Once a ‘best-kept secret,’ two organizations become valuable resources for businesses navigating the COVID-19 crisis
Originally published in the Fairfield-Suisun Chamber's Voice of Business, Fall 2020
In the first days after the novel coronavirus brought business and the world as we knew it to a screeching halt in mid-March, Tara Cruz did her best to stay positive.
The owner of Touch of Paradise Spa in downtown Fairfield, Cruz initially thought the closures would last for a week or two. But as the days and weeks went on, a stark reality set in.
“I still get emotional thinking about it,” said Cruz, who fought back tears as she remembered the first month of the COVID-19 outbreak. “This is where I had built everything and put in all my time. We were finally seeing a profit again, and then COVID hit us. And all of it was out of my control, my hands were tied and there was nothing I could do.
“By that third week, I knew I had to do something.”
One of her first calls was to Tim Murrill, the director of the Solano Small Business Development Center (SBDC). Cruz has been an SBDC client for five years, utilizing the free one-on-one consulting and business workshops as she grew her business from an independent consultant to a brick and mortar downtown. She considers Murrill a mentor.
“Whenever I have business lows, I’d text Tim late at night and he’d call me right back in the morning and talk me through it,” she said. “He is so reassuring.”
As he shared with her the loan opportunities available to businesses, he told her about layoff aversion fund grants that were available through Solano County’s Workforce Development Board. The SBDC, which provides its free services to any business with less than 500 employees, operates under the umbrella of the Workforce Development Board. Both organizations share office space at 500 Chadbourne Road.
Cruz was already familiar with the Workforce Development Board. Her first job, at 19 years old, was through the organization’s On the Job training program. It was such a good experience for her that when she opened her own business, she had two receptionists who were also part of the program.
She applied for and was awarded the grant from the Workforce Development Board and utilized the funds to purchase software and equipment that allows her to offer virtual nails, facials and microdermabrasion treatments to clients. The loan also helped pay her rent downtown.
With so many uncertainties still looming because of COVID, Cruz is working with an SBDC business advisor on transitioning her business to online retail.
“Everyone wants to send me condolences because of what is going on but I tell them, ‘I’m good, guys, I’m okay!” Cruz exclaimed. “COVID has put a lot of people on a different path and this is where our creative and innovative skills have to come together.
“I’m just so thankful for the Workforce Development Board and the SBDC,” she added. “I’m so passionate about these two programs. If I didn’t have those two on my team, I know I wouldn’t be where I am today.”
April Ziomek-Portillo, the business services senior manager at the Workforce Development Board, was responsible for overseeing the layoff aversion fund grants. Solano County alone awarded 49 grants, totaling a little over $207,000. Altogether, 335 local jobs were saved.
Many of the people applying for the grants were hearing about the Workforce Development Board for the first time, which gave her the opportunity to highlight the free services they offer to businesses, from recruitment and job fairs to training and layoff aversion assistance. Business owners were also connected with the SBDC and their free one-on-one consulting services.
“We are probably one of the best kept secrets in Solano County for business resources, along with the SBDC,” Ziomek-Portillo said. “Between the two organizations, we can not only strengthen a business’ talent resources but also their business as a whole and both are at no cost.
“People need to know they are not alone in this,” she added. “They need to be able to ask, ‘where are the resources, where can I get help?’ To me, this is a huge opportunity for businesses to survive and thrive here in Solano County.”
An Unexpected Catalyst
Both the Workforce Development Board (WDB) and the Small Business Development Center (SBDC) have been operating in Solano County for years. WDB has been around for over 30 years, while the Solano SBDC was established in the early 2000s. The Workforce Development Board has been the ‘host’ of SBDC since January of 2019.
The leaders of both organizations have heard the words “best-kept secret” so often that WDB Executive Director Heather Henry laughingly said, “I’m going to scream if I hear it again – we want the word out there!”
