Diary of a spectacle designer

Tom Davies explains how coronavirus brought UK operations to a standstill

‘Bloody hell,’ is what I’ve been thinking all month. It started with me transiting through Hong Kong in January. I smiled for the camera in the first-class lounge with a glass of champagne and face mask for my Facebook. I also had a bottle of Corona – which doesn’t seem that funny now.

I remember Sars and the kerfuffle around it – big news of course, but it didn’t really affect me that much in those days. As my business has grown around the world, I find myself exposed to global events in a way you’d only expect mega-companies to experience. In the true spirit of globalisation, events like the outbreak in China affect us all.

People expect that now the company has a factory in the UK, all our frames are made in England. Well, yes and no. All metal work is still done in my old Chinese factory, which I’ve been winding down but not yet closed. It’s not easy setting up a brand-new production facility from scratch in the UK and I need supporting businesses that do not exist here. I couldn’t even buy the right screws when we ran out of those, let alone have anyone tool me up with metal presses to make my hinges or titanium fronts.

That means I’m sitting on thousands of frame fronts in London without wire cores for the temple arms. Basically, production here stopped two weeks ago and my staff are twiddling their thumbs and looking at me nervously.

The urgent task was to get my logistics centre open in China. It had closed, as usual, for one week in January. Then the government extended the national holiday by a week, and then another. Finally, it was announced no business could open until it had completed a series of strict tests.

We needed each member of staff to pass an online exam. We put in place a quarantine room. We have temperature checking devices and a daily screening programme in place, food controls, anti-bacterial liquids in place on every wall and a full list of everyone’s travels over the previous 28 days. The government came to inspect and we passed all tests except one – our face masks were not medical grade.

As I sit and type this at my desk, I’m looking at a pile of facemasks I got from eBay. Each mask cost £2. They usually cost 10p. I was up at 4am yesterday talking to my logistics manager in China. ‘You couldn’t buy facemasks here if you were Bill Gates,’ he told me.

‘Right,’ I thought. ‘I’ll buy them and send them over.’ I started on Google, which led me to Amazon and eBay but I could only get 500 masks. By the time I got to the office, I had people in Germany, Albania, Malaysia and the UK buying up any they could find.

While all this has been going on, business has never been better. Exports have exploded, retail is up. UK wholesale business has never ever been as great as this and although I should be celebrating, I’m instead eyeing up a £600,000 backlog of bespoke orders. ‘Can’t you just sneak into the warehouse and grab some wire cores and then jump on a flight to London?’ I asked the team in China, but to no avail. As the backlog grew, so did my red wine consumption.

So it really all comes down to masks. My logistics manager in China drove across country yesterday and managed to pick up 2,000. We received 500 from various eBay sellers this morning. My logistic manager in the UK drove to Portsmouth at 5am this morning and managed to get another 1,000 from a company there.

We can finally open on Monday and UPS will be legally able to collect the materials for delivery to London. My UK factory we will be back in action on Tuesday. Apologies have been made to customers, along with explanations and in some cases, refunds.

I’ve spent years building up an innovative just-in-time supply chain. It rather feels like we need to rethink how we do business. Not only how we support and supply our production but also our lives. This past four weeks have been the most challenging of my career. Lessons have been learned the hard way. Manufacturing goals have been adjusted.

Made in Britain has never felt more relevant and maybe I’ll add a facemask making machine to the production line.