London Inc. Weekly: COVID-19 Panel, Week 2

A Message to Our Readers:

Last week, we introduced a temporary change to our London Inc. Weekly editorial content. In order to help you understand the local impact and provide insight into how our city’s businesses are managing the COVID-19 crisis, we have assembled a panel of six business leaders from a variety of economic sectors. On Fridays, they will provide a weekly update on their businesses, market conditions, actions and how they are navigating the vast sway of operational issues facing us all.

Please continue to take care of yourselves and each other, and whenever and wherever possible, support local businesses. 

— Gord Delamont, Founder & Creative Director, TreeTown Media Group


On Professional Services: Adam Jean, Chief Operating Officer, Harrison Pensa LLP

At the end of last week, you provided us with a snapshot of the current status of your business. How has that changed over the past seven days? Was that just last week? It feels like months have passed given the changing landscape! The plans we were putting in place to support a primarily remote workforce were implemented and we continue to tweak and refine our approach in order to support productivity and engagement of our team. For those essential legal and support services requiring an onsite component, we took additional steps to restrict and limit the number of people in our premises. Some essential services were further divided into teams in order to have a rotational offsite and onsite presence, which provides further flexibility for team members and promotes physical distancing. We are seeing greater adoption of available technology and tools by both our team and the clients we serve in order to safely and efficiently conduct business remotely. We are also seeing more collaboration among our traditional competitors in order to help each other through this. The community is really pulling together.

How has the provincial government’s decision to close non-essential businesses impacted your operation? When the announcement was first made, we were not sure how our business would be treated. We had many concerned personal and business clients with matters where our lawyers were in the middle of providing legal services to support their essential activities. When the [essential] list was released later that evening, we learned that legal services were included. While our business remains open to serve our clients, we are still operating on the basis of keeping our ‘store-front’ to the physical premises closed. We are doing this by supporting our clients remotely other than limited time sensitive matters requiring signature for which we have strict screening and sanitization protocols. Whether considered essential or non-essential, the temporary closure of businesses has demonstrated how interconnected our economy and society really is. It impacts us all. In the end, all businesses are considered essential to their customers, it is more a matter of how long one can go without the product or service. It will be important that we all do our part to support local businesses when the doors open again.

What has been your message to employees and clients? Our underlying message is that we are all in this together. It seems cliché, but it is true. This is a unique circumstance where absolutely everyone is impacted. For our employees, we continue to update them on appropriate measures we are taking to protect their health and safety as well as to inform them on changes to business operations. We are disclosing information more broadly than we may otherwise in order to ensure our employees are informed and receiving factual updates. For clients, our message is that we can and will continue to support them through these uncertain times. In the short-term, the way in which we communicate may be different by utilizing various technologies, but our team is and will continue to be available to provide clients with the full-service legal advice needed.

There are, no doubt, many, but what is your number one operational concern at this juncture? Our biggest operational concern is to continue to find ways to support our people through these times. There are many factors to consider, from emotional and financial to practical matters about how best to perform tasks under different operating conditions. It is an anxious and stressful time and we know our employees are trying to juggle personal and professional concerns as best they can. You never feel like you are able to do enough with so many factors outside of your control, so we will continue to focus on this. We have made available resources through our employee wellness and employee assistance programs, as well as our amazing human resources support. We continue to encourage our team to support each other; their collaboration and creativity of solutions has been incredible.


On Retail: Lisa Ferguson, Co-owner, Hangar9 and Accents

At the end of last week, you provided us with a snapshot of the current status of your business. How has that changed over the past seven days? My situation has not changed. We remain closed.

