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Insights - episode 7
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Episode 7 - Success Stories and Lessons Learned through the Covid-19 Pandemic

Nadia:  Welcome to the seventh edition of insights. We're together with my colleague, Dr Roberta Lepre. And our guest today Mr. Frank Bothwell and Mr. John Grima, we are going to discuss success stories and lessons learned through the covid-19 pandemic. Roberta and myself are assisting a number of companies to adapt to the current environmental challenges and economic challenges companies are adopting not solely from a corporate governance perspective and sustainability, but also from an operational perspective. So, today, we would like to as well introduce Frank and John. Frank, you're the founder of Thomas Franks, thank you for joining us. Thank you for being with us. Both great. And welcome to our to our insights edition. 

Frank, I think it would be a good opportunity to introduce Thomas Franks to our audience. And interesting and lovely story, I must admit, that we've shared a couple of times, even when we met in Malta, built on strong foundations and strong values of trust of loyalty, and combining food, creativity, and family business as well. Obviously, there's a financial aspect to it as well. And the team, you've expanded Thomas Franks, even a Malta. And that's how we met. And as well as in Portugal. What was your what's your story, friend? How, how did Thomas Franks start?

Frank:  Well, it's very kind of you, Nadia, thank you. And Roberta, we're very proud of our company, Thomas Franks has been trading for 15 years. And it has now 2000 employees and in throughout the UK, Ireland, Scotland. And we opened in Malta about two years ago, we're very proud of our broader operation. We have a proper limited company in Malta. And the people of Malta, the government was so kind and allowing us to set up a proper company that was Maltese.

They were so warm to us. And the clients that we've got have been fantastic. And so we grew in Malta over the last two years, and we've got some lovely government contracts like Lita, and some of the iGaming companies like [unintelligible], Play&Go and Evolution Gaming, to name a few.

So over those last two years, when the crisis hit, it allowed us to rethink our business model. And we decided to try and embrace our core values by bringing ethics into business. So we turned the whole company, typically, into a company that produced food for the vulnerable. And I spoke to John, who can speak for himself in a moment. And I phoned him at the very beginning of the crisis. And I said, we can't give up, we have to feed people, we have kitchens, we have qualified chefs, and we have some money, let's produce some food. And we decided to try and feed a couple of 100 people. And I think as of this week, John and his team, through our wonderful clients and the Maltese government, have allowed us to produce 20,000 free meals in the last six weeks for the vulnerable group.

I'll let john come on to that point in a moment. But it was one of those things that we decided to do not just in Malta, but also in Portugal, and Ireland, and Scotland, and through the whole of the UK. And over the last six weeks, we’ve delivered, produce free of charge 80,000 premium, to the vulnerable group, families that are suffering food poverty, because of COVID and up taking, homelessness. And if we can do our bit to alleviate the stress of local councils and government by providing this food, then we'll do that. And we'll keep doing that. We'll come on to that in a moment. I'm sure that there has to be a legacy of giving. We have to build on this compassion.

And the trade-off of that is that countries like Malta were so kind to us, allowing us to set up what is a long term legacy relationship. We felt it just natural and right to give back the perhaps John can expand on the kinds of projects that you've been doing. 

Nadia:  In fact, John, we had a couple of conversations I remember during the past weeks, and it was amazing how Frank and John you both have mobilized the team, instead of obviously, the natural thing would be let's look at our financials. Let's look at our plans because obviously you certainly have been affected in different situations. But instead, you stepped up. And you managed to realign and collaborate with different not only clients, but also NGOs, different companies. And John has amazingly, and delivered so many different foods to different people to different entities. What was your experience John?

John:  I think for me, when Frank asked us, you know, will we feed communities? You know, straight away, we said, yes. And the great thing for me was when we asked our employees, they all said yes, as well, then suddenly, I had a force behind me not only Frank's inspiration together, I then had a force behind me that we could deliver this. Even at that point, I dreamed of delivering maybe a 1000 meals to the vulnerable. So as we got going, we worked with JCI. So they were a great help to us. And then we started feedingYMCA and other vulnerable groups within JCI. 

