Rita Toth

Rita Toth of the NH Small Business Development Center provides business counseling in Belknap and Grafton counties. (Courtesy photo)

LACONIA — When COVID-19 ushered in a strange social and economic landscape, Lakes Region businesses scurried to adapt – and Rita Toth and other consultants stepped up to advise.

Toth is one of New Hampshire’s regional business advisors for the NH Small Business Development Center. She counsels business owners in Belknap and Grafton counties on everything from online marketing to payroll, hiring and furloughs, website content and using social media to competitive advantages. The individual teleconferencing sessions are free.

“The number one differentiating factor” between a business surviving and expiring “is how the business is run,” Toth said. “If it’s hands-on, well-run, detailed and paid attention to, if they reach out for help when they need it and adapt,” then the business generally does well. But if it is stuck in decades-old ways and averse to change, “just kind of chugging along,” the future may not be so bright, she said.  “All of a sudden, chugging along stopped and came to a screeching halt, for one month, two months, then nine months.”

During COVID some did horribly because they were not willing to invest in marketing, Toth said, or because they were waiting for normalcy and a return of regular customers, and bet the virus would swiftly end – a wait-and-see approach that didn’t pan out.

“You need to stay on top of things on a monthly basis, and adjust to the need and audience,” Toth said. In the Lakes Region, that has meant increased marketing to millennials and day trippers from southern New Hampshire and Massachusetts, she said – instead of just relying on locals.

According to a June 2020 Business Resiliency Survey by the University of New Hampshire and NH SBDC, when businesses were transitioning from Stay-at-Home to Safer-at-Home guidelines: 40 percent of businesses employed fewer people in June than they did in February. Nearly half reported that revenue had fallen by 50 percent or more because of sales declines, reduced hours or being required to close. Only one in five respondents said their business had a resiliency or a continuity plan prior to the pandemic. And most businesses said they plan to continue changes and innovations they implemented in response to COVID-19, including higher levels of e-commerce and more employees working from home.

During COVID, the IT company Mainstay Technologies, went remote, and “a good percentage of the workforce has remained remote and not in a traditional office,” said Karmen Gifford, president of the Lakes Region Chamber of Commerce. “Banks and insurance companies still have a remote workforce. The phone rings to all employees at home, who can take the call.”

Toth said she has counseled close to 200 businesses in the greater Lakes Region this year. The coronavirus pandemic has been a different experience from cyclical recessions, she said, but with some similar requirements and aftereffects. The dampening of trade required small businesses to be flexible, cut costs, boost online marketing and create a credible and user-friendly internet presence – even with a dedicated customer base that had traditionally expanded by word of mouth, Toth said.

According to Yelp, a business review site, 450 New Hampshire businesses reported scaling back their hours or closing between March and July 2020 – as pandemic closures spiked the state’s unemployment rate to an April high of 17 percent. Last month, New Hampshire’s seasonally adjusted unemployment returned to 4.2 percent, compared to 2.6 percent in October last year, according to New Hampshire Employment Security.

Since then, Yelp found that jobs have been added back in retail, recreation and hospitality in many parts of the country. New Hampshire also experienced a growth in food service and restaurants. In most cases, business are still adapting to COVID, and some key changes are here to stay: More employees continue to work from home, especially in the financial sector, and more businesses are using online tools for marketing, scheduling appointments, and information exchange.

“People have been able to adapt to remote learning and telehealth. There’s still a lot of work that can be done remotely that they never thought about before,” said Gifford.

When forced to navigate COVID's new norm, flexibility paid off.  “Certain industries have done very well and outperformed their expectations of losses,” Gifford said.

Across the Lakes Region, a long and sunny summer translated to near-record years for boat sales and rentals, golf courses, farm stands and grocery stores, Gifford said. “It’s been an extra challenge for gyms, phys ed classes, wellness centers and health practitioners. Some people were comfortable going in and others were not,” she said.

It’s still unclear what the aftermath will look like. For now, business owners are contemplating their most prudent futures and dealing with ongoing delays in the supply chain and in inventory delivery. Another challenge is that hygiene and distancing restrictions switch frequently as New Hampshire’s COVID numbers surge.

That’s where Toth and other business advisors come in with strategies for unpredictable times.

