalling economic situation and there are many in the financial circles that have to take some responsibility for what happened, we also have to take responsibility ourselves.

    We all want that slightly cheaper mortgate, insurance policy or sale deal. and lets not forget that extended credit facility. Oh, and some of us are shareholders too so by implication despite pointing the finger, we also quietly want our pension funds to do well too.

    It is indeed a foul soup, and a complex one. Made just a little more foul by the fact that in some way, we are all culpable.

    Great post.