Start plotting your post-pandemic comeback now, Lehigh Valley experts tell business owners - lehighvalleylive.com

Start plotting your post-pandemic comeback now, Lehigh Valley experts tell business owners - lehighvalleylive.com


Start plotting your post-pandemic comeback now, Lehigh Valley experts tell business owners - lehighvalleylive.com

Posted: 02 May 2020 04:36 AM PDT

Lehigh Valley experts are telling small business owners now is the time to start planning for a coronavirus pandemic comeback.

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf ordered all non-life-sustaining businesses to close their doors on March 19. Essential businesses still operating include anything from supermarkets to medical and healthcare facilities to restaurants for carryout and delivery. Also open are home improvement retailers, banks, pet stores, warehouses and hotels. The shelter-in-place order for Northampton and Lehigh counties followed shortly after on March 25.

Lehigh Valley business owners now await when Wolf might start easing up on some of those restrictions in a planned three-tiered approach for opening the state back up. A panel of experts offered insight during a recent virtual town hall meeting, titled "Small Business Solutions for Businesses Affected by the Coronavirus," held by Northampton County Executive Lamont McClure and the Northampton County Department of Community and Economic Development.

Now is the time to take action to cement the future, the panelists told small business owners.

"We all know the world has changed; there's no going back; no crystal ball," said Sally Handlon of Handlon Business Resources, the event's moderator. "But we need to figure out how to move forward and how do we plan ahead?"

'Tough conversations'

The reality small business owners need to face is they might not be returning to a "business as usual" concept, said Jason Hoy, co-owner of Tucker Silk Mill in Easton's Simon Silk Mill redevelopment.

"We are going to have to suggest having to change how we deal with our customers. We're going to have to paint them a new reality and I think that we'll have to have to have some very honest conversations about what that reality is, what it looks like and how long that reality continues for," Hoy said. "You'll need to have some tough conversations about what your business will be like or what it is like and what it may be like in three months, six months, and how long this might continue. And be prepared to face that, too."

Employers need to begin discussing that new normal also with their employees, Hoy said.

"You should be communicating to them on a regular basis, he said. "The reality is you may not be bringing all your employees back, you may manage a very changed business model, which doesn't have as many people or as much contact with the public. You may have changed a lot of things. So that changes their reality, too."

Another relationship business owners need have some tough conversations with is with their bankers or financial advisers. They will need to ask if they should apply for a local, state or federal loan and assess what's financially feasible for their comeback, Hoy said.

"You need to have that conversation with yourself. Will you be operating at the capacity you were three months ago in another four months when that loan trickles back?," Hoy said. "Be honest about where you are, where you're going, and where you've come from. Make sure you're aware of all those things."

Brett Smith, director of the Lehigh University Small Business Development Center, added when applying for loans, however, ducks must be in a row. Now's the time to gather all legal, financial and insurance documentation prior to applying for the loan, he said.

"We've unfortunately heard of a few cases where our clients were trying to get the documentation together and unfortunately, missed out on applying when there was still funding for the programs," Smith said.

Some popular loans helping small businesses in recent weeks are the Small Business Administration's Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) and the Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL), which reopened this week with additional funding passed by Congress. Other cities, such as Bethlehem, launched a 300,000 small business relief fund, and the Greater Easton Development Partnership and Easton Area Industrial Land Development nonprofit organizations in partnership with the city distributed over $177,000 in loans through another emergency relief effort.

The Greater Lehigh Chamber of Commerce also has handed out grants totaling $300,000 in two phases through its Lehigh Valley coronavirus relief fund. To date, the fund provided 250 small business owners each with $1,000 to $1,500 in both phases. A third phase is currently underway, which likely will distribute another $50,000, in which 50 businesses could receive $1,000.

The Lehigh Valley Economic Development Commission previously submitted 26 applications for area companies for a Pennsylvania Industrial Development Authority program, titled the COVID-19 Working Capital Access program. Those applications totaled $2.3 million in financing, though not all those loans have been closed or distributed yet, Colin McEvoy, spokesman for the LVEDC, said on Wednesday.

Smith also suggested researching the loans on the various agency websites to keep up with the most updated information because it's changing frequently.

Adapting to change

Five companies that were on the Dow Jones Industrial Average after the Great Depression still exist today. They include Coca-Cola, Exxon Mobil, PPG Industries, Procter & Gamble, and Stanley Black & Decker.

Hoy, at Tucker Silk Mill, said the longevity of these businesses didn't come without adaptation -- something that got them through the worst economic downturn in the history of the industrialized world. The coronavirus pandemic is no exception in those planning a comeback.