The Coronavirus proved to be the unexpected catalyst as the pandemic brought businesses large and small to a screeching halt, wreaking havoc on the economy with layoffs, furloughs and closures. Business owners searched desperately for up-to-date information, not knowing where or who to turn to.
“Almost overnight, we went from being a community secret to a valuable resource for a lot of small businesses,” Murrill said.
It was March 15 when the SBDC’s phone began to ring and the calls did not stop for weeks. On the line were frantic business owners, from companies large and small, new and established, brick and mortar and home entrepreneurs, all looking for information on the Small Business Association (SBA) loans, most notably the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) and the Economic Impact Disaster Loan (EIDL).
Between March and May, the Solano SBDC assisted over 600 businesses with SBA loan questions. Some of those businesses went on to become SBDC clients, allowing them to access free one-on-one consulting. The organization has a dozen business advisors, all experienced in various aspects of business from strategy and marketing to financial management and capitol acquisition. All received training on the SBA loan programs and then quickly went to work coordinating one-on-one phone calls and Zoom meetings with their clients. In the weeks that followed, they walked them step by step through the loan process and provided an “ear” that so many needed in the turmoil.
“Most businesses I find have a quiet, humble pride,” said SBDC consultant Peter Gray, who specializes in business growth and operations. “They don’t want to ask for help, they don’t think they should ask for help but we’ve come to a time when they know they need additional perspective and they need to connect with resources they’ve never had to look for before. They are looking to learn and they are looking for guidance. They just want to get through this period and then get back to running the business they love.”
In Solano County alone, 4,267 PPP loans were awarded to businesses. Most – 3,195 – were under $150,000 while a little over 500 were more than $150,000. Of those awards, 1,286 were individuals (independent contractors, self-employed, or sole proprietorships), 1,250 were corporations, and 116 were non-profits. More than 41,500 jobs in Solano County were retained because of PPP loans.
The Solano SBDC confirms that 54 of their business clients received SBA loans totaling $6.5 million. Advisors have continued to work regularly with these clients, helping them to navigate the post-COVID economy.
“In these last months, I’ve witnessed resiliency like no other,” said SBDC advisor Seanna Asper, who specializes in finance and QuickBooks. “Small businesses are the backbone of the American economy and it has been an honor to help them weather this storm. I have been inspired by their willingness to do what has to be done.”
In addition to individual consulting, the SBDC continues to offer workshops led by the advisors. In the past, workshops were in a class setting in Fairfield but they have since transitioned to webinars, making them more accessible for businesses throughout Solano County.
From January to July, the Solano SBDC offered 65 workshops with nearly 500 participants. This is already twice the number of workshops and participants from 2019 and does not include the webinars hosted by the NorCal SBDC. All workshops are free.
When the shelter-in-place restrictions were lifted, Murrill and Henry partnered to offer 15 re-opening webinars, all based on individual business sectors, in a three-week period.
“So many small business owners have given up their life savings to start their business,” Murrill said. “It has been an unprecedented and challenging time for all of them. To be able to do something to help these businesses survive this crisis was one of the most gratifying things I’ve ever been able to do in my career.”
Meanwhile, down the hall from Murrill’s office, the WDB’s American Job Center is abuzz with activity. While the Vallejo job center closed at the onset of the pandemic, the center on Chadbourne Road has remained open Monday through Friday, providing job seekers with phones and computers to connect with unemployment services and a resource lab to work on resumes, job search and Zoom interviews. All services are free.
Between March and July, the center connected with over 4,000 job seekers. The two offices typically serve approximately 9,000 people every year but Henry expects that number to be significantly higher in 2020 because of the pandemic’s impact on the workforce.
“We also offer more intensive services for people who need individualized support, such as job training or coaching,” Henry said. “We can do supportive service funding for basis needs, like rent, utilities or access to technology. We help pay for equipment or services for someone if something stands in their way of getting or keeping a job. For example, if someone is not able to afford a computer required for employment or if they need a specific type of training, they can reach out to us.”
