Surviving the coronavirus pandemic as a small business hasn’t been easy. Here’s how these owners did it
Most small or medium businesses don’t survive, even when times are good.
So what happens when you throw a once-in-a-century pandemic into the mix?
To stay open in 2020, businesses have had to adapt, pivot, innovate — the cliches are overused, but critical when doors are forced shut and supply chains are cut off.
Meet five business leaders who took on 2020 and survived.
“We all do things we don’t know we’re capable of and I think this year has proven that I can adapt, change, move and be better within business,” says Matthew Landers has been arranging flowers in Perth and Adelaide for 20 years.
None of those years has stood out as much as 2020.
He describes his business like his child, and asks, “would you run in front of a moving truck to save your child? Absolutely, and 2020 is the year that I ran in front of a moving truck to save my business”.
Mr Landers owns florist stores and a training academy, but it’s his wedding and hotel floristry work that has him highly regarded within the industry.
When the country entered lockdown in March, much of that business was cancelled overnight.
While the shutdown of big events was an issue, the bigger problem for Mr Landers was his supply chain.
Australia imports just shy of $70 million of flowers annually.
“With so many flowers imported into Australia we’ve had to shift our focus to what is growing with local growers,” he told ABC News.
“So, starting back on Mother’s Day in May, I had to go around to every local flower farm and source flowers that I wouldn’t normally sell in my stores like gerberas and chrysanthemums and really push the fact that we’re supporting our local farmers and allow our customers to be on the journey with us to support them.”
While local growers have enabled him to keep operating, his supply chain issues are ongoing.
“We need commercial international flights to resume as normal, as they were, in order for our supply chain to be complete and we’re a long way from that.”
But being forced to adapt to the restrictions and uncertainty brought on by the pandemic has been a blessing in disguise.
“COVID-19 is something that has certainly made me focus on all the things in business that I should have done a long time ago,” he said.
“There’s been no choice. In order to survive we’ve had to adapt, and it’s made the business better and stronger and I think we’re actually going to be in a lot better place in the future.”
The tour bus operator
Jason Cronshaw’s tour bus business has been operating in the Blue Mountains, west of Sydney, since his father started it in 1974.
Bushfires at the start of the year and COVID-19 made 2020 “disastrous” for the family business.
“It’s really the first time in our 47-year history that we’ve really been shut down from the lack of business,” Mr Cronshaw said.
“During the peak of the COVID-19 disaster we were 98 per cent down.”
The business runs a hop-on, hop-off bus service around the Blue Mountains and private charters for school groups, day-trippers and weddings.
The vast majority of their business came from overseas visitors.
“So, we had to reinvent ourselves to work out what products and services suited the domestic market and particularly those people from Sydney who were driving up,” he said.
While Sydneysiders eager to escape to the country were visiting the mountains, Mt Cronshaw needed to find a way to appeal to those customers.
“We introduced new products straight away,” he explained.
“We introduced a shuttle service down into the Megalong Valley wineries which are reasonably new to the region, the Six Foot Track has become the most popular it’s ever been, so we do a shuttle from Jenolan Caves to Katoomba and then with the Clipper-class buses, which are the restored 1954 and 1947 Clipper buses, we’ve expanded for private group tours.”
The old buses kept the business operating.
“The 1954 flexible Clipper bus hadn’t worked that hard, but now it’s working the hardest it’s ever been and is probably the hardest working vehicle in the fleet.”
Mr Cronshaw is also developing virtual tours for school groups and visitors who can’t make it to the Blue Mountains in person.
“We thought originally that would be a lockdown possibility, but we’ve expanded that now and are looking at virtual reality school excursions so kids can use them in the classrooms before they go on a real excursion,” he said.
2020 has taught him not to rest on his laurels in business.
“The biggest thing I’ve learnt about myself is to adapt and not to just trust what was there in the business,” he said.
“The world had been changing fairly quickly up to the bushfires and COVID-19 anyway, but we’ve been forced to adapt and innovate quicker than ever and we will continue to innovate and launch new products.
“We believe we’re on the road out, but it’s still going to be a long, hard road for us to get back to anywhere near what was normal.”
Hampered under the strictest lockdown rules of the country, Jessica Lloyd couldn’t do her job, or at least not the way she used to.
She’s a beautician, managing a facial bar in Richmond, Melbourne.
For a job normally very up close and personal, 2020 saw Ms Lloyd expand her client list all over Australia.