“No two businesses are the same,” Toth said. “They’re not experiencing the same hurdles or problems.” During economic upheavals and dislocations like COVID, “It takes a small village to keep them going” – it’s not about going solo.

“If they try new things and don’t just rely on the status quo,” their businesses will profit, said Toth. “That doesn’t really depend on the industry.” 

Her recommendations include:

Reach out for help

Whether for wide-ranging strategies or funding, contact the Small Business Economic Development Center or the Belknap County Economic Development Council with questions and make an appointment for counseling. Toth and fellow advisor Ed Miles provide confidential, individual advice for making financial projections, updating marketing plans, revising business strategies, and assessing hiring needs.  NH SBDC also provides links to grants, loans and sources of capital, and to other small business owners. 

“COVID was mainly a marketing challenge,” Toth said.  “Businesses needed to offer a new product or a new place,”  whether through reconfigured interiors and traffic flows to allow greater social distancing – as supermarkets have done – or by offering products available for curbside pickup, like restaurants and many bookstores.

Use online resources

NH SBDC’s website at www.nhsbdc.org offers free 10 to 60-minute online courses in business building and webinars and tutorials on topics including financing, customer service skills, Facebook marketing, and how to set up a customer loyalty program.  In the spring, NH SBDC is launching a Small Business and Community Resiliency Academy with one-day workshops for small business owners, community volunteers, municipal leaders and development professionals. Registration for webinars and one-on-one counseling is online.

SCORE, a nationwide organization of retired executives and working professionals who volunteer their time, offers remote mentoring, workshops and education materials, including for small business and startups in New Hampshire, and through a new online resource, SCORE Resilience Hub.  www.score.org

The Center for Women and Enterprise at www.cweonline.org provides online classes, consulting and support through webinars and teleconferencing. In New Hampshire, CWE can be reached at 603-318-7580.

Take advantage of online exposure

“Be visible and discoverable with online content,” Toth said. Don’t rely primarily or exclusively on other methods. In general, those organizations that profited during COVID had “a strong presence in online marketing and sales, and strong customer bases.” During the pandemic “many more people converted to online shopping than ever before, and those numbers are likely to stay” even if consumers just rely on websites to decide whether to shop in person. More than ever, “people check ratings and hours,” she said. “They want assurance of safety measures. They do their research before they go.”

In the Lakes Region, online marketing hasn’t been a focus for many longtime brick-and-mortar business owners, who are now required to move in that direction, Toth said. Consumers are looking for up-do-date internet content such as advice for home improvement projects, with lists of tools and materials, she said. Do-it-yourself activities surged during COVID, and savvy businesses stepped up with related online content, such as “how to paint your front door, or how to put up an outdoor lamp fixture.”

Be vigilant with business cash flow

The future is uncertain. “One way to prepare is to be conservative with cash flow and make sure it can sustain the business,” said Toth. She advises owners and managers to make six-week projections and look for places where cash flow can be optimized. That may mean cutting unnecessary expenses, going to cash-only transactions, or postponing loan repayments for a couple of months – “any action that helps a business retain or reserve cash,” Toth said.

Don’t be afraid to admit you need guidance.

At the Belknap County Economic Development Council, demand for counseling services has increased by 25 percent from last year, Toth said. Lakes Region Chamber of Commerce membership also rose slightly, Gifford said

According to NH SBDC, small businesses in Belknap and Grafton counties have received $3.2 million in capital infusions so far in 2020, from sources including grants, loans, investments by owners and outsiders, and sales growth. 

That wouldn’t have happened without professional assistance, Toth said. “When I see someone, I dig into their books. When I see a struggling client, I tell them they don’t have to struggle to figure it out themselves.  We all work double hours during this time, because we know how much the region needs it.”

Successful businesses are the ones that became proactive, asked customers how their needs have changed, and rose to fill the gaps, Toth said.

“If their customers are moms, moms’ lives have changed dramatically” to combine cooking meals, supervising children and schoolwork at home, and adapting to kids’ on-and-off schedules in the classroom while also doing their own jobs remotely, Toth said. “Some lost jobs just to take care of their kids.” As a result, a worthwhile question for a local business might be: “How can I make life easier for them? How can I ease their pain?”

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