Lakeshore Advantage has been taking the metaphorical temperatures of businesses in its coverage area and has published the outcomes in a new report.
Alongside nine local chambers of commerce, the Zeeland-based economic development agency polled Allegan and Ottawa county companies weekly between March 15 and the second week of April to quantify the impact of COVID-19 on their businesses. Since the survey began, 315 unique businesses participated. Each week, the poll opened Monday morning and closed 5 p.m. Wednesday.
The four-week report was released on April 21.
Sixty-four percent of respondents said they were open, and of those, half were running at 50% or less capacity. Fifty-seven percent of respondents had laid off or furloughed employees since March 15.
“Lakeshore Advantage conducted this weekly polling for two keys reasons,” said Jennifer Owens, president of Lakeshore Advantage. “First and foremost, to ensure our team’s programming and resources meet the changing needs of area employers. It also will allow us to benchmark our community with more than 100 organizations throughout the U.S. conducting similar polling.”
Another goal of capturing the data was to allow Lakeshore Advantage and area chambers to advocate on behalf of the businesses at the state and federal levels.
The polling showed the following greatest needs for lakeshore businesses:
- Financial relief
- Return-to-work action plan
- Personal protective equipment
According to the poll data, 82% of respondents indicated applying for, or planning to apply for, state or federal funding, although at the time the report was published, the federal PPP loan fund had been depleted, and follow-up funding signed into law April 23 was expected to be spoken for within days due to a backlog of applications.
Twenty-three percent of respondents in the fourth week of the survey said their company would not survive four more weeks of a stay-at-home order.
“We businesses cannot survive an additional 70 days of a stay-at-home order,” said Mark Forbes, vice president, special projects of RCI Adventure Projects, headquartered in Allegan. “Even with the Paycheck Protection Program loan, if stay-at-home continues, our employees will get paid but we will have no capital left to start the business back up.”
Survey data showed area employers were pivoting and responding to the need for personal protective equipment. Twenty-six percent of respondents indicated their companies had switched their product mix to make essential products. Examples included pivoting from office furniture textiles to making face masks, distilleries making hand sanitizer and companies networking their 3D printers together to make face shields and sneeze guards.
“The team at DeWys Manufacturing has been working diligently to shift our product mix to meet the growing needs of our customers in the medical, food processing and material handling sectors,” said Mark Schoenborn, president of Marne-based DeWys. “We welcome direction from the state for all sectors to safely return to work.”
Lakeshore Advantage has decided to pause the weekly polls until a directive emerges from Gov. Gretchen Whitmer about the reopening of the economy. Once the order comes, Owens said the agency will resume polls to find out what needs and questions arise.
In the meantime, Lakeshore Advantage is hosting weekly webinars on various topics that are then archived at bit.ly/lakeshoreadvwebinars. In the past four weeks, about 2,000 people have viewed the digital presentations.
The webinar held April 23, “Returning to Work,” featured Jim Bos, vice president of global procurement at Yanfeng Automotive Interiors’ Holland location. Bos provided insights into best practices developed at the company’s headquarters in China that are being used by other countries as they get back up and running. Additionally, Keith Hustak, vice president of advanced practice providers (APP) services and operations at Spectrum Health, provided insights from a health care perspective on safe operations.
The most recent webinar, the “Returning to Work Safely Toolkit,” was held April 30.
Owens said it’s timely for Lakeshore Advantage to be focusing on these topics, as internal flash poll data for the week of April 20 — which was not captured in the four-week report — showed 79% of respondents were preparing to get back to work.
She said manufacturers have indicated some of the preparations they are making include re-mapping their facilities for social distancing protocols, installing partitions between workstations, requiring not only masks but in some cases face shields, and implementing infrared temperature scanning at facility entrances.
Besides issuing surveys and providing webinars, the staff at Lakeshore Advantage is doing a fair bit of phone “triage,” Owens said.
“A lot of business leaders are feeling pretty isolated, and so they’re willing to talk and share and provide feedback, whereas before, everyone was so busy — heads down, their plants fully functioning — (they didn’t) really have that much time to connect,” she said.
“We’ve talked with over 300 businesses one-on-one (in the past few weeks), just saying, ‘How’s it going? What do you need? What are your challenges?’”
Besides the financial piece, businesses are currently questioning whether the consumer products they made and/or sold before the pandemic will be in demand in the new, post-COVID world.
While there are no easy answers to that, Owens said there is an encouraging fact: companies in West Michigan have historically continued to invest in research and development during economic downturns. One example that is currently happening is from DeWys Manufacturing, which created a metal door opener that can be used as a touch-free way to open doors, Owens said.
“We think the most important thing is continue to invest in R&D, look at new products, look at new technologies, and don’t pull back on that. Employers can’t go in their shell. They’ve got to look at ways to pivot. And we’ve had a long-term history as a region of doing that.
“Once we get past this, I think the future will be bright.”