“We have been able to grow our online business and connect with clients that we wouldn’t have necessarily had before,” she said.
“We now do online skin consultations with clients nationally, so we’ve got them in Perth, Sydney, places like that.”
Before the COVID-19 shutdown, she saw all her clients face to face, but when the business was shut down, she had to act quickly.
“Our business is based on treating clients with that touch, so having to pivot and find different ways to be able to connect with them was challenging, but it was exciting too,” Ms Llyod said.
She began online skin consultations from her lounge room, and while she’s now back in the clinic, the online consultations are here to stay.
“We’re so excited to be able to do facials again without clients having to wear masks, but we just don’t know how it’s going to play out, so I think it’s important that we still do keep doing what we were doing during lockdown,” she said.
The online consultations kept her in a job. She and her team were able to reopen when restrictions eased.
“It’s looking pretty busy in the next couple of weeks, which is really good,” she said
When Blue Fish Restaurant opened in Sydney’s Darling Harbour, the city was buzzing as it prepared for the 2000 Olympics.
Twenty years later, general manager Glenn Boyland found himself trying to keep the restaurant alive in a city that was dormant, as COVID-19 shut the country down.
“2020 has been a rollercoaster, an absolute rollercoaster,” he said.
“When we first realised we had to close, and the ramifications of closing, firstly we were in shock, we were stunned.
“It took us a couple days to find our feet.”
Most of Mr Boyland’s staff, as with many hospitality venues, are migrant workers on visas and not covered by the Government’s stimulus measures.
“The biggest shock that we had, obviously was cashflow and how we’re going to support and look after our staff.”
“I don’t think a lot of people realise that we have a lot of visa workers, whether they’re student visas, sponsorship visas or holiday visas and these people do a great job of supporting our industry and there was no support for them.
“Our biggest challenge was where to find the funds and how do we keep them.”
Help from his investors enabled Mr Boyland to keep the majority of his staff during the quietest periods of the year.
“Now that we’re starting to come out [of lockdown] and businesses are starting to improve, we’re so glad we stuck by our guys and managed to retain what we did,” he said.
Mr Boyland says aside from keeping his business afloat, being away from his family, who are all in Queensland, has been the hardest challenge of 2020.
“If I was told, or if I had to realise what strength I needed to get through this year, and what hurdles I’d have to go through, I don’t think I would I had the confidence to say that I’d do it well and I’d be OK,” he said.
“I haven’t seen one direct family member for 12 months. I think that’s the most challenging thing, I missed my family.”
But his work family was there to keep him going in one of the toughest years of business.
“We really understood what we have to do, to work through this and be one.”
The caravan park owner
Greg McKay has been running his family’s caravan park business in Tathra on the south coast of New South Wales for 25 years.
Two years ago, his home was destroyed by fire and 2020 took him straight back there, as fire raged through the area yet again.
“2020 has been a rollercoaster,” he told ABC News.
“It started with the fires and everything got shut down.
“Then there was a little bit of support with accommodating the evacuees from the actual flame zone and the workers and volunteers.”
When COVID-19 arrived, Mr McKay’s business was shut down again.
“The biggest challenge, I guess, has been keeping abreast of all the rapid changes and rules with COVID-19 and writing the COVID operating plans,” he said.
“Also with our staff, making sure they’re comfortable with what they’re doing.”
His park has fluctuated throughout the year from being very busy, as people started travelling again, to very quiet when Victoria’s hard border was introduced.
Most of his regulars drive up from Melbourne, so the Victorian lockdown had a big impact on his business.
But the need to just keep going is what saw him through.
“I don’t know, you just get up and go to work every day and just deal with the challenges in front of you,” he said.
“I’ve never been one to sort of spit the dummy, throw my hands up in the air and say it’s all too hard.
“You just have to say, ‘OK, what’s the first task, do that, what’s the second task, do that.'”
Mr McKay says because the business has been around for almost 40 years, he has very few overheads and that meant his ongoing costs during the quiet periods were minimal.
He is confident now that borders are down and summer is here that his business will be thriving again.
“For domestic tourism businesses like ourselves, I think it’ll be very positive. I think we will bounce back very quickly,” he said.
“Well, I hope it does.”
He expects there’ll be a lot of people at his caravan park this summer, contemplating what’s in store for 2021.
“Caravan parks are great places for solving problems, you solve the problems of the world in caravan parks,” he said.