What gives small business owners the determination to carry on when disaster strikes? Mark Williams finds out
At 5.30am on a cold February morning earlier this year, Laura Morrow received a phone call telling her of a fire close to her shop, Casa Bebe. The business, which sells Spanish-style baby furniture, accessories and homeware, had only been trading since September 2012.
“My sister’s a midwife and she’d been on duty when she heard about the fire, so she rang me,” Morrow recounts. “I panicked – you know it’s not going to be good news at that hour.”
It wasn’t good news. A huge blaze, requiring the attendance of seven fire crews, had engulfed a pub next to the shop in Paisley, Renfrewshire. It would destroy the pub and adjacent flats, leaving 24 people homeless.
Morrow headed straight to the scene. “Fire crews had cordoned off the area, so I couldn’t get near my shop. Mine was the nearest business to the pub, which was still on fire, but I didn’t know the extent of the damage.
“Some hours later, I was allowed to enter my premises. I was devastated. Water and smoke damage had ruined my stock and shop. The ceiling in the back had completely fallen through and the place was a mess – it was so upsetting.”
Morrow says it was only the thickness of her premises’ gable end wall that prevented the shop from being burned to the ground.
Morrow had to close the shop for a month, while her husband and others carried out repair work. However, she continued to trade online and, crucially, she says, to pay her employee. “Maureen, who works in the shop, is amazing, I couldn’t run my business without her. So, laying her off was the last thing I wanted to do.”
Did Morrow ever consider throwing in the towel? “No, although I remember thinking to myself, ‘Oh no, what am I going to do?’. Starting the business was a long-held dream and sales had been good. I worked so hard to set it up; I wasn’t going to give in that easily.”
Morrow says the support of local people and business owners was extremely helpful. She also received a loan from her local council, which provided vital working capital to buy stock while the insurance claims went through. “The main delay was waiting for new stock to arrive from Spain, but I’m really proud of the fact the business was back on its feet so quickly. The fire made me realise just how lucky I am to have my business and it’s made me even more determined to succeed. In business you have to be able to deal with setbacks. If you’re not prepared to fight – don’t bother.”
When flooding devastated the Cumbrian market town of Cockermouth in November 2009, damage totalled £276.5m. Almost 700 homes and more than 220 business premises were hit, including The Toy Shop in the town centre, which was set up in 1995 and is owned and managed by Jonty Chippendale and his wife Fiona.
“We’d had very heavy rain all morning and flooding seemed likely, but that had happened previously and we’d been OK,” he explains. “I went out for a walk and got soaked, so I nipped home to change. When I returned to the shop, in that short time, the water level had risen significantly. I was amazed at how quick it was happening.”
The Chippendales moved stock to higher shelves within their shop. “We put sandbags in front of the door, and had to keep going because the water just kept rising. At about 2pm we realised if we didn’t get out, we weren’t going to get out. We waded through the water, drove home and then watched events unfolding live on TV, which was surreal.”
With the floodwater having risen to five feet inside their premises, the Chippendales lost all of their stock, worth some £40,000, and there was extensive damage to the shop’s interior.
“Even when the water level dropped, the police were keeping everyone away from the centre of town,” Chippendale adds. “When we did manage to gain access, we were shocked when we saw the extent of the damage. But, it’s funny, you then become more positive and I thought, ‘we’ll be back’.
“In truth, everything takes longer to sort out than you hope, but in some ways we were more fortunate. Some business owners had been living above their premises, so they’d lost their business and their home.”
Chippendale says he never considered closing down his business. “I rang my insurance company early the day after the flood and they told me I was covered and they’d help me as much as they could. The recovery really did start then.
“Our customers are extremely loyal, and their support also helped us to build the business back up. The flood did make me appreciate my business much more. It also made me realise that you can really be pulled out of your comfort zone when you run your own business. Overcoming such huge obstacles helps you to realise that you’re capable of more than you imagined, which makes you feel even more confident about facing up to future challenges.”
This content is brought to you by Guardian Professional. To receive more like this you can become a member of the Small Business Network here.