“If ever there was a time for the Isle of Man Government to go into debt – it’s now.” Steve Brown, Managing Director of the Mannin Group.
If it hasn’t clicked already, Steve and I share a surname. This is because…he is my father. Don’t be too surprised, we’re Manx; this kind of thing happens. Although we have an undeniable genetic tie, business is not something we have ever really discussed at length – if we have, it’s resulted in my dad sprouting grey hairs over my inability to choose and settle on a career path. As an employee of a company I sadly do not own (Phillip Green, if you’re reading this, I’ll give you 10 quid to buy Topshop), up until the beginning of this interview I was rather naive when it came to the struggles our local businesses are facing in light of this pandemic. The overwhelming arc is that more needs to be done…
Let’s start with some background information. Founded in 1979, Mannin Group is made up of:
a commercial printing operation
a publishing and advertising sales division
a division producing banners and signage
office stationery supplies
Steve has worked for the company for over 35 years. His journey began many moons ago (my 7 year old brother would definitely convince you this was before colour TV), as an apprentice compositor in 1984. Unlike me, he was successful in his endeavor to work for his Dad. He became Managing Director in 2002, went on to purchase the company in a management buy-out in 2007, and sold the company in 2017. PHEW.
During his time at Mannin, Steve has experienced several recessions – the most notable being the financial crisis of 2008 (the goddamn credit crunch), which reared its ugly head several months after Steve’s MBO. Perhaps unsurprisingly in times of financial crisis, companies will seek to reduce costs wherever possible; unfortunately for companies such as Mannin, this means a downturn in business. However, within 2-3 months, the business would usually return and, as Steve put it, “the hamster wheel would start rolling once again”. With COVID-19, there is absolutely no certainty that this will be the case. Priorities will shift for companies.
How did Mannin Group react to the pandemic in the early stages?
As would be expected, they were monitoring the situation in the UK constantly. It wasn’t something that they were immediately concerned about – we are all guilty of feeling like we Manx folk are invincible at times. But it wasn’t even that; arguably the seriousness of the situation was not yet felt by anyone so close to home. Steve stressed that as soon as the Isle of Man Government began to take it seriously, they followed suit.
Mannin holds the contract to produce, store and deliver all printed forms for the Department of Health and Social Care, which encompasses not only Nobles Hospital, but also Ramsey Cottage Hospital and the Isle of Man Community Health Service. It became apparent that although they were not in what would be considered an ‘essential sector’ following the lockdown, they were key workers. As a result of this, their doors are still open – but with the absolute bare minimum of staff needed to fulfill the minimal jobs they have to take on to make sure that the Health service, and other key Government Departments, such as the Department of Social Care, are kept supplied with the printed items that they need.
“In a normal week for us, we would take on between £25,000 and £30,000 of commercial work, plus Government contracted projects, however, up to the 15th of April we have taken on around £8,000, all of which is Government work. The commercial sector workload has fallen off a cliff.”
Mannin therefore had no option but to furlough their staff. As a furloughed person myself, I can understand and appreciate that this is a situation nobody wants to be in, and more often than not, a decision that nobody wants to make – but for many industries, one that is impossible to avoid. Prior to the Isle of Man Government announcement regarding wage support packages being introduced, Steve was hopeful that we would follow the UK Government in ensuring all full time staff would receive 80% of their salaried wage per month, up to £2,500…(weren’t we bloody ALL Steve).
What financial assistance have they sought from the Isle of Man Government, and how?
Like many local businesses, Mannin applied for the Coronavirus Business Support Scheme, which offers financial support to eligible businesses in the form of a £3,000 grant. Now, there are two words we’re going to focus on here – eligible businesses. Due to the uncertainty surrounding their key worker status initially, Steve applied for this grant, hopeful that they would in fact be eligible. £3,000 would not miraculously cure their woes, however it would provide a much needed cash injection.
The application itself was reasonably straightforward and they received a response via email approximately 10 days later, containing a rejection:
‘You do not belong in an eligible sector’
What’s that all about? Surely if a company has been adversely affected by the Coronavirus outbreak, regardless of what sector their industry is in, they deserve support from the Government, if support is being made available…?
