THE top finance boss at NatWest Group paid a “virtual visit” to hear from local women in business how they were faring amid coronavirus and Brexit.

Katie Murray, the group’s chief financial officer, asked female entrepreneurs in Dorset and Hampshire how the bank was doing and how they saw the economy.

She said: “I never walk past the opportunity to meet with some of the entrepreneurs and customers that we work with because when you’re the CFO of the bank, you get so much information filtered up to you, so it’s lovely to actually hear a little bit first hand in terms of what’s really happening and what you feel like.”

Participants on a Zoom call included Cheryl Hadland, founder and managing director of Bournemouth-based Hadland Care Group, whose Tops Day Nurseries across the south west include sites in Gillingham and Wareham.

She said “I guess this has been probably the toughest period in business for me ever.”

She said the crisis had taken its toll on staff and on revenue, which reached a quarter of its pre-Covid levels during lockdown. “I did furlough a lot of staff and we were able to cut our costs right down,” she said.

“Three weeks into furlough, the government suddenly announced that anybody that gets any government funding at all, you can’t claim all your furlough.

“Having already furloughed a load of people, that was the real low point of the whole thing. I basically fell apart over the weekend. I wrote to MPs, councillors and anyone I could think of to say ‘This is grossly unfair, you can’t announce we can use furlough and then announce that we can’t after I’ve already told my staff’. It’s just unbelievable.

“I know the government are struggling because they’re having to make decisions from the hip just like we are and I think my whole leadership style had to change. I went into emergency mode and instead of being very consultative and open and ‘What are your opinions?’, I was going ‘Bang bang bang, do this, do that’, as if it was an emergency first aid situation.”

She told how the company no longer allowed children to bring packed lunches, providing cooked meals instead, with a cooking “hub” at Wimborne. Instead of 30 part-time administrators at nurseries, there was now a hub with 12 full-time staff

She said NatWest had helped by pausing capital repayments. “Just to know the bank’s not going to pull the rug out from under us when it gets tough – with respect, that does happen and has happened in the past, when things get tough then the banks get even tougher, but that hasn’t happened this time,” she said.

“Things have got tough and I felt the banks have been in support and that’s been fantastic.”

Katie Murray said: “That’s certainly what we’ve been trying to do, to actually get through all this together is going to be better for all of us and anything or more short term or shorter focus would be very challenging.”

Amy Newton, finance director consultant at Newton’s Theory, told the meeting of clients with a range of experiences, from one who was able to acquire another business to one who had “completely lost their business and had to pivot and we may be able to save them”.

“We’ve had other clients who have been able to recruit people that they couldn’t otherwise have got hold of, so that, for them, is their investing to grow. They’ve had to take a massive hit profit-wise because they’re taking on a lot of people in one go and client revenue will come after that, they’re hoping.

"I think it’s different experiences for different businesses and a lot of it has to do with how much debt they were carrying before and what’s happening in their specific sector.”