Trying To Get Back To Business When Business Has Ground To A Halt

May 1, 2020
Originally published on May 1, 2020 5:06 am

Normally, spring is the time when Gillson Trucking's fleet of 150 trucks are at their busiest, transporting strawberries and lettuce from the farms of California's Central Valley to restaurants in the Northeast and Midwest.

But with most of the country's restaurants shut down indefinitely, the trucks are mostly sitting idle right now.

"The produce is available, but because of these restaurant chains has been closed down there are no buyers," says the Stockton, Calif., company's co-owner, Harsimran Singh.

If business doesn't return to normal in the next month or so, he says the trucking company will have to shut down.

Texas, Florida, Alabama and other states are taking steps to phase out their stay-at-home orders, anxious to restart their economies after weeks of lockdowns and layoffs because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Business owners interviewed by NPR say they'd like nothing more than to see life return to normal, but they remain uncertain what conditions will be like a few months from now and when customers will be willing to spend again.

Many businesses have been forced to shut their doors altogether and furlough employees, but even those still operating face an uncertain future.

Among them is Enlightened, a technology consulting firm based in Washington, D.C., that has contracts with various state and federal agencies.

One contract has been put on hold and the firm had to furlough 35 of its 250 employees. They've since been rehired after the company received a loan through the federal government's Paycheck Protection Program, but the firm is no longer bringing in revenue, says CEO Antwanye Ford.

Government contracts tend to dry up when times are bad, and Enlightened officials regularly talk via Zoom, looking for ways to shore up business over the next few months.

"We meet to see how the project's going. What are we hearing from our customers? Do we see any future layoffs? What's the impact of [COVID-19] on them?" Ford asks.

Ford has already made a big concession to the virus: Though he prefers his employees to work in the office to foster a spirit of collaboration, he's agreed to let most of them work remotely.

"People don't feel safe. Some of our staff is concerned about reopening the business, and 'What does it mean for me to come into an environment where I'm around other people?' " Ford says.

San Francisco-based American Giant, which sells U.S.-made casual clothing such as hoodies and flannel shirts, has imposed strict measures to protect employees at its factories, regularly wiping down equipment and closing common areas, says CEO Bayard Winthrop.

When the lockdowns began in mid-March, Winthrop contacted the company's suppliers to tell them American Giant was putting future purchases on hold, in order to preserve cash until economic conditions became clearer, he says. Some of those same suppliers face financing questions of their own, he notes.

"It almost makes me get emotional about it. But to a one they all said, 'Listen, we're here and we get it. And we're going to work with you on this and let us know what you need,' " Winthrop says.

The company was pressed into service by the Trump administration to make face masks at its factories. But with the holidays approaching, American Giant needs to get back to making clothes no later than July.

Yet with so many people out of work, it's tough to know what business will even look like in six months, Winthrop says.

"What worries me obviously is that people haven't really fully yet digested how bad this is going to be for the economy," he says. "And if wallets start to really close up, it's just a different scenario."


Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Now, Florida is just one of a number of states lifting restrictions. In fact, governors allowed stay-at-home orders to expire last night in numerous states, including Alabama, Maine, Idaho, Tennessee and Texas. In those states, many businesses can reopen - although, also as in Florida, with rules to enforce social distancing for the most part.

NPR's Jim Zarroli has been talking with people who manage businesses across this country and is on the line. Jim, good morning.

JIM ZARROLI, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: How different is the world that a business owner is going to re-enter now?

ZARROLI: Nothing like this has ever happened before. I mean, this is just a - we've seen a huge number of businesses close. You know, people have stopped driving. They've stopped flying. Thirty million people have joined the unemployment lines just since mid-March. That's six weeks. The economy shrank 4.8% during the first three months of the year, but it is likely to shrink a lot more over the next few months. And the worst part is, you know, nobody has any real idea about when things are going to go back to normal or, you know, even if they will.

INSKEEP: I guess because of the social distancing rules that will still be in effect, there must be a lot of business owners, like the Florida restaurateur that we heard from, who have to ask - is it even worth my time to open up and add to this risk when I'm not going to make any money?

ZARROLI: Yeah. And that's really one of the things I set out to talk to businesses about. I mean, I've been talking to different companies all over the country and - about what kind of planning they're doing. You know, if everyone could go back tomorrow to work, would these businesses be ready? How long would it take them to get back on their feet? And the companies that I have talked to said right now they pretty much could get up and running again if they needed to, but there is still so much uncertainty about the rest of the year. You really can't overstate that the longer everything stays shut down, the harder it's going to be to recover. And a lot of companies are already struggling to survive.

INSKEEP: What are some of the companies you spoke with?

ZARROLI: Well, one of the companies I called was Gillson Trucking. They're in Stockton, Calif. And this is normally a very busy time for the company. It's harvest season. It's when their trucks send strawberries and lettuce from the Central Valley to restaurants in the Northeast and Midwest. But the owner, Harsimran Singh, says business is pretty much dead right now.

HARSIMRAN SINGH: The produce is available. But because of these restaurant chains that has been closed down, there are no buyers.

ZARROLI: So his fleet of 150 trucks sits idle, and he spends his mornings talking to customers, trying to see what work is available. His business is open but just barely.

SINGH: If I do not get work back to normal in, like, next month or so, well, we'll have to shut it down.

ZARROLI: Singh says he has plenty of drivers sitting home willing - even eager - to work. But he wonders, when will the restaurants reopen? And with so many people losing their jobs, will anyone have any money to spend? It's a question that's being asked all over the country right now. In Washington, D.C., the offices of the technology consulting firm Enlightened sit mostly empty. Almost all of the 250 employees are working remotely. CEO Antwanye Ford holds meetings on Zoom.

ANTWANYE FORD: We meet to see how the project's going. What are we hearing from our customers? Do we see any future layoffs? What's the impact of COVID on them?

ZARROLI: And the news right now is not good. Enlightened had to furlough 35 people, though it hired them back thanks to a small business loan. But the firm runs websites and call centers for agencies like the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, and government contracts often dry up when times are bad. Politicians right now may be talking about reopening the economy, but many companies say that's not possible as long as the future is so uncertain.

BAYARD WINTHROP: This thing hits and everyone is like wow, like, how bad is this going to get?

ZARROLI: Bayard Winthrop is CEO of American Giant, which makes hoodies and flannel shirts at its factories in the Carolinas. When the virus hit, Winthrop wrote to all of the company's suppliers - he's known a lot of them a long time - and he told them he was putting a stop on all the purchases for the time being. Things were too scary.

WINTHROP: It almost makes me, you know, get emotional about it. But to a one, they were all - they all said, listen; we're here. And we get it, and we're going to work with you on this and let us know what you need.

ZARROLI: What he needed was to preserve cash, but some of his suppliers are having trouble, too. If one of them goes under, it could blow a hole in his supply chain. For now, American Giant is making facemasks for the government. But if it's going to survive long term, it needs to get back to the business of making clothes no later than July. Winthrop thinks that's possible.

WINTHROP: What worries me, obviously, is that people haven't really fully yet digested how bad this is going to be for the economy. And you know, if wallets start to really close up, it's just a different scenario.

ZARROLI: And so really, the question that Winthrop is facing is - what is the market even going to look like in 6 months or even a year? Are people going to be buying clothes, and how much are they going to be buying? I mean, to run a business, you have to make a good educated guess about these kinds of things, and that's something he really can't answer.

INSKEEP: NPR's Jim Zarroli. Thanks so much.

ZARROLI: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.