And then the President, actually, we saw the article and spoke with you about the President's feeding initiative. I think Frank was inspired by that. And that led to us suddenly producing, I think it was about 4500 meals for hospitals.

And we started with Mater Dei today. And I got a call from Boffa hospital saying, “hey, don't forget about us”. And it just grew, then St. Thomas. So we did that. And that started to come to an end me. Me and Nadia, you know, we had another discussion, didn't we about feeding the communities. We went on to feed regularly. I mean, we're still doing it now. We're given 100 meals every other day, to 17 different communities. So that's in collaboration with Bolt who are delivering them for us.

So that was that. And then Frank again, had a great idea of coming up with feeding the homeless. The thought, right? Well, we're lucky enough to work with some fabulous clients here. And the donations we've been receiving have been great. And you know, given us what we needed Frank's donation from the UK into us, which was what got us started. Then lo and behold, we're now delivering another 5000 meals to the homeless. So that’s to the Knights of Malta.

So yeah, it's just gone from strength to strength. But I think for me, what's made me really happy to do it is that we've never compromised on our standards. So for me, it doesn't matter if it goes to the Prime Minister we've recently had or the homeless person or the migrants, you know,

It’s really key that they open that box, and they get the same quality that we would be delivering to anybody. Yeah, it's been fantastic journey. 

Nadia:  That's amazing. But Frank, this is interesting how, in these situations, I don't think it's by chance, actually, that you've developed this relationship and so many collaborations with different companies, not just clients, like you mentioned, but also local providers, you were realigned yourselves with, collaborated with all for the delivery and for the food locally in water. And I think I presume you've done the same in Portugal, as well as in the UK, in Ireland and different parts of the UK. So was this part of your business model throughout? Or has it actually COVID accentuated that? 

Frank:  So we've always been a collaborative company. We're a warm, friendly, tactile bunch of times, quite touchy feely, which of course, you can't do with social distancing. So we've, we've turned our attention to trying to get come together for one common aim, and that's defeating poverty, which is going to get worse for the next six months, I believe.

So we can use that collaborative approach in Thomas Franks, it's a real frenzy of good ideas. That's, that's the company I know. We reached out to what is now 60 or 70 other charities, like the ones John's mentioned, but nationwide in the UK, and in Portugal. We even started to feed the ambulance drivers in certain parts of Portugal and certain parts of England, because they were saying, Well, you know, we're doing seven days a week and we don't get any food and we can't go to shops, because we're not clean. But we did devise a method of delivering through charities that were linked with the paramedics, and we gave them the same quality standard. That was your honour. 

So we found new friends with this collaborative approach. And I think it's beautiful. And I think that part of the problem to get back to the question you asked a while ago, part of the problem that companies are limited by liability that are set up to trade and make profit, is that what I think is important now, to come out to COVID, we go through a very difficult period of rebuilding our businesses, our bank balances on liquidity, and our cash flow, if we work together, and realize that there won't be any profit and much profit in our businesses. And we take that ambition to make profit away for a period of time, reduce the burden of unemployment on governments, if companies become a little bit more not for profit during this rebuilding phase. So forget dividends, forget big bonuses, and lavish lifestyle.

That's what should be happening with an ethical approach to stopping mass unemployment by producing new ways of trading, if Thomas Franks was to develop into a company with trays, to feed the vulnerable, to take the pressure off, governments need to do just that. 

That keeps people employed, I wouldn't seek to make one penny in profit, one cent and profit from that activity. And most of our management team are just so hungry to keep going and diversify and collaborate. Because they know that by doing that, it will stop large companies just making mass redundancies to try and make a profit during this awful period. And nobody can make a huge profit during this period, we have to work together. So that kind of hope to ask the question, we are collaborating, we've formed alliances with so many friends that will never lose. And we'll keep working with that to give back to the future as a legacy. Providing today is something we'll be doing. And we've turned our own foundation or charity engine allow us to do.

