Lance Forman’s professional career can certainly be called varied; before he took the helm of his family’s smoked salmon business, H.Forman & Son, the Cambridge graduate worked as an accountant and property developer where his work took him across Europe. Now with his feet planted firmly in the world of British heritage products, is he nervous about coping with COVID-19 and life after Brexit?
Real Business, (RB): You’re a Cambridge graduate, was there an entrepreneurial spirit at the university? Did you meet anyone that came in useful later on?
Lance Forman, (LF): There was an entrepreneurial spirit amongst some of the undergraduates, but not all. It’s not a spirit you can imbue in people – they either have it or they don’t. It’s about knowing when to seize an opportunity whilst simultaneously managing risk.
They often say ‘it’s not what you know but who you know that’s important’. I’m not sure I agree.
You may know the right people but not know how to engage with them. I wouldn’t say the people I met were especially useful in my business career, but many have become great friends, where ideas are can be discussed and explored.
RB: You’ve dabbled in consultancy work, property and politics, when did you know that you wanted to pursue an entrepreneurial career of your own?
LF: Graduating from Cambridge having become President of the Cambridge Union filled me with world-conquering ambition. The next three years at Price Waterhouse, being continually instilled with the prudence principle drained it from me. The entrepreneur inside me was desperate to get out.
RB: When did you join the family business? What early teething problems did you experience?
LF: After setting up a real estate related consultancy and development business in Kiev with a British architect, the business grew to the stage that we’d have to be there permanently and flying back and forth was not practical, especially for home life as my family were not, understandably interested in emigrating to Ukraine! So I decided to join our 90 year old family business, H.Forman & Son – a decision, my parents had been hanging on for.
Within two years, with fresh blood, the business grew by 25% consecutively each year.
We expanded and enlarged our premises, but then we were hit by catastrophe as our salmon-smoking kilns decided they wanted to make smoked factory rather than smoked salmon, and we lost three-quarters of our premises. In the following few years after rebuilding, the local river overflowed and our newly refurbished premises was flooded one-metre deep with polluted river water, not an ideal place to produce fine food.
We then spent two years securing and building a new facility and within a year of moving in was advised that we’d need to relocate yet again as we were now on the site where London wished to build the Olympic stadium. This was followed by a five year nightmare period of negotiation with Ken Livingstone’s London Development Agency. We are no strangers to crises and I have lectured at London Business School on Managing Change. How we got through these problems is the subject of my book “Forman’s Games”. It’s simply too long to explain in a profile piece, but having a sense of humour helps.
RB: Are you worried about the impact of Brexit on your business?
LF: Not at all. I was a Brexit Party MEP, before switching to the Conservatives. The EU is no longer fit for purpose and change is needed. Entrepreneurs welcome change. It creates opportunity.
RB: How are you pivoting your business to cope with COVID-19?
LF: Half our business is supplying restaurants, hotels and caterers and that trade has fallen off a cliff. Even post lockdown, I believe it’s going to take some time before people engage in that environment in the way they’ve been used to. Our export business has also been affected and we have had to close our own restaurant and venue. Whilst we lost over half our business overnight we turned our attention to our online home-delivery arm, an operation I started 20 years ago.
We were one of the first home delivery food business and certainly the only one specialising in British food and English wine.
That way we could keep our staff gainfully employed, whilst also having to change shift patterns to maintain social distancing at work. Unlike, say Ocado, which is so efficient and runs at near capacity which makes it hard to cope with a spike in demand, we found ourselves in a different position. One of the challenges for Forman & Field is that it is too heavily dependent on Christmas.
On a typical day in the lead up to Christmas, we would do fifty times the turnover that we do the rest of the year. But that created an opportunity. We knew we could gear up to service fifty times more orders now than we typically do at this time of year. We created “The Ultimate Care Package” which people are sending to housebound families and elderly relatives all over the UK. As people cannot dine out in smart restaurants, they are ordering restaurant-quality food direct from us – all chef made, with great fresh, natural, British ingredients too.
RB: What businesses will survive the coronavirus pandemic, and what types of businesses won’t?
LF: The survivors will be businesses which weren’t operating on a shoestring, those that had saved for rainy days and were well capitalised. You can never be complacent in business; the scenery is always changing but with Covid it has changed overnight. You need to be flexible and think outside the box. You need good people with a positive spirit to help you through.
As one door closes, others open. It didn’t need to be like this. I think the Government’s approach to the economy is wrong.
Furloughing staff encourages the economy to cease. Offering loans is crazy when a borrower has no idea when turnover will be returning to help fund the loan repayment. What the Government should have done is treat this as an insurance event, like a flood or fire, but with the benefit of there being no physical damage to a property. They should have acted as insurer of last resort, insuring business interruptions. This would have prevented a chain of bankruptcies and large-scale unemployment. Businesses could have received funds immediately to stay afloat and then submitted loss claims later, which could have been audited once the panic is over, and with a duty upon each business to mitigate the loss.
RB: What milestones have you reached since joining the family firm?
LF: When I started in Forman’s we employed 14 staff, now it’s 90. We have a great team and without good people, you have no business at all. I was also proud to have secured protected food status for London Cure Smoked Salmon. We were the first and remain the only London based food or drink to have achieved this. It puts Forman’s smoked salmon in the same status as champagne and Parma ham.
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