Business Leaders Share Challenges, Triumphs After Two Years of Covid-19 TurmoilApr 11, 2022 01:23PM ● By David Dykes
Just about everyone can talk about how Covid-19 and the aftermath have affected them personally, or professionally.
Business and restaurant owners know. Hotel operators and teachers know. Health care workers know. Parents know.
The last two-plus years have been challenging to say the least, and the stark nature of the pandemic’s impact was evident when several business men and women met in February with U.S. Sen. Tim Scott at ACL Airshop’s manufacturing division in Greenville.
Scott, a South Carolina Republican, described the meeting as a “listening session” to hear firsthand how they have survived, dealt with labor-force issues, and anticipated the broader implications for overall economic growth.
And what he heard was compelling.
Luke Finlay, chief financial officer at Greenville-based Auro Hotels, said revenue was down more than 80 percent in April 2020 from the prior year. The company, which develops, owns, and operates hotels throughout the Southeast, furloughed about 75 percent of its staff, and those remaining were on the front lines, checking in guests, cleaning rooms, and each doing the jobs of three people.
Money from the Paycheck Protection Program was a savior, and the company’s banks were very helpful, deferring some interest and principal payments. “We’ve made it through, but we’re still not back to pre-pandemic revenues or earnings,” Finlay said. “2022 is looking like it could be better.”
Business travel was off 66 percent nationwide last year and the company has been surviving on leisure travelers. That could be impacted by inflation and higher gas prices, but “we’re optimistic about this year and back on the offensive,” he said.
Auro has a contract to buy an Atlanta hotel and, moving forward, is trying to make up lost ground, Finlay said. But he said the industry might not recover to pre-pandemic earnings until 2025.
Carl Sobocinski, founder and president of the Table 301 Restaurant Group in Greenville, offered a similar story and agreed PPP “saved us.”
He closed one restaurant, a breakfast and lunch spot, and said he isn’t sure it would have survived today given that workers have been slow to return to their offices.
He started reaching pre-pandemic revenues and sales numbers in April 2021, “so it was about a year of buckling down.”
He furloughed 80 percent of his workforce, then brought most of the employees back to work. Some changed careers – becoming Uber or Amazon drivers.
“I almost feel guilty. We’ve done a lot better here in recovery mode than other cities and other communities, and that’s thankful to the way that we handle things here in South Carolina, ” he said.
His company has about 400 employees but needs to hire 10 percent more, Sobocinski said. To retain workers, and enhance morale, Table 301 has offered hourly employees bonuses in addition to other benefits: 50 cents an hour for employees who’ve worked one to five years and $1 an hour for those with five to 10 years, he said.
Ray Lattimore, president/CEO at Marketplace Professional Staffing, has been in business for 25 years and said, “This economy is like none other I’ve seen in my entire life.”
He said he has 400-500 openings, with 80-90 percent of those in the manufacturing sector. Prospective employees want $17 an hour or more, which Lattimore said puts pressure on employers who pay existing employees less. And he’s had to resort to double- or triple-booking interview appointments to combat “ghosting,” when an applicant fails to show and cuts off all contact.
Going forward, technology will be the key to business success, he said.
Sidney Locke, vice president of human resources at Sage Automotive Interiors (formerly Milliken & Company’s automotive division), said he worries about the pandemic’s lingering effects as a full labor market recovery appears distant. His company has 1,200 manufacturing employees, mostly in South Carolina.
“I am scared when the semiconductors come back, over the next year, and they’re available in General Motors and Toyota, and all those companies can start making cars again – I’m scared that we won’t find people,” he said. “The only solution we have is automation and digital transformation.”
Replied Scott: “That’s scary to me because as a kid growing up in poverty in a single-parent household, the one thing I had the benefit of is someone took a chance on me to teach me the requisite skill set, the soft skills, so that when the economic ladder appeared, the ladder was low enough for me to catch the first rung, and I could climb up that ladder...”
Dan Martin, plant manager at Dodge Industrial, said the labor shortage is huge, but the supply chain hasn’t been keeping up, significant backlogs have persisted, and prices have been rising. “If the government says it’s 7 percent (inflation), we have not seen one item that’s gone up only 7 percent. It’s from bearings that we buy to wood. It’s from 10 to 50 percent.”
He said Dodge has resorted to air freight to ship parts from Asia – mainly China – to get around port congestion.
Steve Townes, CEO and an owner of ACL Airshop, a worldwide leader in comprehensive unit load devices (ULDs) and cargo control products and services, said that in an ironic twist for the South Carolina economy, the air cargo industry has benefited from the shipping logjams and truck driver shortages. Air cargo, in the last two years, “has been in a phenomenal boom,” he said.
Last year, his company grew by 30 percent. In December he paid the largest employee bonuses in the company’s 39-year history, “and they earned it,” Townes said.
In the meantime, aerospace has emerged as one of South Carolina’s fastest-growing and best-paying industries, he said.
“The No. 1 thing we need is talent,” Townes said.
Diane Hardy, franchise owner of Nothing Bundt Cakes in Greenville and founder of the Mom and Pop Alliance, which serves as a liaison between the owners of family and small businesses and state government in seeking solutions and good governance policies supportive of South Carolina’s businesses, said her five-year-old operation and others wrestle with supply- and product-delivery challenges. But they are persevering, she said.
“Something that I really have found good for me for (employee) retention is direct primary care,” she said. “Any employee for me that works 20 hours a week I provide for them and their children direct primary care. They can just go to the doctor as much as they would like.”
Each person had a story of fortitude, resiliency, and determination, and brought something positive.
We could use more of that these days.
David Dykes is editor of Greenville Business Magazine, Columbia Business Monthly, and Charleston Business Magazine.