There is such a myriad of services offered by the Workforce Development Board – Henry oversees a staff of 40 – but the organization is best known for the recruitment support it offers to businesses in Solano County. In the past, the WDB has hosted recruitment events for companies and business sectors and coordinates the NorCal Career Fair at Solano Community College.
The Workforce Development Board celebrates its ribbon cutting at its new location at 500 Chadbourne Road, Fairfield
While the recruitment events have been put on hold during the pandemic, the employment programs are ongoing. WDB coordinates a youth job program with the Solano County Office of Education that provides wages to young people to have intern experience in the workforce. For adults, there is On the Job Training – the same program Tara Cruz went through when she was 19 years old – where WDB partners with area businesses to help job seekers gain important skills for the workforce. As part of this program, the Workforce Development Board funds a portion of the employee’s wages and in return, the employer trains them on essential job skills. Since the pandemic began, the WDB has increased its reimbursement to businesses, allowing them to bring their employees back to work.
It has been heart wrenching for both the WDB and SBDC to hear from businesses about the number of layoffs and furloughs that have been implemented since March. More than 84,200 Solano County residents have applied for unemployment services and Fairfield’s unemployment rate in June was still at 13.5 percent.
“We try not to focus on business closures and layoffs but COVID has unfortunately made that a very stark reality,” Henry said.
Ziomek-Portillo oversees the Workforce Development Board’s layoff aversion fund and knew by the end of March the businesses needed help.
“So many of our businesses in Solano County have 10 or less employees and a lot of them feel alone,” she said. “I went to (Henry) and said, ‘we have to do something, we have to be able to help these businesses in some way.’”
“We put the whole grant program together in a week,” Henry added. “We were one of the first two in the state to do this, along with LA County. They looked different but the concept was the same and we are very proud we were one of the first in the state to do it.”
The program took off so quickly in Solano County that both Wells Fargo and Genentech volunteered to add funds, Ziomek-Portillo said. The city of Benicia also contributed money that went to businesses in their community.
Grants awarded ranged from $500 to $10,000 and were used to cover costs associated with teleworking, PPE equipment and software that helped businesses transition online.
“One thing that was huge is that we didn’t put a lot of red tape in this,” Ziomek-Portillo said. “We wanted the businesses to have the chance to tell us what they needed. We allowed them to come up with their plan of action and we funded applications as they came in. Our goal was to serve as many as we could.”
Altogether, 49 grants were awarded, totaling a little over $207,000 and saving 335 jobs in Solano County.
Preparing for a Post-COVID-19 Future
As devastating as the last five months have been, one silver lining is that businesses are now more aware of the resources available to them through organizations like the Solano SBDC and Workforce Development Board.
The hope is the traction will only continue to grow.
Over 99 percent of businesses in Solano have fewer than 500 employees, qualifying them for the free SBDC services. The Workforce Development Board can assist businesses of any size.
“We are specialists of talent and we can help solve issues around talent, whether it’s retention, retaining employees, development of job descriptions, or data information about the local job market,” Ziomek-Portillo said. “We really want to get it out to the masses and let people know we are here to help. I have grant funding available on a yearly basis, that’s replenished every year to help businesses find their talent and retain their talent, and I have to say, it’s definitely under-utilized.”
Meanwhile, after months of consulting with clients on their SBA loans, the Solano SBDC is turning its attention to helping businesses prepare for a post-COVID future. Many of the free webinars and individual consulting sessions are focused on growing a business, marketing strategies, finance, sales and pivoting their business model amid the challenges of the pandemic.
In the fall, the SBDC will offer NxLevel, a 10-week intensive program designed to help businesses successfully move to the next level of growth. Participants will be in a cohort and develop their own business plans. There is a fee associated with NxLevel and pre-registration is required.
“It can be very difficult to plan and prepare for what’s ahead when you don’t know how long this is going to last and how bad it’s going to get,” Murrill said. “When you have your own business, you often feel very much alone and on an island. But we want our businesses to know they are not alone. We want to be beside them, every step of the way.”