How has the provincial government’s decision to close non-essential businesses impacted your operation? There are two sides to this question. First off, by closing all non-essential businesses, it forced landlords to start the conversation about rent deferrals. This statement might be directed at larger landlords, like shopping malls, but until the government closed all non-essential businesses, some landlords were taking the position of business as usual, pay your rent. They were ignoring the severity of COVID-19 on businesses. The forced closures brought bankers, landlords and suppliers to reality. Let’s talk about deferrals! The other side of this is that by closing all non-essential businesses, any hope of any business is gone. In 36 years of business, we have never physically closed. I have zero revenue coming in. For years, we have heard the phrase ‘retail apocalypse’, which was used to describe the impact of online shopping for brick-and-mortar stores. Well, the economic impact the COVID-19 pandemic is having on retailers across the country is and will be devastating.

What has been your message to employees and clients? My message to employees is be safe and healthy, we will get through this together. We have Zoom chats and we are involving them is marketing meetings. We let them know that we are working very hard behind the scenes so they have a job to come back to. As for clients, we are contacting them personally to make sure they are all okay — that is the most important concern. We have also added to our social media posts and added some live videos. We make adjustments daily.

There are, no doubt, many, but what is your number one operational concern at this juncture? My number one concern is what does the ‘new normal’ look like when we all open? Being closed for so long has changed peoples’ thoughts, behaviours and routines. Before, the number of people buying food online from the grocery store was very low. Now that we have all tried it, is this how we are going to grocery shop now? Now that I have done my Pilates class online a few times, do I need to go to my Pilates studio anymore? As a retailer in ladies’ fashion, how has my customer changed? Should my inventory change? Hours change? I need to look at every aspect of my business and see what I need to change.


On Food & Beverage: Ian Kennard, Owner, Willie’s Café

At the end of last week, you provided us with a snapshot of the current status of your business. How has that changed over the past seven days? No change in status. We closed down completely on March 17. I continue to communicate with my staff on a weekly basis. I continue to post daily on social media.

How has the provincial government’s decision to close non-essential businesses impacted your operation? The decision had no impact as I had already closed. In discussions with other business owners, the list has caused some confusion around what is and is not an essential service.

What has been your message to employees and clients? My message to staff is: How are you doing? Do you need anything? And, most importantly, I am doing everything in my power to make sure you have a job to come back to when we are through this. My message to clients, primarily through social media, has been stay connected, stay involved. We will be here when this is over. My social media posts offer updates, cooking tips and I am looking at posting more videos and recipes.

There are, no doubt, many, but what is your number one operational concern at this juncture? My number one concern right now is maintaining liquidity and what does re-opening look like? In three months, I will have very little money. I will need to rehire and pay staff, return inventory to normal levels and get the word out. Once we are returning to normal, how long will it take to rebuild the business and how do I finance that? Related to that is a growing concern about inventory currently in fridges and freezers. When it starts to reach expiration dates, what are my options? I have and will be reaching out to local business who are able to remain open to see if we can work together to prevent good product from ending up in the garbage.


On Consumer Services: Shannon Ruffell, Vice President, Heritage Renovations

At the end of last week, you provided us with a snapshot of the current status of your business. How has that changed over the past seven days? Heritage Renovations is continuing with the same protocols that we proactively implemented before it was mandated. The health and safety of our clients, employees and suppliers is paramount to us. The past week has been busy with clients working from home, who now have the flexibility to explore and move forward with projects that had been on their ‘when I get time’ list.

How has the provincial government’s decision to close non-essential businesses impacted your operation? The construction industry is deemed essential and we are continuing to act with precaution to best service our clients. There is a lot of uncertainty from the public about what is open and what is closed, so we are trying to let people know that we are operational.

What has been your message to employees and clients? For our employees, that Heritage Renovations is here to support you 100 per cent. For our clients, that we are acting with caution and that we are here to help you with your window and door needs. We are all in this together and we will come out of this stronger than ever.

There are, no doubt, many, but what is your number one operational concern at this juncture? This week, we really pushed and leveraged our strong relationships with manufacturers to get as much product made and delivered as possible so that we can be self-sufficient and not reliant on future deliveries to continue our operations. We are preparing for anything and everything.


