Coping with Covid-19 – Victoria’s Business Leaders Speak Out (Part 2)

The Victoria business community is, like everyone across Canada, grappling with the economic and health impacts of the COVID-19 virus.

Douglas spoke to entrepreneurs and professionals who support and inspire their customers and the greater community through their work, asking for their feedback on how they’re coping with the crisis, the resources they’re using, and the advice they give all of us moving forward.

In Part 1, we heard from business coach Diane Lloyd, FamilySparks founder Erin Skillen, business strategist Clemens Rettich and PR specialist Trisha Lees.

Below, in Part 2, developer Ed Geric, brand strategist Doug Brown, restaurant owner Calen McNeil, and KWENCH founder Tessa McLoughlin provide their perspectives.


ED GERIC

Ed Geric is the President of Mike Geric Construction, an industry leader in sustainable multifamily construction. He combines financial expertise with the entrepreneurial know-how that comes from running a successful family-owned business.

How is Mike Geric Construction coping right now, and how are your team feeling about how this will all play out?
We’re probably operating at 80-85% of our usual capacity now. Unlike many of the businesses that have been severely impacted by this situation, we’re still able to work while social distancing. Our sites are still running, and there are heightened hygiene and safety protocols in place. Our office team is working from home with one or two people attending the office as-needed and we’re completely closed to meetings and in-person visits. We’ve also asked homeowners to wait for minor repairs and warranty items, unless they are urgent.

My team is thinking about the future and have concerns about the long-term impacts of COVID-19, but first and foremost we’ve all been focused on the health and safety of our families and I’ve encouraged everyone to put that first. There’s been a lot of uncertainty about exactly what social distancing means up to now, which has also been a little stressful for people, but I think there’s more clarity now and people are all getting on the same page about what we need to do collectively.

What advice are you giving your team for riding this out?
It’s a time to reassure people that putting their family, health and safety first is the right thing to do. Our job right now is to stay home so we can all get back to normal as soon as possible. Anything related to work is secondary, but I have encouraged my team to take this time to do online learning, read about subjects like Mass Timber so they can support upcoming projects and to do lots of self-care. I’ve also stressed communication. It’s so important that we’re talking to each other, to our kids and to our colleagues. I’ve let my team know that if there is anything I can do to support them right now, please tell me.

What is the opportunity in the challenge?
Right now, we are all finding new and different ways of getting things done. Maybe this set of circumstances will open our eyes to what businesses can and maybe have to do differently in the future. I think we’re learning to communicate and use technology more effectively. We’re also a lot more educated about proper handwashing and that’s something that I hope will become the new normal.

What advice have you applied or are you applying from previous experiences coping through crises?
It’s always good to remember that this will not be the last crisis we all deal with and getting through it will help us be more prepared for the next one. All we can do is get a plan in place and follow it. My experience has been that things always get better when we work together, stay calm and keep an open dialogue. None of us are alone in facing this challenging time, we’re all in it together.

What are your resources right now? Do you have a mentor supporting you, peer group, books you read?
We have a tight-knit business community here in Victoria and that’s a good thing. I’ve been picking up the phone to check in with other business owners, developers and construction trades. We’re sharing ideas and information. It’s important to stay on top of the latest news and make sure we’re sharing it with each other and checking in personally too. Business owners draw a lot of strength from being able to keep working and move things forward, so it’s challenging when we must slow down or pause but staying connected helps with that.

What advice do you have for others experiencing this alongside you?
Number one is that you need to make sure everyone on your team feels included in your plans and to make sure they feel safe and supported. I also think it’s critical to keep your employees engaged, even though they are likely working at a distance. My whole team is still working, but we’re not at full capacity, so I’m encouraging people to take advantage of the time to do something positive or that they never have time to do, paint their house, exercise or take online courses.

Any additional thoughts?
I think we should all put ourselves in the shoes of others right now and think about what we can do to support them. Whether that’s your employees or other business owners, everyone is feeling stress and making tough decisions.


Photo: Derek Ford
DOUG BROWN

Doug Brown is a re-branding specialist and the owner of Brand Intervention. He has helped hundreds of businesses of all shapes and sizes refresh or completely reinvent their brands through a rigorous strategy of research, learning, conceptualization and implementation.

