One NEO business owner’s story of survival and perseverance during COVID-19

Monday, March 16, was my most humbling day ever as a business owner.

After learning Ohio’s governor would be ordering shelter-in-place to slow the spread of COVID-19, I knew what I had to do. I had not reacted quickly enough during the recession a decade earlier, and I almost lost my business. I was not going to make that same mistake twice. My firm had just spent 2019 celebrating our 40th anniversary, and I was not going to let a global pandemic rob me of my life’s passion.

But I knew my business (wooing and acclimating out-of-town candidates as they consider a relocation for a job in Northeast Ohio) would come to a screeching halt soon. So, I sat with my leadership team of four and tearfully told them all 15 staff members were being furloughed that day.

I would do every job at the firm for the foreseeable future. I wanted to ensure they would all have jobs to return to and that they could quickly get in line for unemployment before millions of others began applying. I felt like a failure, but they were so gracious. I am proud to be their boss.

Advice poured in from “experts” via webinars at an alarming pace. Some suggestions seemed self-centered including, stop paying all your bills at once to hoard cash. Wait, what if all my clients do that, as well? I need those 16 unpaid receivables to pay my bills. Now, having collected 95 percent of my A/R, I am grateful my clients all seem to have the same core values I do. Be open to advice, but then listen to your heart and do what you believe is right.

I feel lucky that most of my employees worked remotely to begin with. But I needed them to understand how important they were to me and my company. Without them, I have no firm, no clients. So one month into the shutdown, I took two days and drove to each of their homes for 15-minute front lawn check-ins and handed them each a bag with three identical ingredients — marinara sauce, penne pasta and a bottle of Chianti.

I challenged them to an Executive Arrangements-style Chopped cooking competition. The recipes and photos began flying in, connecting our team as a family sharing a virtual meal together. A month later, I mailed each a facemask, sewn by my sister, and another round of photos made the rounds.

I was partially grateful and partially panicked when we didn’t receive money in the first round of Payroll Protection Program funding. I felt I would just have to lay my staff off again when the loan money was gone in eight weeks as the world hadn’t figured out the new normal yet. So when I heard that I had received the money in round two, I felt more prepared and focused. I would use the next eight weeks to reimagine every aspect of our company so that by mid-summer, we are stronger, smarter and have what it takes to survive.

Margy Judd is president and owner at Executive Arrangements Inc.