No further information was provided; the email clearly a template sent to every ineligible business. This is understandable to a point – high volumes of applications and a deadline with which to respond to them = a generic email. But, in such (wow I’m so sorry I’m using this word) unprecedented times, is this enough? One of the main issues Steve raises is the implication that the printing and publishing industry is simply not viewed as important in comparison to the other, ‘eligible sectors’. He asks if his employees, for whom he has had no choice but to send home, are seriously not as ‘eligible’ as someone who works in a restaurant or behind a bar in a hotel?
We don’t live in a dream land, money sadly does not grow on trees – but to refer to the (awful) phrase used previously, these are unprecedented times which SURELY call for unprecedented measures. Local businesses are being encouraged to take out loans to see them through these times – is it not time the Government sat back and thought, ‘you know what, local people and local businesses are struggling. We’re going to share the pain, we’ll grab a loan too!’ (…yes)
Any advice that Steve has since received has left his jaw hanging open. When advising businesses to ‘use their reserves’, the Treasury are highlighting their complete lack of understanding of how much local businesses actually have in the bank. Steve advises that any profit made by the company in the 10 years he owned it, went straight back into the company in order to ensure its survival. So WHAT RESERVES?
There’s an overwhelming feeling that, when implementing the Coronavirus Business Support Scheme, the Government failed to consider the numerous local businesses that fall outside of their ‘eligible’ sectors. Do we just sit back and allow these companies to close their doors forever, resulting in redundancies across the board?
COVID-19 Salary Support Scheme
Due to the decision made regarding the business support scheme, and the overarching feeling that little consideration has been given to helping other local businesses, Steve is struggling to maintain his optimism when it comes to the Salary Support Scheme.
‘If the government won’t provide a £3,000 grant to the business, how can I have faith that they will make a payment of £280 for each of our 13 staff for ‘x’ amount of weeks?’
A LOT of Manxies will feel the pinch under this scheme; £280 per week (before tax and NI deductions) comes in under the current minimum wage for adults in the Isle of Man. This a world away from the UK Governments’ support. Disappointing – not only for Mannin Group, but for a large portion of the ‘eligible’ workforce. However…this is better than receiving nothing. Steve would much rather pay the Mannin team £280 as a result of support from the Government than have to let everyone go, and of course this sentiment will be a shared one. But for Mannin, that really is what it will come down to. Their cash flow is at an absolute standstill. Payments from their clients are delayed, therefore payments to their suppliers are delayed…and if you don’t pay your suppliers, you don’t get supplies. You have no supplies, your clients don’t get their orders. You don’t get paid, you can’t pay your 13 staff…and that’s it. Doors = closed.
The advice from the Treasury has been for furloughed employees to use this £280 to live. Basically, to pay for food and any other household essentials. Steve has highlighted what he feels are the damaging effects of this – IOM residents have been advised ‘not to worry’ about gas or electricity bills, there’s been an extension on rates payments, and encouragement for taking payment holidays on any loans an individual may have – everyone is in the same situation, so don’t worry about it chaps! BUT…what does this mean 4 months down the line – putting these arrears on a credit card with a terrifying interest rate? OR, what does this mean 4 months down the line if the individual who has taken payment holidays and not paid their bills (because they have been quite literally unable to do so), has now lost their job? Debt, debt, and more debt.
Why didn’t the Government take a much stronger lead in this? We didn’t have to use our NI reserves, despite the inclusion in our constitution that we, our Government, are ‘not allowed’ to get into debt (WHEN was that written? Did they have a crystal ball that they used to glimpse into 2020, and saw something much better than we are envisioning? Answers on a postcard plz).
Why didn’t the government borrow whatever is needed to get the Isle of Man through this crisis, without causing substantial financial distress to local business and individuals? We took on a huge loan when someone made a mistake over the Pulrose Power Station. The situation we are in right now seems ever so slightly more important than that.