On Business Services: Mark Malerba, Owner, Metropolitan Maintenance

At the end of last week, you provided us with a snapshot of the current status of your business. How has that changed over the past seven days? We have spent the last week in constant communication with our employees, clients and suppliers. Some clients that had previously closed, were able to reopen. Other clients that had just increased our scope of work, now had to close. There were changes happening continuously and work schedules needing to be revised accordingly. The key during this time has been to remain flexible and to ensure we accommodate and adapt to our clients’ needs.

How has the provincial government’s decision to close non-essential businesses impacted your operation? When Premier Ford made his announcement that non-essential businesses must close, we fielded many calls from employees concerned and confused about what this meant for them. Once the government provided clarification as to which businesses were considered essential, we reached out to all of our clients to determine whether they would remain open or not. We then had to communicate with our employees to let them know if they would continue working or not. Approximately 35 per cent of our clients have now closed their sites and it is our expectation that this figure may continue to rise. I have to commend our management team for being so organized, efficient and calm in a time of such panic and uncertainty.

What has been your message to employees and clients? Our message to both employees and clients has been very simple and consistent: We are here for you, we are in this together and we will get through this together. Our employees have been fantastic in accommodating so many changes to work schedules and not missing a beat. They are hard-working, dedicated and committed to keeping their worksites clean and disinfected. Our clients have been supportive and thankful for this essential service that we provide.

There are, no doubt, many, but what is your number one operational concern at this juncture? My number one operational concern at this juncture is the health and well-being of our clients, employees and their families. We continue to reinforce precautionary measures that employees must undertake such as frequent hand washing, physical distancing and wearing their personal protective equipment. The majority of our employees, along with other cleaning professionals around the world, go into facilities when nobody else is there to perform this essential service. These ‘invisible heroes’ are now being noticed and appreciated for playing such a critical role in this unprecedented and challenging time.


On Real Estate: Marcus Plowright, Partner, A Team Century 21

At the end of last week, you provided us with a snapshot of the current status of your business. How has that changed over the past seven days? Real Estate has been acknowledged an essential service. There are certainly aspects of our business that must continue, especially related to assisting clients in the process of closing transactions. However, there are also real estate services that can be postponed. Our agents are making careful decisions relative to the risk we create by leaving the mandated isolation of our homes. The A Team wants to ensure we are part of the solution and not part of the problem. We have closed our office to everyone except for our administrative manager, who is available to assist with scheduled closings. We are utilizing electronic signatures, virtual tours, videos, facetime, virtual meetings and good old-fashioned phone conversations. Another change relates to the legal implications of doing transactions during this crisis. We have to protect our buyers and sellers from new risks, such as closings during a quarantine or while housing an infected individual. We also have to plan for consequences of lawyers, title insurers, home inspectors and movers not being available to assist in relation to closings.

How has the provincial government’s decision to close non-essential businesses impacted your operation? A few of our local vendors and service providers have closed down and we’re deeply concerned about them. We acknowledge the stress this must cause for small business owners and their employees. We appreciate their diligence to attempt to slow the spread of COVID-19. We will of course be ready to support these business owners when they are able to be operational again.

What has been your message to employees and clients? On March 25, we announced a dramatic tightening of our operating parameters to safeguard our agents, their families, our clients and the community. Our communication to everyone in our sphere is simple: We must be part of the solution to solving this health crisis and not be contributing to this dire situation. The sooner we break the spread of the virus, the sooner we can get back to work in support of our clients

There are, no doubt, many, but what is your number one operational concern at this juncture? Although we continue to assist desperate clients who have to find a home to live in due to a house sale closing or a lease expiring, we do so with the greatest care and caution. We can’t risk the health of our employees, buyers or listing clients by promoting transactions at this dangerous time. Consequently, we must be prepared to weather a dramatic reduction in business and significant losses. This is a sacrifice that pales in comparison to those on the front lines of this pandemic.

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