Roberta:  I think this is very meaningful, what you're saying Frank, because it goes beyond the just the one-off charity kind initiative. But it's literally a reengineering of the business model, as you mentioned in the beginning. Also shifting the mind-set from a profit based mind-set to a certain extent to one which is not so profit motivated. 

So I think it's perhaps relatively easy to share this kind of philosophy with individuals, perhaps like yourself, and John, who already has that philosophy ingrained in them. But to a wider audience, what would you, What would you tell them? Especially business owners, maybe they're suffering a lot of losses at the moment? How can they make that leap to be able to transform themselves in the manner that you're that you're sharing with us?

Frank:  Well, I think its incumbent upon all of us that run businesses, to take the pressure off our central governments, I think, if we all gave up, we would bankrupt our countries. And we need to keep trying to find ways of doing so and diversify. But my own personal opinion, is that I own a business that was heading towards turning over 60 million of 80 million euros before the crisis struck. And I re-forecasted that to start at zero, and it will build again. 

But one thing I'm not interested in, is making a profit that can be given as a dividend to anybody. That's not going to happen. My aim is to make sure that all of my employees have a job. It just might be that the job that they were doing is different. And maybe they were going to start to do hospital feeding and not for profit, but better food, or government departments that want to have a better defence food in any country. That is not for profit. 

But you're going to have the executive chefs that are used to doing the best food in the best banks in different countries, delivering the best food and not for profit for governments armies, and, and government central departments and hospital workers. And I think they'll be happy to do that because the other option is they'll be out of work.

So I believe that we need to form a view, that limited companies can be not for profit, if it means that they can rebuild and not have maximum employment, because that will just exacerbate the problem. And we’ll end up feeding this wonderful food to people that shouldn't have it, they should be working. 

So re-engineering the business, the board are fully behind this. They know it's going to be a hard six months. And I think I reminded them by saying, it'll be a hard but fun, enjoyable two years to develop something which may end up being the future of Thomas Frank's imagine being a company that has a lot of relationships and turnover in not for profit, social enterprise, with the core aim of keeping people employed with kindness and humility, yes, it's hard. And I believe that is our core future business plan. So my message to businesses is, if you want to make a quick buck, it's not going to happen. Because the critical trade off from this compassion, this amplified kindness that's going around Europe, is that you'll be remembered as a brand. And your historical trading methods will come back in abundance. That's the critical trade off in my view, I mean John, you may want to add to that. 

Nadia:  indeed, john, this is interesting. This is something which we you have been advocating for a long time. And obviously, we find that extremely perhaps difficult or some companies are finding it challenging to shift that mind-set, Frank. So listening to your vision to your strategy is extremely interesting. 

And also now having joined with us who is obviously one of your team members, important team member, not only for Malta, but also for all the other businesses is part of the executive management team. When the founder is basically next to you, and obviously it's not the first time he has shared his vision and in this manner, I'm pretty sure of that, because we had discussions even offline, specifically regarding this. How does the team respond to this? How did the team respond to it during and now looking forward to John, how, what are your views on this one? 

John:  We've been we've been in constant in constant dialogue in SMT meetings on webinars with each other on. And we've always known that we have to be more diverse, we have to change our approach. But I think I'm proud to work for Thomas Franks because as I look at other companies falling and other contract caterers in the UK and across Europe, making mass redundancies that are just unheard of in any other times, you know, Frank hasn't done that. And what he's done is he's given us hope for the future. 

So if that means myself and others giving up to push on and have Thomas Franks here in two years, three years is fantastic. But I think I mean, Frank had a chat the other day, and we said, you know, we should have done this sooner, you know, this charity thing. You know, it's been so fantastic, seeing people’s reactions, you know, and how they've received that food and how much change it's made, and how much change we're making to people's lives. That, you know, I think it has a future and has tasked me and Tim with, you know, looking into setting up a charity and a legacy in Malta that just keeps giving back because that's what he and we want to support and do. 

