London Inc. Weekly: COVID-19 Panel, Week 6

A Message to Our Readers:

In order to 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 and will periodically dedicate our London Inc. Weekly coverage to updates on their businesses, market conditions, actions and how they are each 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

A couple of weeks have past since we reconvened last. Over that time, have there been operational, structural or strategic changes to your business? Fundamentally, there have not been significant operational changes to our business over the past couple of weeks. We have completed the transition from a mobilization stage during the initial crisis into a stabilized state where we are monitoring and proactively addressing operational and structural changes needed to respond to the economic impact. We are also starting to plan ahead for possible strategic opportunities for our business beyond. During this most recent period, we have been in a fairly continuous cycle of assessing changing market conditions, prioritizing our actions, monitoring results, reassessing market conditions and then adapting and reprioritizing again. No two days are the same.

Navigating communications, marketing and advertising has been a challenge for all businesses during COVID. What have you been doing to nurture your brand, and how have you been engaging with your customers? During this time, we have relied primarily on the brand that was built over many years to carry us through. A brand is not something you can simply buy, and underlying our brand is a foundation built through years of providing exceptional client service with an approachable team, operating in a firm with a strong history in this community. For example, as we started to see the situation unfold in other regions in early March, we made the early decision to cancel the firm’s annual client-appreciation event, the Harrison Pensa Oyster Party. At the time, events were still proceeding, and the decision would seem counter-intuitive to wanting to engage with clients. However, the firm instead directed funds that would have covered the event’s expenses to a need in our community by making a significant commitment to the Youth Opportunities Unlimited Joan’s Place New Addition campaign. This was very well received by our clients and friends of the firm. By supporting our community through this and other ways, we have indirectly nurtured our brand.

On a daily basis, and from a more practical perspective, we are engaging clients ‘the old-fashioned way’ by simply reaching out and connecting. We want our clients to know we care about them and we are concerned about how they are doing. Our message is simple: we are here for you and we are ready to support you when you need it.

Business as usual may look very different after the coronavirus pandemic. What differences do you anticipate for your business, and how are you preparing? No one knows for sure what ‘business as usual’ will look like, but we know, at least in the short term, it will be different. We expect physical distancing guidelines to remain in place for some time yet. For our clients, we are prepared for an increase in virtual meetings to continue and we are utilizing the necessary tools to support this. For our employees, we are considering how remote work arrangements and office configuration can continue to support physical distancing in the new normal. Further, we anticipate that with the rapid rate of adoption of technology, including increased acceptance of digital documentation and electronic signatures in the judicial system, we will be able to conduct more business online. As a result, we are assessing ways to transform business processes to provide enhanced flexibility for our clients and our team on how, when and where business is conducted. 


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

A couple of weeks have past since we reconvened last. Over that time, have there been operational, structural or strategic changes to your business? Every day and every week there are constant changes. Since we deal with so many European companies, those offices are now opening up, so we have been in contact with our suppliers about new deliveries and fall deliveries.

Navigating communications, marketing and advertising has been a challenge for all businesses during COVID. What have you been doing to nurture your brand, and how have you been engaging with your customers? From day-one we have felt that this question has been the most important. Every week, we set out a marketing plan. We have hosted three webinars on topics that relate to our business. We have had flash sale on Instagram. I do videos twice a week on Instagram on topics our customers want to hear about. We have created style boxes following our Hangar9 formula ― that with the right nine wardrobe items you create a wardrobe of 36 different looks ― that customers pick-up curbside and take home to try. We have been calling our customers to say hi, to make sure they are safe and well and also to inform them how they can stay connected. Finally, we have Zoom meetings with our staff to check in and ensure their safety and let them know we are doing everything possible so that they have a job to come back to.

Business as usual may look very different after the coronavirus pandemic. What differences do you anticipate for your business, and how are you preparing? Every week, we have Zoom meetings to talk about this topic. How is our store going to operate after we are allowed to open? We have signed up for many webinars ourselves on keeping our stores operational in the era of COVID-19. We are examining how we are going to meet new guidelines for social distancing and occupancy limits, plus safety and hygiene regulations.