How is Brand Intervention coping right now, and how are you feeling about how this will all play out?
I’ve spent all week helping clients through this crisis. What’s surprised — or perhaps disappointed — me most is how few are looking at the opportunities. They are all looking to survive. Business owners and entrepreneurs make terrible survivors; they want to succeed. They understand shifting grounds, are used to working and adapting through change. A big crisis like this is a time for businesses to think opportunity. This is where they can step up and show how vital their business is to the community it serves. Seen through that lens, it’s not that difficult to navigate the uncharted path ahead.

What advice are you giving your team for riding this out?
A wave of meaningful innovation is surely upon us. Some entrepreneurs are going to create new laneways for themselves in the coming months: novel services, new channels, new distribution methods. Think like them.

How do you find the opportunity in the challenge?
Every business should ask itself this question: What are we uniquely positioned to offer to help our community in this time of crisis?

Everything flows after that.

Theoretical example: My hot tub client. What can a hot tub do in a crisis? The message to market I would use is: Stuck at home for the next little while? Treat yourself well. Then the business needs to pivot to speed up delivery/installation. Facebook ads drive to the website, where online purchase travels to the top of the landing page. Close the storeroom except for pickup and delivery, etc. It starts with knowing what problem you’re solving in this unique time.

What advice have you applied or are you applying from previous experiences coping through crises?
Don’t look to grind away with your existing business model, in the face of dwindling traction, until it’s just metal on metal. Do something different. Change is upon you now. Change to meet it.

What are your resources right now? Do you have a mentor supporting you, peer group, books you read?
I have a team of business partners, a network of associates, and a hell of a lot of smart clients! We talk about this stuff every day. We are all learning together here.

What advice do you have for others experiencing this alongside you?
We all have everything on the line here and the work is going to slow down fast for most. My advice is to find out how your business can best help your community during this time and go do that rather than chasing leads and shaking the trees. Keep your business relevant to what’s happening. It will say everything about the type of leader you are and what your company’s values really look like.


CALEN MCNEIL

Calen McNeil is a co-owner of popular Victoria eateries Zambri’s and Big Wheel Burger.

How are your restaurants coping right now, and how are you feeling about how this will all play out?
Both Zambri’s and Big Wheel Burger decided to close its stores in Victoria down. Big Wheel Burger also just completed construction and hiring of 21 staff there and have not opened business due to the crisis.

This obviously is a huge blow to our staff’s livelihood as we have been forced to lay off 120 staff this past week. We feel it was important to get our staff the government support they may need as soon as possible.

We also wanted to give our team the time to survey small business support offered by the Government and properly assess how we move forward with the most sustainable business plan considering the COVID-19 outbreak. Some of this will be out of our control, but we are smart, creative people and we are planning on re-opening the stores when we can. This is most likely looking like a fundamental change in how we need to do business and we will adapt.

What advice are you giving your team for riding this out?
This is a very stressful time for our staff, and we are looking to get them back to work in some capacity. First and foremost is the safety as well as the safety of our customers and vendors. We are confident this can be done safely and will proceed with our plan assuming the situation on the ground allows for that.

What is the opportunity in the challenge?
Through our Big Wheel Community Foundation, we are looking to raise money to provide food at no cost to at-risk populations in our community which will include restaurant and hospitality workers, front end care workers and food banks and shelters. In conjunction with this we will offer take-out through our take-out app. Zambri’s is launching a take-out app in the coming week as well.

We will be offering touchless take-out and home delivery and consulting with health and food safety professionals to apply best practices. We will be changing the flow of our restaurants to adapt to these changes.

We anticipate this acute phase to last as long as three months and are hoping that the changes we make in our stores will allow for us to be viewed as a complement to the food supply chain in Victoria and Nanaimo. There are many people in our city that don’t have support and or ability to leave in this situation and we want to be there for them.

What advice have you applied or are you applying from previous experiences coping through crises?
I encourage other restauranteurs to do a business plan and one for cash flow as soon as possible. Planning is key to crisis like these. The plans will also be essential when seeking support from your bank.

