A print supplier in County Durham which produces work for large organisations such as the NHS and Ministry of Defence has hailed a business support programme which it says was pivotal in its survival through the coronavirus pandemic.
Design Xpress in Consett has been trading for over 25 years and at the start of 2020 was riding high – it had been nominated for two prestigious regional business awards and had plans to increase its £1.2m annual turnover and workforce.
The company had secured a capital grant through the County Durham Growth Fund to purchase state-of-the-art printing equipment, which is more energy efficient and cheaper to run, allowing it to invest in other areas of the business.
Another benefit was the machinery printed in white ink, which allowed for printing other products such as double-sided window graphics and specialist acrylics or layering techniques.
However, like many businesses up and down the country, it was forced to drastically scale back its projections and instead was left with no choice but to furlough staff.
Director Juliette Brown said: “Initially things weren’t bad as just before the pandemic hit, we had secured a large order which meant for the first six months we held our own.
“At the same time, we had invested in the new machinery which was supported by the County Durham Growth Fund and things were looking good.
“However, as the pandemic really took hold, and the hospitality, retail and leisure sectors – our core areas of business – shut down our work pretty much stopped.
“Any plans we had to grow were quickly put on hold and instead our focus was what we could do to ride through the crisis.”
Juliette and fellow director Carl Gerry say there were two things that were pivotal to their survival through the pandemic – being able to furlough staff, which meant they avoided all but two redundancies, and the new printing machinery, which allowed the company to secure work to produce socially distanced signage and floor stickers for businesses and organisations to put up around their buildings and in windows.
Although turnover was impacted significantly, at its worst dropping to around 20 per cent of normal levels, the company do believe they have ridden through the worst and are now looking ahead to a better year, albeit with a realisation and acceptance that it may take 12 to 24 months to recover fully from the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.
Juliette added: “There’s no doubt the lockdowns hit us hard and at times, it was a genuine struggle to be in any way positive.
“However, Carl and I pulled together and knew if we helped each other, we would get through it. And that is exactly what we did. We picked up the phone to people, we got whatever work we could, and every day came into work with a determination that this awful pandemic wasn’t going to defeat us.
“We secured as much support as we could from organisations including Business Durham, NBSL, Digital Drive and RTC North and focused on things like social media profiling and upgrading our website, things that we knew would be key to our recovery.
“Now, our staff are all back and the work is picking up again. Business confidence is returning, and I think there’s a renewed optimism that if we can survive a global pandemic, we can survive anything.”
The County Durham Growth Fund is managed by Business Durham in partnership with UMi and is supported by the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF). All successful grants applications are appraised by UNW LLP, an independent firm of chartered accountants and business advisers.
Sarah Slaven, Interim Managing Director at Business Durham, said: “It’s incredibly rewarding to hear that the grant Design Xpress secured through the County Durham Growth Fund was key to it surviving the pandemic and that the company is now in the process of rebuilding and looking to a more positive future.”
Simon Allen, Investment Centre Director at UMi, added: “We fully appreciate that many beneficiaries of the County Durham Growth Fund have been forced to put their plans for growth on hold, however Design Xpress really are testament to the importance of the programme – without this investment the company might well not be here today.”
John Healey, Corporate Finance Partner at UNW, said “We applaud the resilience shown by the Design Xpress team during 2020. As a result of their determination and the investment supported by the County Durham Growth Fund, it’s great to see business levels returning to normal.