Mark Delisle, state director of the Maine Small Business Development Centers. Submitted photo

It’s been a busy week for Mark Delisle, state director of Maine Small Business Development Centers, based at the University of Southern Maine.

Maine SBDC is a statewide program offering no-cost confidential business advising services.

We asked for advice for the business community, both those looking to stay open and those already closed.

1. What are you hearing most from the business community right now, and does it vary by region?

Most of the business owners we are working with across Maine are worried and scared for their business, their employees and their customers. They are seriously concerned about how they will survive the closure of their businesses. Their main concern is cash flow – how will they continue to pay expenses with lost revenue. Business owners carry the burden of finding a path forward. They want to make sure their employees (and their families) will be OK.

The uncertainty of the timeline and impact of the virus is making it hard for business owners to plan. We are encouraging them to plan over several periods (one month, three months, six months, etc.). Unfortunately, this could mean they take on additional debt to sustain themselves, but inevitably have to close their doors if it lasts too long. Many business owners are interested in the U.S. Small Business Administration’s Economic Injury Disaster Loan Assistance, and we’ve been walking clients through the process.

We haven’t necessarily seen any regional differences. Seasonal and tourism-based communities and businesses are a concern, though. These business owners count on the summer months to generate enough cash to carry them through the winter.

2. Top 3 things businesses who have shut their doors ought to be doing:

1. Reach out to creditors, landlords and vendors with deferment inquiries. Talk to them NOW about extended payment options. Do not wait until you aren’t able to pay.

2. Conserve cash. Now’s the time to cut all unnecessary expenses. Understand which expenses are flexible and which are not. Which can be suspended, reduced or canceled?

3. Apply for the U.S. Small Business Administration’s Economic Injury Disaster Loan. These loans are available to small businesses in Maine that have been impacted by this disaster. They provide low-interest working capital to keep businesses afloat. A Maine SBDC business adviser can walk you through this process.

BONUS: Stay connected to customers. Being proactive with long-term customers will help keep these relationships positive. Get creative – are there any aspects of their business that can be done online? Can you partner virtually with other local businesses? Delivery service? Other ways to connect with your customers in the short term? Most innovation comes during times of hardship. Take advantage of this opportunity.

3. Top 3 things businesses who are still open ought to be doing:

1. Put safety of themselves and employees first. Watch the physical and mental health of your employees (and yourself!). This is a challenging time for us all. If possible, allow employees to work from home or offer a more flexible schedule.

2. Plan, plan, plan! Have a plan in place for any situation that could arise. Start conserving cash now in the event that you do need to close for some time. Keep a close eye on financials. Being proactive can be the difference between staying open or shutting the doors permanently.

3. Communicate, communicate, communicate! Let customers know you are open. Share what you are doing to keep them and your employees safe.

4. Anything should they all avoid?

1. DO NOT ignore bills. Get ahead of the game and pre-negotiate with vendors and lenders for payment terms now BEFORE you have a cash flow crunch. Think of your vendors as your partners — you needed them before this crisis, you need them now and you will definitely need them after!

2. DO NOT cash out retirement accounts, rack up credit card debt, or take out high-interest pay day loans to keep your business open – there are other less costly alternatives, including low-interest SBA disaster loans.

5. Any specific advice for the food industry, which seems especially hit?

With grocery store shelves empty, there is opportunity for food service providers. Restaurants can capitalize on takeout and curbside pickup as much as possible. Restaurants in other states have started offering ingredients for consumers to make meals themselves at home, which helps reduce labor costs (the largest expense for these businesses). Offer a limited menu or special deals to entice people to purchase.

Make sure you are communicating the proactive health measures you are taking to keep everyone safe. Find ways to reduce costs at this time – pare down weekly orders, work to reduce waste and find ways for reuse. Reduce payroll expense as much as possible as this is usually the largest variable expenses a restaurant has. Controlling this will improve cash flow.

6. Resources available now?

There are so many resources being thrown at business owners. It’s overwhelming. A Maine SBDC business adviser can help guide Maine small businesses to the information that they need. Our advisers have turned their full attention to this matter. Our services are confidential, free and offered virtually. We are dedicated to helping as many business owners through this as possible. We are here and we can help!

The Finance Authority of Maine is also offering loans with special terms to help business owners who are experiencing hardships. We are also encouraging businesses to talk to their towns. Many are doing emergency response programs to help sustain the businesses in their communities.


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