So I think for me, we're asked to come up with new business ideas, new opportunities for sustainability, but it excites me that it's not, you know, it's in lieu of one of my brothers, if you'd like being made redundant. You know, it's all about keeping us going and giving back. It's, it's fantastic. 

Nadia:  You feel part of the transformation as well, John, I believe both you and the team and the rest of the team. So you're you part of this. It's, it's really, it's really amazing, but I'm pretty sure Frank and John, that you've had some challenges, of course, in different ways even being in catering. So as you mentioned, hygiene is a top priority and will continue and remain to be as such, not for the short term, but also the long and medium and to the long term. 

So what were the lessons learned? There’s also the challenges more than anything? Let's start with the challenges that kind of this situation has posed to your business to your team, and also managing different teams in different locations, which is it might be a challenge in itself without any crisis let alone if we include COVID to this.

Frank:  So, the challenges, seven or eight weeks ago, we spent a lot of time locking down the business protected, and remodelling our finances for our clients to help them, which each country manager did, John did very well. And the next day, we agreed that we will start to feeding communities, which was his charitable work. The biggest challenge was taking intelligent catering leadership lines, who were used to delivering high end food, or industrial kitchens, into producing these meals without any infrastructure. It was like going back 25 years that took a few days to get that is in people's minds. And once we've shown them that it could be done, and that the answer was always going to be Yes, anyway, we will find a way to have an army of volunteers about 150 volunteers, straight away chefs, managers, leaders, directors. 

The challenges that came up were how to distribute safely in mind, there was a killer virus on the loose food to every region. So we wrote a very robust action plan and risk assessment for each individual, and train those into our employees via our HR department online. And we proved that we can do this with social distancing with PPE, and with good hygiene. So that was a challenge. And then the last challenge was, we didn't own a fleet of refrigerated trucks. And so we went to our supply chain here we've known for 15 years and asked them if we can borrow a couple of vans, just expecting a few old vans to turn up in certain places. And the very next day, we were donated 14, refrigerated trailers, walk in freezers, vans, drivers, industrial drivers that were furloughed by their employees came out to volunteer and have been driving around the country.

When I speak to all the volunteers, it might be quite emotional, because they all tell me that the last eight weeks have gone in eight minutes for them. The mental health has been saved by coming out to give back to other people. Because this is the first time really hundreds of people have given back any kind of charity of their life. 

They are pledging to continue doing a few hours a week or a few hours a day when the new normal returns. So I think this movement in community, but not just giving back to others vulnerable is giving back to our own employees and help them with their mental health. And that those were some of the challenges john might have faced. I may have been one of these challenges.

John:  I think, for me, most recently, were a big challenge in that some clients, but not all, we're calling up saying what's your plan, Frank? What's your plan to reopen? And so Frank got us all together. And he gave us two weeks. And he said, you know, you got two weeks we need we've got such a large number of sectors that we work with, then we need a plan to cover schools and cover business and industry. How can we deliver catering safely? So together, it must have taken eight hours of meetings that bit like this, not in the same room, obviously. Going forward, you know, everyone's ideas, trying to get everyone's ideas into one document. And eventually we devise a COVID Return to Work Plan. 

Nadia:  For all the different countries? 

John:  Every country has one so I've got one for Malta, we've got one for Portugal, Ireland and the UK.

So Portugal's got school one and a BMI one as has the UK and here at the moment. We've just got BMI one because we aren't lucky enough to have our first school year but I'm hoping for one soon. 

