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Clawing Back and Paying Forward – The Ampersand April 2020

March 31, 2020

Dear Friends and Colleagues,

 

First, a few personal observations. The big winners in this, best I can tell, are dogs.  Also, exercise matters. The Internet matters. Handshakes don’t. Sign-offs like “Sincerely” and “Regards” should forever be replaced with “Stay Safe” and “Be Well.” Kids and pets should run more often into the frame of otherwise important business calls. More conversations should start with How Are You?  No, really.  How Are You?  Long walks and saying ‘hi’ to your neighbour matter. Family, love, kindness, community matter. Patience, too. And home cooking. And humour. And honesty. And wine. Wine matters.

 

On the work front, it’s more complicated. I don’t have my MBA so I wasn’t able to dust off my old text book, Steps for Small Businesses to take During a Global Pandemic.  While we sheepishly admit this is our first Pandemic, we feel battle-tested from the 2008/09 financial crisis, the 2013 flood, and the ongoing 2015 through 2020 oil collapse. As with those adversities, when COVID 19 arrived, we didn’t dawdle. We buckled up, grabbed our shovels and sandbags and straightaway started building a protective perimeter around our business.  Our practice at coping with one-in-a-hundred year calamities is paying off.  We’re getting quite good at it, actually.

 

A flood is a fitting metaphor. Waste no time. Prioritize. Be decisive. Marshall all available resources.  Look only forward.  Do not sentimentalize. Ask for help. Park your pride. Push back. Be firm. Be laser focused on cash preservation, morale boosting and superb client service (values we subscribe to in non-Pandemic times, I should add).

 

What else have we done? Add value at every turn. Volunteer our time and expertise to existing clients, and new ones too. Send hand-written letters offering thoughts and help, dozens of them, to clients and candidates and suppliers.  Support our clients in big and small ways.  Like this exchange with the CEO of Parkland Fuel, a long-time client and owner of Fas Gas Fuel stations:

 

What else? We’re leveraging relationships, like the Chamber of Commerce.  Signing up for Webinars; leading some, following some.  Sharing our expertise with Panorama and AESC member firms. Facilitating secondments of our people to client sites to assist with the increased work load resulting from diminished headcounts, offering interim executive solutions for senior-level contract roles, and collaborating further with our amazing partners at Creative Coaching on a wide range of people-related matters targeted at life beyond the here and now (call us to learn more). Investing in technology to make us even more responsive and competitive.  Being opportunistic, not predatory, in grabbing market share. Trimming fat. Staying lean.  Being urgent without being panicked; purposeful without being paralyzed.  Undertaking the parallel task of removing all that can be salvaged from the proverbial house while shoring it up for the cresting waters to come.

 

So many trappings of a bygone time now discarded on the front lawn. Culligan Water service? Gone. Shred-It on-site?  Done.  Cable TV in partner offices?  Halted.  Parking at Gulf Canada Square.  Cancelled.  Twice-a-week cleaning service.  Now once.  Provincial and Federal Income Taxes?  Deferred.  Salaries?  Rolled-back. Temporary layoffs?  Sadly, implemented.  Rent? Due in full on the first of the month. Sort of. Wait. Wha?  Let’s explore that one just a bit further.

 

As soon as the dam broke and waters started rising, we proactively reached out to our landlord.  Our initial proposal: give us nine free months of rent now and tack nine months to the end of our term, coming due in March of 2024.  We get the relief we need at a time we need it; they get the term at a time they’ll need it (at current rental rates, not 2024 rates, which are assuredly to be lower).  That was initially met with this warm, fuzzy and supportive embrace:

 

Hi Adam,

 

I appreciate that these are extraordinary times, however the direction that I have received from [higher up] is that the terms of the Lease remain in effect, and rent is expected to be paid as it comes due. Please let me know if you have any other questions.

 

Several, actually.

 

Why is it that at a time our cleaner, Jon Maxwell, on learning of our decision to curtail his shifts given our office is empty while we all work remotely, has the thoughtfulness to send us this note in response:

 

Hi,

 

I totally understand. Just like the flood of years before, we’ll come through this fine as well. Looking forward to hearing from you on the other side. And feel free to ask if you need me to go in for a safety checkup…No charge when dealing with safety….

 

Thanks, 

Jon Maxwell

JM Commercial Cleaning

 

How is that RedPoint Media, publishers of Avenue Magazine, among others, can reach out and offer a dirt cheap opportunity to get our message out on their social media platforms and have it turned around and live within 24 hours of reaching out?