"If you sit idly by, listen to advice and not take it, you just decide that you'll open back up when the time comes and those more restrictive situations have been lifted, then you maybe already be behind the eight ball and not able to effectively pivot and change fast enough," he said. "I think right now it's really about acting."

The needs of customers likely now have changed. Restaurants were once used to patrons entering a bustling dining room. Boutique patrons would gather clothing off racks to dress a dressing room. Shoppers would pop in just to browse what an owner had in store.

"You need to meet them where they are and you can't expect them to come to you. You need to go and chase them," Hoy said. "I think you need to be one of the adapters and not just realign but to make sure you're the new you. If your current business model doesn't work in the new reality, then you might need to find a new business plan."

Sarah Clark, owner and creative principal of Easton-based Kudu Creative, a brand strategy of print and digital design, said brand strategy moving forward post-pandemic could make or break a business.

Clark laid out a series of questions she thinks business owners need to answer:

  • What does my business look like once the stay-at-home order is lifted?
  • How will procedures for working remotely become standardized so that in the future if and when this happens again, it's not going to cause such a disruption to workforce, workflow and communication?
  • What chat softwares are being used to communicate, if there's a larger team?
  • What is the business' social media content communication strategy?
  • How is the business communicating to clients on a larger scale about what the business is doing to take safety precautions during this time?
  • What does it look like once business is back up and running?

If some of those answers look bleak, Clark said business owners might have to change up their strategies before reopening. A client of Clark whose an interior designer knew she no longer could enter homes while practicing social distancing. That designer then converted the business' website and added a web page allowing virtual tours of a home with boards for potential clients.

A business' digital presence, Clark added, should be paramount. A home page needs to communicate all the services the business offers and if it's an e-commerce site, it'll need to have all the products offered uploaded. Updates might be needed to push the website forward post pandemic, she said.

"During this time it's interesting to see how you as a business owner can get creative and pivot upon what is happening right now," Clark said. "It's always good to listen internally at your business and then externally at your market."

Bruce Smith, a Bethlehem-based certified public accountant, echoed a rapidly changing environment. He noted as a CPA in the middle of tax season, he went from being deemed non-essential to essential within a 24-hour span.

"It forced us to re-evaluate how we operated and that is true in most of our client situations -- you're really looking at right sizing your labor force, looking at your customers, looking at the job you do, the products you make, the services you provide, and how you do this in this new environment," Palmer said. "It's new opportunities, new restrictions, new expectations. Flexibility, adaptability are key and staying on top of this information."

Staging a comeback

While none of us can predict the future, that doesn't mean we can't better plan for it, said Lou Allegra, a volunteer mentor with SCORE Lehigh Valley.

"Create your future, don't try to predict it, don't ignore it -- rather define it," Allegra said.

In staging a comeback, he said owners should be visualizing the "perfect picture" for their business -- a year, three years or five years down the line and target the goals to get there. That can include anything from a longtime business owner wanting to retire to a novice entrepreneur wanting to grow.

"Your business plan is a plan for success, it's not a guess, it's not a prediction, it's not a wish," Allegra said. "It's a document that describes what you will achieve. And it might be just getting back in business and continuing to grow but I would argue that for many businesses, this is a chance to restructure and to come out of this pandemic, this crisis, even stronger than when you entered."

Rob Jacobs, an Easton-based attorney, advises those with relatively healthy businesses to obtain a line of credit or set aside some cash so they can survive a month or two if a financial crisis happens again.

"When times are good, I've had clients that said, 'You know, I don't need a line of credit. I don't like dealing with banks,' but I mean this is a perfect example of why you should have it," Jacobs said. "It seems we may get shut down again at some point, there may be another pandemic at some point in the future."

Palmer, the accountant, added another challenge will be predicting cash flow moving forward when a lot of a business owner's means currently might be eroded.

"You have to be proactive, rather than reactive," he said. "Plan for success, obviously anticipate problems along the way, and have some backup plans in place for when those problems occur."

"Cash flow is definitely the key to survival, there's no doubt about that," Palmer added. "You have to look at your budgets, or revenue and expenses, and try to revise those given the new circumstances that we're in right now. It's not the easiest thing to do."

Smith, the director of the Lehigh University Small Business Development Center, said coming up with new ways now to make money also will give you an edge over the competition. Ask yourself, he said, "How quickly are you able to reopen, ramp up, bring everybody back and what's that going to look like?"