That gives the clients reassurance that we've got European Safety Bureau behind us who you have looked through our plans plus helped us by adding to it given advice before we send it out. So yeah, that was a really big challenge. But the feedback that we've got from all the offices and schools has been great, you know, and some changes have been made to it. But overall the finished document is ready and happy how when the Malta Tourism Authority released the open in the restaurants. You know, we were pretty much bang on with the suggestions, you know, so there wasn't any need to make any great change. So yeah, that was a challenge. But one, I'm glad we got right. 

Nadia:  So am I right in saying that even though financial, obviously, the finance, the liquidity, financial sustainability is paramount for every business to sustain itself for a long period of time, even though it might not be making any profit, but it wasn't the primary factor, Frank, within your plans, there were other factors. Alongside that plan that were as important or even perhaps even more important, the fact that you want to provide a legacy, the fact that your collaboration aspect, the fact that you're transforming the business, so not solely the financial aspect of my writing in saying that? 

Roberta:  in fact, I'm also interested in this aspect of so from a corporate governance point of view, because traditionally, we tend to always go for the idea, which is also embedded in the law that, you know, a company's primary responsibility towards its shareholders. But you mentioned earlier that your board was also very much behind you when it came to this shifting of priorities. So how did you manage to get to that stage?

Frank:  I's very democratic, you know, it's not a Mugabe-esque regime at Thomas Franks, at all.

But I think simplistically, we faced with this crisis, the deepest, darkest hour, in in hundreds of years, and therefore to expect to just have normality, and to expect to have dividends paid and, lavish bonuses is, ludicrous. It's an oxymoron, you can't have it. So what I've pledged to my board and my shareholders, is that we will have a return to an extremely profitable business.

But some of that profit, as a legacy has now got to go to the charities that we have formed to provide a legacy giving, as a budget figure, to continue to feed the vulnerable in food poverty, and not one of them had a problem with that. The short term pain of not having dividends and bonuses is something which people have to expect. This, this crisis has created a new world. And anything's for change, I think, a company's primary responsibility is to look after the health and safety of its employees and its customers is to trade ethically and morally. And it's to pay taxes locally. That's what it should be doing. 

Any profit that's earned, post crisis, post rebuild, post, restocking of bank accounts, and liquidity can be shared amongst those that have taken this new journey. Now it can be shareholders, but it can also be the charitable businesses that need to be supported still. And no one had a problem with that, really, at all, in fact, because it just feels natural to operate in that way, it doesn't feel too different to how our core values have been for the last 15 years.

I think what's happened during this crisis for us, and it's just our opinion, is that we've actually had more fun when we were fun, and different and disruptive, anyway with each other. So all the directors and all the heads of departments, and there's about 100 of those guys in Thomas Frank's all over the place, have come together and formed new relationships. And we've learned much more about each other.

And we trust each other. So when somebody comes up with an idea that can save someone's job, to diversify into a new market, we all listen. And we respect that person's opinion. And we laugh at them openly. And we share their good ideas with everybody else. So we've come closer together.

I think the key thing for me, and it sounds like a big number I know but it's not a big number for us, but to feed 80,000 people in food poverty in in about six weeks. We're used to doing that number every day. And so we're quite humbled that people think is great. We're actually a bit embarrassed that we didn't start doing it earlier. I think John's mentioned that and we'll and we'll do that from now on in by diverting parts of our profit to food poverty aid, and charitable and charitable means, once we paid our taxes, of course, the government doesn't have taxable income, it can't do anything.

But I think the trade off on this compassion will be that new relationships will be formed, and new ideas will be listened to. And companies will trust us, perhaps to come up with different solutions for them for their catering needs moving forward. I hope that answers that question. 

Nadia:  You reposition yourself, I think, even though it was part of the core foundation of your business, Frank, as you mentioned, from the outset, but I think what COVID-19 gave you and the team the opportunity to stand out and make it more clear and communicate that message in different ways. And I think.

Roberta:  in the past years and months, we've heard a lot about this idea of having purpose driven organizations, but nobody really actually understood how to go about why to do it. And I think this is a very clear example of maybe an external situation that has, has accelerated the transformation. And it's nice to see how Frank and John are looking at this as a long term thing, rather than just something to do while all this is happening. 