 

Why is it that the Calgary Parking Authority can waive its one month notice period and cancel our parking stall, immediately, without question?

 

Why is it that Xerox allows us to defer to our copier lease, WCB our premium payments, the Federal and Provincial Governments, our taxes!  Yet, our landlord carries on, business as usual charging full rent for an empty office that we’re not even allowed to access?

 

When you’re less empathetic than the Canada Revenue Agency and the Calgary Parking Authority, you are truly in some very exclusive company.

 

Upon pressing the landlord further, a couple days later, they softened their initial response, and followed up with this gem:

 

Adam,

 

Our senior management team did a first review of the requests for rent relief on Friday afternoon. I hope to have an update for you in the coming weeks as the situation in Calgary becomes more clear.

 

Weeks?? Let’s hope when their landlording days are over, they don’t go on to be 9-1-1 dispatchers.

 

Their approach, thankfully, has been the exception, not the rule. Indeed, what’s been so heart-warming during these past few weeks is the coming together of supplier and client. For, really, most of us in business are both and how we behave as a supplier is how we’d want to be treated as a client. It’s been heartening to see the broader vendor community come together as it has.  Notice periods waived; due dates extended; relief, forgiveness and other immediate fixes implemented, almost without question.  And as others have done for us, we do for them. Postpone, forgive, reduce, delay. Pay forward.  Except, it would appear, our landlord.  Like a human chain filling and passing sandbags down the line, it only takes one selfish lout hopping out of cue to grab a smoke to mess up the entire process.

 

And then, a small miracle. At literally the moment we were set to hit ‘publish’ on this post, the landlord called and has conditionally, verbally, provisionally, accepted our initial abatement-for-term offer. They didn’t step out of line for that smoke, after all. The devil remains in the details but the signalling of a change in direction is appreciated and another positive sign of a community coming together; of what’s needed for all of us to make it to the other side.

 

Admittedly, it’s a struggle for us all, in these unprecedented times, to find not only the right words, but the right voice. We’re striving for urgency tempered with calm.  Too antagonistic with suppliers, and we risk being placed at the back of the line. Too aggressive in searching for work and we appear tone deaf and desperate. Too passive and we risk imperilling our firm’s financial health. We neither wish to skip and whistle through the graveyard, oblivious to the gravity of our circumstance; nor curl up under the bed and suck our thumbs succumbing and surrendering to the inevitability of a situation that we happen to believe remains very much in our control to influence. And so we walk the balance beam, seeking the just the right dosages – two parts honey, one part vinegar – striving to hit just the right notes.

 

Happily, we’re not a restaurant or a bar. Those high velocity businesses that pay next week’s expenses with this week’s sales and, who, without a physical customer in the premises, are literally unable to work. In executive search, the cycle time is longer. And searches can be, and are being, done virtually. Though less preferable than normal times, there is quite literally nothing that can’t be done in the course of a virtual search process that need be done in person. Sure, it’s trickier to assess the proverbial cut of one’s jib over Zoom or FaceTime but it’s not impossible and you have us to rely upon for those insights, don’t forget. As Yoda might say, professional jib cut assessors, we are.

 

We are setting ourselves up to emerge from this stronger and more responsive than ever. As one of our long-time friends and clients noted upon learning of some of the cost-cutting steps we immediately undertook, including having to make the heart-wrenching decision to temporarily lay off his own daughter from our firm:

 

“On the other side of this will be, I think, a fundamentally altered business community.  The newness of it all should provide tremendous, unprecedented opportunity for you.  All of the corporate organization charts will be re-written.  Boxes will be erased, moved and added.  Taking the steps you’ve taken will help you get to that other side.  Being too conservative with cuts at this juncture puts your chances of enjoying the coming good days at risk.  So I am totally onside.”

 

I’ll say this; I’ve never been prouder to be Canadian, Albertan or a boutique firm owner. I’ve never been more comforted by the ability to control our destiny. We need only haggle with one landlord and worry about only one team, in one community; an incredible, thoughtful and caring community in which our roots are sunk deep. The last thing I would want to be right now is a giant global firm, clinging to minimum fees, underwriting offices in other stricken countries, at the mercy of global issues on a galactic scale, taking marching orders from leaders in faraway places, making decisions based on analysts’ reactions to a tanking share price.

 

Nope. I’ll take our chances right where we are, in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, with exactly what we have. Thank you very much.

 

Adam