Woolcool MD on facing her first crisis, running a family business and the importance of learning lessons

Posted on Wednesday 6 May 2020



Josie Morris became managing director of Woolcool, a packaging company founded by her mother, in 2016 aged 29. The Staffordshire-based business manufactures a range of bags, boxes, envelopes and pouches for the food and pharmaceutical sectors. Its USP is the addition of wool – a sustainable and better-performing alternative to the manmade polystyrene that is typically used for insulation in packaging and often ends up in landfill.

Woolcool, which employs around 40 people and counts Fortnum & Mason, John Lewis and Unilever as customers, became a B Corporation earlier this year. As well as the sustainability of its core product, the family-owned company has launched a circular economy scheme that enables customers to return the wool so it can be reused in new packages.

How is business, currently?

We’ve been really lucky as we’ve experienced an uplift in sales. I know there are a lot of businesses that are suffering so I’m very grateful and very humble. It’s been really hard work, especially with a skeleton staff and managing a warehouse with social distancing measures. I’ve had a severe lack of sleep as I’ve been working 12-14-hour days for the last month or so, but I can’t complain.

Is the sales uplift due to, or in spite of, Covid-19?

We were growing anyway. That said, only a small percentage of food in the UK is bought online and, as not everyone can or wants to go to the shops as normal, we’ve benefitted from companies moving to delivery, which requires more packaging. Then there’s the restaurant sector, which is on its knees, but we’ve had some establishments coming to us as they’re looking to get into home delivery for the first time.

How has the pandemic affected business outside of the UK?

Around 20% of our business is export, mostly to Europe. There has been a bit of a delay in shipping to customers but, overall, we haven’t been affected. I have to hand it to the haulage companies – they’re keeping things going. I was planning to go out to the US to recce how we can grow our business there in the future, but that is obviously on hold for now.

What’s been the biggest challenge the business has faced since the coronavirus hit?

Responding to new enquiries in a timely manner and giving everyone the same quality of service, all while trying to ensure our employees are safe has been difficult. There has been guidance from the government and they have done the best job they can do in the situation they’re in – whether in hindsight they have made the right decisions, we’ll see – but guidance around how to run a warehouse has been missing and PPE is difficult to get hold of.

Has the business accessed any of the support offered by government?

We have furloughed four or five high-risk individuals, but we won’t claim any of the other support unless we experience financial hardship – I think the money is needed elsewhere. Ultimately, if you claim money and you don’t really need it, you will find that you will pay it back elsewhere anyway. I believe in good business karma!

What difference, if any, do you think being a B Corp has made to how your company has performed during this crisis?

I think the B Corp values mean that you think about your team more and you take into account their emotional wellbeing in particular. The community aspect helps too. I haven’t had time to interact much with the B Corp network but, had we been struggling as a business, I think it would have been a massive help. It makes you feel more secure in some ways.

Has being a family business made any difference?

There is the worry that we could all get ill and, as a family business, the concern about what might happen in that worst-case scenario does play on my mind sometimes. We told my mum and her partner to stay at home – they’re in their 60s, so have been taking more of an ambassadorial role in recent times – but my sister is Woolcool’s financial director, so I still see her most days. In a family business there is that trust that everyone is working towards the same goal and you can share worries that you might not share with other, non-family employees. That said, we always talk about the Woolcool family so as not to make it in an ‘us and them’ feeling between the owners and the non-family employees.

As a 33-year-old managing director, this is the first major crisis you have faced. How have you coped?

To a certain extent it’s about having a plan and a belief that you can always do something in any given situation. I try to rationalise it by thinking ‘this is the problem’ and mapping out some potential options to solve it – it doesn’t seem so bad then, even if the solution is ‘we’ll just sit tight and see what happens’. Having confidence in the team around you is also important. And I try not to worry too much about the future as it doesn’t change the outcome!

Are you optimistic about the future?

There are days when you look at the news, it’s all doom and gloom, and you wonder how we’re going to come out the other end. I’m somewhat pessimistic about the short term as a lot of businesses will go to the wall. But, generally, I think things tend to turn out ok. We’ve been through worse things than this as a country and survived, so I think the main thing is to learn lessons from what’s happening now. I hope there will be a change when it comes to how the government resources the public sector, even if that means more taxation, so people at the bottom get better healthcare.

Posted in: Business