“When you’re at rock bottom you either sink or swim,” says Ben Morrison, who when faced with his own devastating situation could have been forgiven for sinking.
Last year, the Mancunian lost his father and business to Covid-19 and watched his grandmother pass away from pneumonia, all within a matter of weeks. But despite what he describes as probably the worst year of his life, Morrison chose to swim. The father of two has turned adversity into opportunity, re-evaluating his life and launching a successful new enterprise, striving every day to make his father, a well-known member of the Prestwich community, proud.
“Losing my dad and grandma, it has been a very strange and upsetting time, but it made me realise that life is too short and given me the strength and vision: it’s important to me now to do my dad proud.”
Morrison, 35, founded his Bury-based events firm, We Are Events, in 2011, which specialises in large simchas and corporate events. The company had doubled in size just before the pandemic struck in March and business came to a standstill in the first lockdown.
“It was as if someone had unplugged the phone,” recalls Morrison. “I have always been on the go, and couldn’t just stay at home waiting for the world of events to get back up and running. I had to come up with something.”
However, at the same time, Morrison’s father Bernard, who ran Prestwich’s well-known Bonds Newsagents, was taken ill with Covid.
“Dad was always busy, and wanted to keep on working, even at the age of 73. He did have underlying health issues, so we knew that if he was to get the virus it could be bad, but he just wasn’t willing to stay at home. He was active and wanted to go to work – the newsagent’s was his life.”
Bernard, a member of the Prestwich Hebrew Congregation (Shrubberies), who had diabetes, became unwell at the end of March and his wife Madeleine also contracted the virus.
“She became very ill with symptoms so I couldn’t go into the house to see her and the country went into lockdown,” Morrison says. “I went to hospital to see my dad on the Wednesday and he passed away on the Friday.”
Morrison’s grandmother, Renee Miller, died a few weeks later after contracting pneumonia.
“No matter how bad things are, there is always someone worse off,” reflects Morrison, also a member of Prestwich Hebrew Congregation. “It’s important to step back, have a great support network around you and keep pushing forward.
“Positivity is key. I’ve a very positive outlook in life, and I feel lucky I was at least allowed into the hospital and I got to say goodbye to my dad.”
He adds: “I am great believer that you can either sit back and hope the world will change, or you can go out and help the world change. I knew I had to do something to reinvent myself until the world of events returns.” Cue Smart Bar.
A coffee lover, Morrison says: “I remember during the first lockdown driving to a Costa drive-through and the queue was ridiculous as people clamoured for their takeaway coffees. I thought: ‘This is crazy.’ Why not drive the coffee to the people?’”
He went on eBay in August and saw a Smart car for sale. “I put in a crazy offer – the guy came back and said: ‘If you drive to Chester you can have it tomorrow’ and that was it. The idea for Smart Bar was born.”
He converted the Smart car by putting a coffee machine in the back and drove it to parks, businesses, sports clubs and schools, including King David where he was a pupil, and which his children now attend.
“The parents loved it. They would say: ‘Please could you come to our football games at the weekend?’ and it spiralled from there.”
He got in touch with his corporate contacts and has recently signed a partnership with boiling water tap company Quooker.
“This has opened our eyes to new offerings and will hopefully lead to other corporate partnerships so we can provide services on behalf of their clients.”
Smart Bar also works with reality stars Charlotte Dawson and James Argent and there are currently seven vehicles operating across Manchester, Cheshire and Liverpool with plans to roll out throughout other UK cities, including London. “Please G-d, one day Smart Bar will be available in every UK city,” says Morrison.
Covid has devastated the events and hospitality sector, but Morrison is hopeful it will “come back”. We Are Events remains open and Morrison has kept his staff on furlough and advises those in the industry to “stay strong and find something for now to keep you going”.
He continues: “We are a long way away from large or corporate events, but I am hoping, based on talks around summer time, to start to see some movement. I think initially you will see smaller events using a hybrid of virtual for those who don’t want to attend in person.”
In the meantime, Morrison is enjoying spending time with his family: wife Samantha, and their two children, Natalya, seven, and Jake, four, while continuing the Smart Bar journey. He also runs children’s charity Destination Florida, that every two years takes dozens of children with life-limiting illnesses on an all-expenses-paid trip of a lifetime to Florida.
He says: “My dad would have loved Smart Bar. I know he would have wanted to be a part of this. Working in newsagents, he would have followed the cars around with stock making sure everyone was ok and that no one was short of anything. I aim to make him proud every day and know that he is driving me to strive for greater and better things every day.”
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