Adapting quickly will be key. Cutting all unnecessary expenses and deciding what business model would work best for your product is also important.

What are your resources right now? Do you have a mentor supporting you, peer group, books you read?
A great resource for business is the BDC — Business Development Bank. Their website is very helpful. I would also check out the CRA website to get familiar with all the government programs available.

What advice do you have for others experiencing this alongside you?
We are lucky to have a strong team with access to a CFO as well as an in-house microbiologist to assist with best practices. If anyone needs advice or to be pointed in the right direction they can email me at [email protected] and I will offer as much help as I can. Happy to forward examples of business plans and our cash flow templates.

My advice would be to plan, plan and plan again. There will be many small businesses that will fail sadly but knowing that early will help with not getting further into debt which will cause even more pain.

This will pass eventually so try and build a new plan that can keep you afloat until things improve.


TESSA MCLOUGHLIN

Tessa McLoughlin is the Founder and Director of KWENCH, a full-service work and culture club. Their Store Street location in Victoria includes creative studios, private offices and open workspaces, fitness facilities, workshops, events, lectures, art installations, meditation, food and drink – all in one place.

How is KWENCH coping right now?
KWENCH is full of socially conscious, positive and well-informed individuals. So most of our members started to self-isolate about two weeks before we made the decision to close. Everyone has been incredibly understanding of the situation so that has helped us to find time to refocus and adapt.  All our members know that each of us is dealing with our own “shutdown” in some form, so there is a huge feeling of support and collaboration.

How has the crisis affected your business, and how do you anticipate it will affect it?
As our business is space-dependent, we have had to close the doors to our physical club. This means that almost all our revenue streams have stopped completely.  We are desperately looking at ways to offset our fixed operational costs so we can hold off from implementing drastic measures. As for all, this is taking time.  And as a new company that just invested a large amount of capital into opening our new location,  the next few months will be incredibly telling for the survival of the company.

If we are all smart and STAY AT HOME, we can flatten this curve and get back to business sooner rather than later. I believe when that happens the coworking industry will see a solid boom, as there will be a new appreciation for the benefits of flexible workspace for teams of all sizes.

How are you supporting your members?
After hearing our members talk about how the thing they will miss most from being at KWENCH is the connection and exposure to an inspiring culture, we have spent the last few days pulling together a whole new platform for connection. We are calling it ‘The Craic with KWENCH.’  Additionally, our Slack channels have been a hive of activity.

What is the opportunity in the challenge for you and the business?
Most of our members moved to KWENCH because they were well-versed in the negative effect that working from home can have on their mental health and productivity. Unfortunately, productivity isn’t something we can help with at this stage, but realizing the opportunity in current technology along with an already established community and the range of talent that we all have collectively,  we have started a new platform for connection, called The Craic.

Craic” (/kræk/ KRACK), or “crack”, is an Irish term for news, gossip, fun, entertainment, and enjoyable conversation. The Craic with KWENCH brings you a series of live-streamed interactive video calls featuring casual conversations, diverse learnings, workshops, gatherings, debates and just general fun and hilarity from experts (and definitely non-experts) around the world.

It has been incredible and inspiring to see the excitement and enthusiasm that has brought this project to fruition.

What advice have you applied or are you applying from previous experiences coping through crises?
As with anything in life, I think it is important not to sweat the things that you can’t change. Look at where the lack and abundance lie and find the opportunity — preferably a positive one. This too shall pass, and this is just a moment in time.  I’m not saying this moment won’t change how we exist in the world, but when was that ever stagnant anyway?

What are your resources right now? Do you have a mentor supporting you, peer group, books you read?
Because KWENCH is a little ecosystem in itself, I am lucky to have a whole community of peers and a great KWENCH team, who are rallying around to help each other and our greater community. Of course, I also have family and friends who have always been my go-tos.

What advice do you have for others experiencing this alongside you?
Change is inevitable and it is how we act within that change that shows one’s true colours. My “advice” is to not panic. We are all in this together, so let’s work together and move through this in a way that ensures we can hold our head high. Oh, and STAY HOME!