For those in the hospitality and personal service industries -- such as restauranteurs, salon owners and barbers -- maintaining a relationship with clients over social media is essential. Those owners, Allegra said, should be crafting a "grand reopening" strategy and discussing it with clients now to get them back into their establishments once the restrictions lift. Examples, he said, are special menu options or a new service. It also could be showing off a new interior or exterior renovation or makeover.

"We don't know when that is going to be but that doesn't mean that we can't describe what it's going to look like or feel like or taste like," Allegra said.

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Pamela Sroka-Holzmann may be reached at pholzmann@lehighvalleylive.com.

Small-business kick-start begins Monday in Villages - The Villages Daily Sun

Posted: 02 May 2020 03:00 AM PDT

It's a new beginning Monday at Banner Mercantile and hundreds of other retail shops and restaurants in The Villages. The Villages logo store will reopen two of its three stores Monday morning after a monthlong hiatus. "We're so happy to be back open to serve our customers," said Patty Boyd, The Villages retail manager for the logo stores. "We're excited to see everyone again." The Brownwood and Spanish Springs logo stores will reopen under strict guidelines that Gov. Ron DeSantis issued last week for all stores in Florida as part of Phase I of his Re-Open Florida strategy. "We're going to be following all of the safety rules," Boyd said. "We'll have hand sanitizers, and we will require all customers and sales associates to wear masks." The governor unveiled a three-phase reopening strategy in collaboration with key business and government leaders who served on his Re-Open Florida Task Force, said state Rep. Jose Oliva, R-Miami Lakes, speaker of the Florida House of Representatives.

"This is a strong first step on our path back to normalcy," Oliva said. "I commend Gov. DeSantis for his continued efforts in returning our great state to prosperity through thoughtful and deliberate methods. The governor has guided us through this crisis with results that far outperformed the models, as well as other states. I am confident his leadership will return us to a thriving Florida."

All businesses in The Villages and elsewhere in Florida must abide by restrictions designed to protect the public's health and safety, according to the executive order DeSantis issued.

Retail stores, licensed restaurants and food establishments may reopen so long as they don't operate at more than 25% of a county's approved building occupancy, according to the new state guidelines. Restaurants may offer outdoor seating with appropriate social distancing. And other restrictions may apply.

These guidelines are important to revitalizing small businesses in The Villages, said Lindsey Blaise, president and CEO of Citizens First Bank and member of the Florida Bankers Association board of directors.

"Small businesses are vital to our economy in The Villages," she said. "From the goods and services they provide to the people they hire, our community wouldn't be the same without our local small businesses."

It was personal for Blaise, too, when President Donald J. Trump signed into law the federal stimulus program that provided many small businesses in The Villages with the means to pay their employees even though closed.

"As a local small business, we understand firsthand how important it is to continue serving our customers and providing for our employees," she said. "That's why we worked so hard to get our local businesses access to the Small Business Administration Paycheck Protection Program. I am so grateful and proud of our team that worked around the clock to support our community."

The Villages hometown community secured around $84.2 million in forgivable, payroll stimulus loans on behalf of 566 small business applications during the first round of the federal stimulus program.

"And we continued to receive calls from businesses throughout the three-county market who have indicated they would like to be part of round two," said Brad Weber, the bank's executive vice president and chief lending officer.

More than 2,000 small businesses operated in The Villages metropolitan statistical area as of the third quarter 2019, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That is a 30% five-year increase. Those businesses employed an average of 26,082 workers in the quarter, a 25% five-year increase. Total wages recorded for the third quarter also are on pace to set another annual record. Wages in the third quarter were 80% of the yearly total, increasing by 46% over the previous five years.

The stimulus dollars that Citizens First Bank secured supported businesses like Kylie's Closet, a fashion jewelry store at Brownwood, and The King's Gallery, an art-and-framing gallery at Spanish Springs.

"Citizens was great," said Michael Hackett, owner of the Brownwood store.

Kylie's will resume sales from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. today, with sights set on satisfying shopper demand for the perfect Mother's Day gift, he said.

"We'll be taking all the precautions we can think of," said Michael Hackett, owner of the fashion jewelry store. "We'll set up hand sanitizer at the door and limit capacity to 10 people or less. We'll probably only take credit cards. And we'll set up a 6-foot tape behind the register for social distancing."

The bank's assistance was a godsend, said Candy Coldwell, owner of art-and-framing gallery.

"Citizens was fantastic," she said.

The gallery will reopen Monday mostly at reduced hours, Coldwell said.

"It's wonderful news for us," she said about reopening. "We would like people to wear masks, and we're going to be very careful about how many people can be in the store at one time. But it's fantastic news."

Senior writer David R. Corder can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5241, or david.corder@thevillagesmedia.com.

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