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Business awards: The search for Norfolk’s local lockdown heroes

PUBLISHED: 10:47 21 August 2020 | UPDATED: 13:08 21 August 2020

Panel Graphic is a family business run by Steve Earl, with his wife, sons and his daughter Carly (right)

Panel Graphic is a family business run by Steve Earl, with his wife, sons and his daughter Carly (right)

Archant

Nominate the Norfolk firms you saw making a difference in the fight against coronavirus and they could be rewarded in the Norfolk Business Awards.

In April and May Panel Graphic produced 250,000 face shields - adapting the factory to be Covid-safe   Pictures: Panel GraphicIn April and May Panel Graphic produced 250,000 face shields - adapting the factory to be Covid-safe Pictures: Panel Graphic

When the coronavirus first rocked the country, many businesses were forced to shut – but others changed operations to help in the fight against the pandemic. To honour that effort, the Norfolk Business Awards has a new Changing Lives Special Recognition Award, sponsored by Norwich Research Park.

We need readers to nominate worthy firms for the award. Firms like Panel Graphic of Loddon: the family-owned business normally makes specialist plastic components for high-end automotive brands like Bentley and Lotus, but during lockdown 
it devoted itself to producing the face shields so desperately needed by the NHS.

“I felt we had to do something,” says owner Steve Earl. “Even before there was all the talk in the media about the shortages of PPE, we came up with the idea of the visors. We knew we could make them and anticipated there’d be 
a need for them.”

Prototypes were delivered to the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital and the East Anglian Air Ambulance. “Next day we began receiving orders. And I don’t mean a few. It went crazy. Hospitals were ordering thousands at a time... Then we panicked about how we were going to get it all done,” Steve admits.

One morning the Panel Graphic team arrived to find a display of thanks from the local communityOne morning the Panel Graphic team arrived to find a display of thanks from the local community

The first step was to reorganise the factory, changing the layout to allow for social distancing, putting a one-way system in and adding screens. Steve and his wife dashed to St Albans to secure the correct material – a high-grade plastic that was 100pc recyclable. Everything was ready in barely 24 hours. Then he addressed his staff in a socially distanced meeting in the Panel Graphic car park.

“I felt a lot of pressure – trying to balance how much good we could do versus how much harm we might do by getting all these people together,” he says. The staff had the option of staying at home but they all chose to come in and help. They were provided with PPE as Steve was adamant that everything had to be produced in a sterile, safe way.

The operation was so big it involved more than the 47 Panel Graphic staff: around 160 volunteers also played a crucial role. “Some literally dedicated their lives to us,” Steve says. “We built up our entire supply chain virtually overnight.” Brian Read of Read Brothers Limited put together a team of 60 to cut 250,000 headbands – almost the whole village of Thurlton was involved. Another team produced the half-million fixings needed. Other firms provided the vehicles for the deliveries.

“We made 250,000 visors in April and May for the NHS in Norfolk and Suffolk,” Steve says – but all of this cost money. “I could see the business I’d built up over 20 years just slipping away,” he explains. “We provided everything at cut-price for all NHS workers. In April there was about £150,000 of production support, paid for by Panel Graphic.”

The face shields were provided to hospitals and health-care professionals across East AngliaThe face shields were provided to hospitals and health-care professionals across East Anglia

Fortunately, the New Anglia Local Enterprise Partnership stepped in with a grant to cover any surplus stock. Panel Graphic also received donations, but Steve hasn’t put them into the business. “People gave us money because they wanted us to help the NHS, but that would just have been help to cover my costs,” he says.

Instead, he’s using those donations to buy a static caravan, to provide free holidays for NHS workers from Norfolk and Suffolk. “It’s another way some good can come of this,” he says.

The community has already done something to thank the firm – one morning they came in to find the factory surrounded by ‘thank you’ messages. “That was very emotional for all of us,” Steve confesses.

Panel Graphic is one of the businesses already nominated for the Changing Lives Special Recognition Award.

David Parfrey, executive chair at Norwich Research Park    Picture: Norwich Research ParkDavid Parfrey, executive chair at Norwich Research Park Picture: Norwich Research Park

“Those people and organisations didn’t do it for recognition. They did it because it was the right thing to do and they could do it,” says David Parfrey of Norwich Research Park, the award sponsor. “We should now take the time to look around our communities and say thank you to those people who stepped up to the plate to help others.”

To nominate a business for the Changing Lives Special Recognition Award, click here.


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