If we are to use £500 million as a rough number, that would (potentially) have enabled employee support in line with what the UK Government have offered. ANYONE can live on 80% of their salary (or £2,500, whichever they qualify for), without making the huge sacrifices that they may be being forced to make right now. The Isle of Man Governments’ loan would be at an interest rate of something like 1…or maybe 2% according to todays’ interest rates. Not my forte but you get the gist.
Citizens of the IOM out of work and saddled with massive debt
IOM Government saddled with debt, BUT with citizens that are still working and supporting the local economy
Steve is Manx. He loves our Island, he has always been supportive of our Government (and will continue to be), and he has indeed felt that support in return over the years: during the building of Media House – Mannin HQ – they received a support grant from the Government, as well as support grants for the purchase of new machinery. Arguably, now is a time when that support is needed the most, and it just does not feel like it’s where it needs to be. The support offered (or…lack thereof) implies a complete lack of understanding of business cash flow and appears very out of touch.
Nobody was expecting this, nobody has experienced this before, and the issues we will be presented with in the future will be huge. We asked Steve if he had any advice for other businesses who have perhaps less ‘hands-on’ business experience:
“My advice to other businesses going forward would be to keep your business model as small as you can for as long as you can, never taking your eye off your costs. Keeping costs as low as you can is the key to success. When you lose sight of your costs, you lose sight of your margin, and ultimately you will start to lose money. Government have been great in the past for Mannin, helping the company to grow. Sadly, in recent years it has seemed to me that the support of Mannin has been of less importance to Government, and their focus has been directed towards the success and increased commerciality of their own departments, I’m sure there are other local businesses who will feel the same. Since the Government became overwhelmingly focused on the ‘black hole’ created by the VAT deficit, there has been an obvious desire for them to become commercial, not only saving their own costs where they can, but actually getting involved in the commercial market and becoming a competitor to local businesses. That can’t be right…can it? The Department for Economic Development surely is there to develop the economy of the island, not to develop the economic competitiveness of IoM Government; but that’s what they have done. My advice to any other businesses…do not totally rely on Government contracts for your base income.”
On behalf of Mannin Group we asked the Government the following questions:
The £3,000 grant figure doesn’t cover Mannin Group’s phone bill – why and how was the figure set at £3k rather than being means tested?
Steve wants reassurance that he will receive money in time to meet payroll, otherwise they will have to close the business. Will the money arrive in time?
Pre coronavirus Mannin Group generated revenue via the TT through the programme and selling advertising. Over time, more of this work has been brought into the Government. When Mannin Group managed the contract they could employ more people, who would pay taxes. Why can’t the public and private sector work together on projects rather than ‘competing’?
What was the logic for a ‘sector by sector’ approach to rolling out MERA? Steve feels discriminated against “Why is it OK to pay for hotel staff and not my employees?”
Why hasn’t the government taken a loan to help everyone? Interests are lower than ever, it makes sense.
Here is the Government’s response:
“We really appreciate that companies like Mannin Group are doing everything they can to keep business running and keep staff employed and looked after. It’s a very difficult and fast moving situation and we have seen great resilience and innovation from our business community in the face of this unprecedented change.
Coronavirus has hit a number of our industries in the Isle of Man. Certain sectors were more seriously affected and felt the impact of the pandemic more quickly than others. We have created a balanced and controlled package of measures to give maximum support to the broadest range of industries possible.
The Department for Enterprise runs a number of schemes to give businesses support and financial assistance during the pandemic. These schemes include the Coronavirus Business Support Scheme, the Coronavirus Business Adaptation Scheme, the Disruption Loan Guarantee Agreement and the Strategic Capacity Scheme. We have around 30 members of staff managing enquiries, applications and payments, 7 days a week to make sure we are getting assistance through as quickly as possible.
The Coronavirus Business Support scheme is an emergency £3,000 grant payment to help businesses of all sizes with immediate financial aid. We have received around over 3,000 applications, processed over 2,000 and over 1,000 have now been paid and we are working as quickly as possible to get through the rest. The Government has also worked with local banks to make available up to £60 million of lending so that people can find extra assistance through other means where needed.
Any business looking for advice or assistance should visit www.iomdfenterprise.im/coronavirus to find out more about the schemes available.”