Coping with COVID
SC Biz News is speaking with small businesses and community leaders about the impact of the new coronavirus on business and industry, and how this is changing how they operate.
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Many storefronts may lie dim along Main Street, but Mark Farris, CEO and president of the Greenville Area Development Corp., sees a light around the corner.
Even in a time when he expected to see no activity, companies are still calling GADC to help them secure a footprint in the county, including officials from one Italian-owned enterprise. Food processing plants continue to migrate to regional markets — a trend Farris witnessed before the COVID-19 pandemic reached the state — and he expects warehouse and logistics companies to thrive in the wake of the state’s shutdown.
“Life goes on. Certainly, we’re not poised for the kind of years-long reduction in activity many people may have, though,” Farris said. “Who knows, there is still a lot of uncertainty associated with it, but in a time when I would have thought there would be no activity, we are still picking up certain projects, certainly at a slower rate, but the activity is still there.”
Farris does expect the business landscape to undergo a “weeding,” as after the 2008 recession, but without the same underlying financial weaknesses in the current crisis. He hopes the economy will rebound within five years.
Basic needs will be the first to return to normalcy along with e-commerce, Farris said, but he doesn’t believe manufacturing will overshadow Greenville’s revived hospitality and retail sectors in the days to come. Small businesses will also retain their place on the spotlight but those that survive may be leaner and more agile than before.
“I think there will be a lot of companies that succumb because of the pressure this has caused,” he said. “But I don’t see a trend to bigger companies. I just see a trend to specialized companies and ones that can be adaptable and can shift quickly. Any company that has learned the lessons of adaptation are strong to begin with.”
Before unemployment rates shot up with the shuttering of workplaces across the state, Greenville’s greatest challenge on the economic development front was securing a workforce. Now, Farris said, companies can fish from a much broader talent pool as the shutdown unspools.
“I think it is going to result in a flurry of activity, actually when things finally kind of stabilize. Maybe I’m overly optimistic, but I just don’t think that’s being too far off,” he said.
In the meantime, Farris noted that a number of manufacturers in the county are “trying to answer the call” for critical needs goods like personal protective equipment. One local company even disclosed to GADC that it may begin making respirators.
Some manufacturers reassess supply chains; others await widespread antibody testing.
Businesses may not be unlinking from Asian or European markets wholesale as expected by some, but Farris said they are scouting out onshore locations as an alternate source in case of another disruption in the global market.
Federal funding options, such as Small Business Administration loans or the Paycheck Protection Program, may present sound “Band-Aid” solutions for some companies to stave off a final shutdown during the crisis, but he thinks widespread antibody tests will be the key for welcoming back the workforce.
“I don’t know if we can rely on that as the recipe for a turnaround,” he said when asked about the efficacy of federal funding sources, given the challenges of allocating funds on a national level.
Over the past month, GADC has fielded queries from companies ranging from shortcuts for tapping into these funding sources to tapping down potential infections in the workplace. The economic developer’s online COVID-19 resource site points business owners to an S.C. Commerce Department portal with links to financing and human resource information.
“For a lot of companies to be able to call a full workforce back, they have to have a sense of assurance of who is more particularly susceptible and who might be less susceptible and how they need to restructure from a social distancing standpoint until there is a vaccine,” he said.