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

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

She said: “I never walk past the opportunity to get 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.”

Ellie Osman, managing director of the edible nut importer and exporter Minerva Global at New Alresford, Winchester, said there had been challenges supplying to food distributors and snack makers all over the world.

But she added: “Part of it, I think, has been really good for the team. Some of it is crisis management, some of it’s really as a team how do you pull together and weather this storm?

“We were in a period of accelerated growth. This year I think will just be a case of standing still and if we come out this year having stood still, then I think we’ve done a great job and I’m very proud of the team as a result.”

She said she had been devoting part of the week planning for the longer term future “to keep my mental strength up” and had been having discussions about new technologies.

Other participants on a Zoom call included Cheryl Hadland, founder and managing director of Bournemouth-based Hadland Care Group, whose Tops Day Nurseries are sited across the south including Winchester, Fawley and Lymington.

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 wellbeing and on revenue, which was down to 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. Furlough helped enormously,” 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, giving them cooked meals instead. Instead of 30 part-time administrators at the different nurseries, there was an administration 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,” she added.

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.”