The March outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic forced "non-essential” small businesses to cease operations and, like many of us, shelter in place
The nation’s, the Commonwealth’s, and our region’s economy came to an abrupt halt; businesses closed, customers left, employees furloughed, and supply chains deteriorated or stopped functioning.
The staff of not only your Small Business Development Center (SBDC), but Centers throughout the Commonwealth and nation rolled up their collective sleeves and got to work doing what we do best—helping small business owners with access to information and access to capital. Here in Hampton Roads, we developed a 4-phase strategic plan to help businesses. Survival; Recovery; Sustainment and then Growth. Each distinct phase has unique and similar characteristics, which cut across operational boundaries. Our long-term objective is to address the immediate needs of this crisis and to prepare the region for future small business growth post-crisis.
The survival phase has two primary goals, access to information, and access to capital. The staff of the Virginia Small Business Development Center Network worked tirelessly to ensure that people were receiving the right information and to address and quash rumors, myths, and misconceptions quickly. In the access to capital area, the staff worked to assist small business owners in completing the complicated paperwork of the Economic Injury Disaster Loan Program and the Paycheck Protection Program Loan program.
Everyone from the SBA and SBDC knew it was going to be a monumental undertaking. In one 14-day period, the SBA’s loan volume equaled all the loans made/guaranteed by the SBA in the preceding 14 years! The EIDL application process worked well in the past when only one section of the country experienced a disaster, such as a hurricane or flooding. This emergency affected the entire country, and the system crashed under the sheer volume of applications. The SBA worked to reinvent a process from the ground up. This system is now working, and one of our Center's clients received paperwork for a $500,000 loan from the SBA.
Two particularly bright spots came when Truist Bank approached the SBDC and asked us to submit a request to their foundation for assistance. From this request, the Center received a grant for $40,000 to support the establishment of an “access to capital” counselor. The second came when two MBA students from the Raymond A Mason School of Business at William and Mary came forward and offered to conduct volunteer counseling for the businesses in the Historic Triangle Area. This simple step spawned a partnership between the Mason MBA program and the SBDC that is in the formalization process.
If Governor Northam authorizes reopening on May 15, small business owners will be going back to an extremely uncertain market. What will they have to do to comply with the new regulations that will govern the way they do business? Will their employees be convinced that their work environment is safe and uncontaminated? Given the high unemployment rates, will customers even return? If they do, will they spend what they used to, or will they be price-sensitive, thus reducing profit margins?
The VSBDC Network has been researching industry-specific best practices for reopening small businesses and developing a 3-phase plan and checklist to Review, Reopen, and Recover. If business owners decide to disestablish their business, the program includes the guidelines and a checklist for that course of action. There are four choices available to small business owners, reopen, close, buy/sell/merge, or reinvent. We have developed processes, which will enable them to objectively analyze the options and make a decision based in fact and not a gut reaction. We are following the Governor's guidelines on which industries open first and have assembled the information.
Jim Carroll, Executive Director for the SBDC, offers his expertise to local leaders and organizations. “ I was around in 1999 when Hurricane Floyd caused the Blackwater River to crest its banks and flood downtown Franklin. The physical devastation was complete; business owners lost everything and had to rebuild. While the physical damage was extensive, the people had a sense of purpose and direction, clean up, rebuild, and reopen. Customers were there who needed the goods and services that were for sale there. My SBDC staff and I supported the FSA Chamber, the Retail Alliance, who established a $1 million emergency bridge loan fund and the city’s leadership in bringing the town back from disaster. After the flood, there was a clear goal; the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel.”
Today we face a much more pernicious and insidious threat. While the physical damage is virtually non-existent, the psychological damage is, by several orders of magnitude, significantly greater. The danger of the virus is still present both in fact as well as in our minds. We will fundamentally change our behavior, shopping habits, and patterns. Our stores will physically change, and customer service, which once used to be a handshake and a smile, will be an elbow bump and a mask. Your SBDC will be there to perform its mission by giving small business owners the information, insights, empathy, and understanding of their needs and challenges.
Carroll sums up his feelings on the efforts of the SBDC. “I am proud to be associated with an amazing statewide network of professionals who put service above self, who don’t need to be in the spotlight and who will do anything to assist their clients and each other. I am also humbled by the consummate professionals of your SBDC who work tirelessly and ceaselessly to help our small business owners, the backbone of our region's, the Commonwealth's, and the nation's economy. Were it not for the unstinting support of the SBA, the Virginia Small Business Development Center Network, our localities, and your Chamber, none of this could happen, and for that, I am eternally grateful. “