Nadia:  And hopefully, more and more organizations that follow suit, Frank and John. 

Frank:  And it's very, very difficult to reverse when you when you see the Malta example here. The minute we found out that the pride that the President's wife had produced food for the hospital, we both find each other. And I said, “have you seen it?” I don't think this has happened in many European countries. I think. I think the one of the Royal family in Holland, or somewhere was working as a nurse, which was beautiful to see. But we were inspired by the President's wife. And I said to John, she probably hasn't got a very big kitchen.

What have you think the whole hospital and take some pressure off? The nurses and the people suffering on the front line? And john said to me that you're doing this because you're inspired by the president's wife? And I said, “Absolutely”. But don't make the food too good otherwise, you'd embarrass her. 

Roberta:  I was wondering, because this there has been this school of thought circulating for a while obviously which I have been supporting and advocating for as well. Where there is this forecasting that going forward? Who will start measuring the success of a company based on its social impact? 

Do you still see this trend happening? And do you feel that maybe COVID is also accelerating the strength, this trend?

Frank:  Absolutely 100%. I mean, all of the food that we've produced has gone out in environmental containers, who were clear about that from the offset. It had to be that way.

I think the environment has improved. The circular economy has got to be part of our modern language, in my opinion. So we're halfway there on that, because we only buy our food from family owned local suppliers in Malta. And we'll continue to do so. But and I'll let John come in in a minute because he's great at this. But one of the things that I've found throughout this crisis is new suppliers have come to me, I've never heard of, and, and there's so many of them. There's a, there's a Tea Company in London, this, there's International, and you'd love them. It has the best tea in the world. And it's a not for profit charity, where they take vulnerable people that would be either homeless or they'd be migrants that will be sent back. And they're qualified engineers and chemists, they have a start in life. So this Tea Company has been taken on by Thomas Franks we'll start using their tea, that turnover will build. People will then get the chance to have a reference on their CV. And these people that may t who are highly skilled trained people can then go off and build bridges and make medicines and vaccines. 

And it just blows your mind when you think about the possibility of collaborating with social enterprises who've got great products, great products, and if we open our eyes, there is so much more we can do. John, you might want to add to that

John:  Once we got visibility, let's call it visibility. Once we got visibility, it was amazing how many emails I was getting daily. And, and when I say amazing I'm talking for but for me, that was amazing for suppliers that were actually offering us free food and chemicals or whatever they were offering towards the initiative. Now, I didn't take them up on it, I've locked the company, and I'll go back to them that the reason I didn't take them up on it is because our initiative was to keep suppliers employed as well. But I didn't want to accept free food because it's about giving back. So by us receiving the money, and making these meals, we were buying supplies, and therefore keeping the chain going. 

So I'll revisit them once we go back to some normality. But, you know, it was humbling, and amazing, you know, and I thought what they were offering was great, we didn't accept it, but we'll go back that you know. 

Roberta:  Amazing. 

Nadia:  So that once you reach out, and once you've reached out and made it clear what your position is, and how you reacting, actually responding to this pandemic, rather than reacting because there's a huge difference about that. 

Obviously, you're attracting the right people to work with you and not simply from a client perspective, but also from a community perspective, which I think both of you it's an amazing story, Frank and John, thank you for sharing this with us honestly. And though we really hope that our audience as well, they will, they will engage in one way or another they will they will contact us in a way that's it's an amazing opportunity, an amazing mind-set that for each and every company irrespective of the industry, I presume, because in one way or another everyone can be part of this community can provide services and products in a different way and in a different manner. 

So thank you for sharing your success story with us today. Thank you for being with us. And hope to see you soon in Malta Frank we're waiting for the green light for your engagements. We have we would have to reroute you through any other destination was probably okay, exactly. Yeah, I'll do it.

I'm pretty sure you will.

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