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

A couple of weeks have past since we reconvened last. Over that time, have there been operational, structural or strategic changes to your business? There have been no changes to business in last two weeks. Today is day 38 of closure. I continue to check in on the café daily, we have finished one painting project and will be moving on to the next one early next week.

Navigating communications, marketing and advertising has been a challenge for all businesses during COVID. What have you been doing to nurture your brand, and how have you been engaging with your customers? I continue to post and engage with customers on social media on a daily basis. Any communication with clients by email or phone always includes two messages: We will be back to serve and cater for you soon; and we are grateful for the ongoing support and kind words. I am also working with another local business to provide packaged meals for frontline workers.

Business as usual may look very different after the coronavirus pandemic. What differences do you anticipate for your business, and how are you preparing? I, like most other business owners, really have no way of knowing what the future will look like ― only that it will be different. I believe it will be a while before we are able to open our dining room for regular service. Our focus will be on take-out and delivery. We are developing a plan for a soft reopening that will involve a limited menu selection and limited hours to begin with while respecting any restrictions still in place. To that end, I am working with my website host to redesign our online ordering menu and add online payment processing to the platform. I am also researching delivery services Uber Eats and SkipTheDishes to see if they will be a good fit and support our rebuild.

I suppose the biggest unknown will be our catering business ― our primary focus being corporate office lunches and meetings. Before the pandemic, it accounted for roughly 60 per cent of revenue. Post pandemic, it is difficult to predict what office lunches and meetings will look like. When will businesses be able to host in-person meetings? Will they want to host in-person meetings given that the new normal is ‘virtual’ using any number of video conferencing services. I am creating a short survey for our main clients to get a feel for what they see their corporate catering needs once things start to return to normal.

The other challenge I anticipate will be managing cash flow during the reopening and rebuilding process. I am creating a revised budget with longer term cashflow projections. The CEBA [Canada Emergency Business Account] loan will be a significant part of that plan and I hope will bridge any gaps as we slowly return to full hours, staffing levels and capacity.


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

A couple of weeks have past since we reconvened last. Over that time, have there been operational, structural or strategic changes to your business? The Heritage Renovations strategy remains the same: to make the business as strong as possible coming out of this. We hustle everyday to ensure we have the best possible situation for our employees and clients. We have altered our sales approach by doing telephone consultations and using FaceTime for quoting purposes. We have an abundance of clients that are interested in new work and April is normally the start to the busy season for construction, so we are being as accommodating as possible to make their renovation dreams a reality.

Operationally, we made the tough decision to temporarily suspend installations due to provincial guidance. This was a hard decision to make because we are the primary source of income for many London families, but we have been able to navigate this unusual time with constant communication and support to our employees. We have purchased additional PPE [personal protective equipment] for all client-facing positions and we anticipate returning to work shortly keeping in mind the health and safety of our employees and clients.

Structurally, our aggressiveness throughout the pandemic has resulted in the need to hire additional team members to support our clients when we are ready to resume full operations, and we have hired three additional people over the past week.  

Navigating communications, marketing and advertising has been a challenge for all businesses during COVID. What have you been doing to nurture your brand, and how have you been engaging with your customers? Now more than ever, there is a strong desire to support local business and Londoners are actively searching for ways to do this. This has been phenomenal to watch across numerous sectors of our local economy. For our customers that are anxiously awaiting their installations, we have been engaged in pro-active communication sharing the most up-to-date information with them so that we are all on the same page. The vast majority of potential clients are online more than usual during this time, so we have shifted more heavily to this form of advertisement to spread the word that we are here and ready to serve them. We have been very successful in creating more brand awareness and highlighting our current promotion using online platforms during the pandemic.

