As more residents are being vaccinated and restrictions are being scaled back, small businesses remain in survival mode after COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns and ever-changing regulations dealt them crippling blows.
The Maryland Daily Record recently hosted a webinar on “Positioning Your Business in a Post-COVID Economy” with panelists Carim Khouzami, BGE’s CEO; Cailey Locklair, Maryland Retailers Association, Maryland Chain Drug Store Association, Maryland Food Industry Council and Tri State Jewelers Association president; Jayson T. Williams, Mayson-Dixon Companies’ CEO and Robert Wells, Miles & Stockbridge Principal.
Moderator Sloane Brown asked each panelist to discuss the most significant impact of the pandemic with their organization and/or clients.
While mental health and a focus on social justice issues have always mattered, Wells believes these concerns gained even more importance in the workplace beginning last year.
Williams noted the ability to work from home humanized a lot of people he worked with as he was welcomed into their homes rather than sitting around an office table. Currently, in the process of reopening his offices, he notes staff has asked for individual offices instead of an open floor plan which had been a popular layout with developers pre-pandemic. There is also a theme of Fear Of Missing Out (FOMO) with his staff.
“I thought most of the staff, as we started to reopen, would only want to come in a couple days a week but they see each other on the text streams,” he said. “… We actually had an influx of people that wanted to come back into the office so that was interesting.” He is now trying to figure what his employees want in terms of office layout to create a comfortable, safe space for collaboration.
Because many of BGE’s employees could not work as closely together due to the pandemic, Khouzami and his team had to find different ways to engage with each other and tried to pick up on nonverbal cues to see if someone needed help.
In 2020, there was stress and anxiety from not only the pandemic but from racial injustices, the 2020 election and everyday life.
“All of that affects each of the employees in very different and very personal ways so the need to be able to engage with one another was greater than ever and we were challenged because we couldn’t actually be close together,” Khouzami said.
The company did regular check-ins with staff, finding ways to accommodate and aide those that had some struggles in their lives to help them adjust to the new environment that we are all working in.
With companies having to shift during the pandemic, Williams was asked if a pivot is temporary or permanent. His consulting business lost 50% of its clients during the initial shutdown so he had to pivot toward another of his businesses.
“I knew how to get access to PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) so suddenly my construction supply business was supplying PPE,” he said.
This move helped to keep his other businesses afloat during such uncertain times and they continue to be a PPE supplier.
“In business, what makes a pivot permanent is if you can figure out how to operationalize into a long-term strategy for growth and investment,” Williams said.
Wells noted a word he used in the last year more than he used in the last 15 to 20 years is grace.
“I think that I have asked for grace and I have also been in the position where I needed to offer grace,” he said.
Locklair’s organizations represent many retail clients that are being faced with having to achieve rapid revenue growth while simultaneously having to pay off debt.
“On the recovery side, I think, although the hope is that the federal, state and local PPP (Paycheck Protection Program) money would have helped wipe at least some of their debt clean, the fact truly remains that many businesses still have a long way to dig themselves out of and to go,” she said. “That zero multi-month revenue stream was a significant problem and that is why they are having to dig themselves out. Even now what we are seeing is sales have never returned to normal for many of our members so that is a major challenge.”
For those retailers trying to position themselves for the long term, Locklair believes this means doing a business plan overhaul. While contingent on the type of business, she said management needs to look at supply chain resiliency, revamping health and safety protocols, reexamining guidelines for how your employees work, diversity and inclusion in the workplace and what that looks like, incorporating artificial intelligence and technology to help streamline and make businesses more competitive and leveraging other businesses in partnerships
“Really taking a look at the business plan and having to go through it and revamp it is going to be key to long-term success,” she said.
Brown asked each panelist to give their best piece of advice for small business owners/leaders that survived the pandemic and are looking to find a brighter future.
Khouzami told participants to not underestimate the importance of having a strong team and never take them for granted.
“What we have seen over the last 12 months is strong teams will rise to the occasion and can meet the challenges you are facing,” he said.
Williams noted he took a pause during the lockdown to take a deeper look at his company asking himself questions like ‘What am I doing in my business?’ and ‘What can I be doing better?’ He also asked questions of his company like ‘Who are we as a company?’ ‘What is the mission?‘ ‘What is going to make someone want to buy my product or hire us?’
“That was an extremely helpful exercise,” he said. “I think it is an exercise that businesses every once and awhile (should do). I know a lot of small business, you are in hustle mode at all times but you have to take a step back and figure out — What am I doing? Is it working? Do I have enough reserves? If something goes wrong what happens to my team and my employees?”
Locklair wants businesses to know they are not alone. Communities have many resources such as associations, groups, Chamber of Commerces and the Small Business Development Center at the University of Maryland to provide assistance.
“They are easy to access and the resources they provide you will pay dividends for your business in the long run,” she said.
A replay of the webinar is available at thedailyrecord.com/webinars/positioning-your-business-in-a-post-covid-economy/. For more information about upcoming webinars with The Daily Record visit thedailyrecord.com/webinars/.