'Weatherbys had contingency plans that we activated at once'
Industry members tell us how they are managing in self-isolation
Weatherbys chief executive Russell Ferris tells us about how he is managing – both personally and professionally – with the UK and Irish governments' lockdown to halt the spread of the coronavirus.
How is life at Weatherbys ticking over?
These are challenging times for all – in every walk of life. While managing the business is proving challenging, it's no different than for so many others and we’re fully aware there will be many people who are going through some very tough times.
So there’s no complaining – rather we’re keeping our heads down getting on with servicing the industry to the best of our ability and making sure that we’re doing our bit to ensure the breeding season continues as uninterrupted as possible and that we’re in good shape for when racing begins again.
What new measures have you brought in to deal with coronavirus and the lockdown?
The team mobilised very quickly with plans and strategies to mitigate (as was feasibly possible) the impacts of Covid-19 for our employees’ wellbeing, while also being able to continue servicing our customers and the wider industry.
As a vital business within the industry we already had established contingency plans which we activated immediately. This has ensured continuity of our services.
We have an in-house business continuity facility with 58 desks and also a remote office ten miles from our Wellingborough HQ, which went live as a secondary site midway through March in order that 50 members of the team were able to work from there. The staff were prioritised on how critical the service continuity was.
Obviously government guidance and stance has changed significantly since and with their instructions to have employees work from home where possible we shifted seamlessly to our remote working plans.
In Ireland, we implemented a shift-working policy with the Weatherbys Scientific team in mid-March, which has ensured business continuity for the laboratory customers.
The Irish government announcement on Friday night of a complete lockdown meant that the team had a weekend of preparing for all eventualities. Thankfully we have received classification from the government as an essential business and are therefore in a position to keep servicing our customers.
Have you had to bring in new systems and programmes to deal with the impact of the coronavirus on the industry?
Yes we’re working with many of the industry groups and associations as they tackle the challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic.
We will assist wherever we can, not only to help keep the industry operating during the period of no racing, but also as it prepares to resume racing whenever that may be.
It is likely that our systems and processes will need to be adapted in the face of a revised race programme and race conditions.
The breeding world is also facing serious challenges and we are working closely with both the ITBA and TBA to navigate these. The TBA are making use of our Digital Equine Movement System which was originally built to record equine movement between Britain and Ireland. It is now being adapted to record horse movement during this current period of uncertainty.
Are office staff working from home, and are you managing to stay in the loop with one another?
The vast majority of Weatherbys staff are now working from home with only six to ten of the team in the Wellingborough office, none in the Irish GSB office – although we do have a rota in place to manage urgent enquiries and so on on – and nearly a full complement at the Weatherbys Scientific Lab.
From a total staff number of over 200 it has been quite a logistical effort to get to this stage. I would like to praise our fantastic team both in the UK and Ireland, their effort and commitment during this very difficult period has been amazing and I’m so appreciative of the way they have faced up to the various challenges of keeping the business operating.
The financial pressure that we are under and the reduction in workload within some areas of the business has meant that a number of staff have had to be furloughed - including over half of those in the racing department. As a business, we are greatly appreciative of the government's establishment of the furlough scheme, which protects the employee and employer.
For staff still working we are very fortunate to be able to make use of our excellent in-house IT resource and they have set up the team with an integrated solution for remote access – on phone, email and system access.
So if clients are ringing the normal Weatherbys number they will get through to members of the team as normal – even though they are likely to be operating from their kitchen table or spare bedroom!
As I’m sure is the case with nearly every business, Weatherbys are making use of a vast array of tools and apps for staying in touch with each other – Microsoft Teams is proving popular but we are also using StafLeaf, WhatsApp, Webex and Facebook’s office tool Workplace which is fantastic for keeping everyone in the loop with company-wide or departmental news.
If there’s one good thing that the coronavirus crisis has given us it’s a better idea of the benefits of working remotely.
On a personal level, how are you keeping yourself busy during lockdown?
One unfortunate thing about Covid-19 is that the working week seems to have got longer, but hopefully we will start to see the business settle into some routine in the coming weeks.
If there is a personal win in this awful pandemic, it's that I get to have breakfast and dinner with my wife and two girls which is great, as it’s normally a treat for the weekend.
We have a small farm on which, to be fair, my wife is the one who does the graft – but I do like getting outside and offering a hand, although I’m probably more of nuisance!
The farm includes a small-scale National Hunt breeding operation which means that I’m only too well aware of the issues being faced by thoroughbred breeders, particularly at a time like this.
Any film, TV or book recommendations to share to get through home confinement?
I had just started a book called The Obstacle is the Way when Covid-19 broke. It was an excellent read and was particularly insightful and helpful during the last couple of weeks.
I’ve started watching Hunters on Amazon Prime. It's gripping, albeit I normally prefer a bit of comedy, which this is certainly not!
What is the availability of groceries and essential products around you like?
While there are so many people facing so much uncertainty I’m not going to complain about groceries – and what a fantastic job everyone involved with keeping the shelves stocked and serving us are doing.
However, in case anyone is concerned, our house has plentiful supplies of loo paper!
What are you most looking forward to when the Flat season returns?
I’m just looking forward to racing again, period.
Whenever and whatever the season has in store I’m sure this enforced lay-off will make us appreciate the sport that much more.
We often complain about there being too much racing but one thing is for sure: as the saying goes, you don’t know what you have ‘til it’s gone.
Read more of our Life in Lockdown Q&As