Business as usual may look very different after the coronavirus pandemic. What differences do you anticipate for your business, and how are you preparing? Once businesses start to re-open, it will inevitably look and feel different. Heritage Renovations employees will be wearing PPE in all client-facing positions until it is safe to return to regular practices. We will continue to act with an abundance of caution to ensure that social distancing is maintained, and extra cleaning protocols are in place. We will continue to navigate the optimal way to best serve our clients while maximizing the health and safety aspects of our operations.


On Business Services: Mark Malerba, Owner, Metropolitan Maintenance

A couple of weeks have past since we reconvened last. Over that time, have there been operational, structural or strategic changes to your business? Ensuring that our employees are safe, healthy and have personal protective equipment has been our top priority throughout this pandemic. Securing personal protective equipment, which is a global issue, has become more and more challenging. In order to ensure that this would not become an operational issue for our business, we sourced a local business to produce custom-made masks for our employees. This provides some peace of mind for our staff and helps support another local small business.

Navigating communications, marketing and advertising has been a challenge for all businesses during COVID. What have you been doing to nurture your brand, and how have you been engaging with your customers? We have been communicating regularly with our clients through email and over the phone. As an essential service, our message to our clients has been very clear from the onset of this pandemic: Although we are all in different circumstances and facing many challenges, one thing is certain and that is we are here for you, we will accommodate your needs as they change, and we will get through this together. We are doing whatever we can to assist clients, such as sourcing products including disinfectant and hand sanitizer as well as personal protective equipment for their staff. In times of uncertainty and in times of crisis, being responsive, accommodating and understanding is invaluable. From a marketing perspective, we advertise regularly on the radio and we have new content airing soon, which I think many listeners will find relatable and fun at the same time.

Business as usual may look very different after the coronavirus pandemic. What differences do you anticipate for your business, and how are you preparing? The coronavirus pandemic has highlighted the importance of proper cleaning and disinfecting. Overall, we anticipate there will be an increase in demand for professional cleaning services. That being said, as a result of this pandemic the majority of businesses are facing major financial challenges. We anticipate some clients either having to reduce our scope of work for budgetary requirements or, in the worst-case scenarios, not reopening at all. We anticipate bringing back the employees that we have had to layoff and adding new members to our team as well. In addition, we are currently in the process of researching antimicrobial treatments that can be applied in workplaces to assist in significantly reducing the spread of viruses.


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

A couple of weeks have past since we reconvened last. Over that time, have there been operational, structural or strategic changes to your business? As we have seen in the U.S., there is a tendency to weaken constraints and relax safeguards. The threat of complacency seduces us to take risks ― we must hold steady, stay calm and carry on. The government support for small businesses will allow us to maintain our staff working full-time. Strategically, we have focused our energy on bringing a new subdivision, Belmont Meadows, onto the market. New home sales, without a model, is entirely an online exercise, utilizing the latest technology to showcase product.

Navigating communications, marketing and advertising has been a challenge for all businesses during COVID. What have you been doing to nurture your brand, and how have you been engaging with your customers? Marketing during COVID is an arduous task, with the perception of opportunism very easily breached. The public is at home, on their devices, exhausted by a barrage of marketing messaging. We have been in contact with our client base to notify them of our operational restrictions, but we have tried not to inundate them with brand messaging. Our focus is communicating uplifting stories, respectful humour and important information.

Business as usual may look very different after the coronavirus pandemic. What differences do you anticipate for your business, and how are you preparing? London has been a seller’s real estate market for five years, driving up prices and creating stress and uncertainty for buyers and sellers alike. The pandemic will change the market. Pent-up demand will likely coincide with a flood of listings. Loss of income and jobs for many may lead to requirements for divestiture or downsizing. Rental properties, especially short-term units ― Airbnb ― relying on travellers, may not see a recovery before it is too late, requiring sales and repurposing. We do not yet know how access to mortgage financing will be affected going forward. With all these changes, the A Team’s inherent volume advantage will provide our clients the up-to-the-minute information necessary to make informed decisions about their greatest investment. Once the restrictions are lifted, we will likely be working harder and longer than ever before to stay on top of the needs of our clients.

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