Surviving in Uncharted Waters

No one would be surprised to learn that the pandemic dominated my group’s discussion at the 31st annual Strictly Business Forum. Meeting together virtually, my contributors represented decades of executive and management experience. They were:

April Bingel, Financial Advisor, Wells Fargo
David Coryer, Co-founder, Coryer Staffing
Kimberly Davis, Clinton County Treasurer
Bill McColgan, President/Chief Executive Officer, Mountain Lake PBS
Devi Momot, President/CEO, Twinstate Technologies
Trent Trahan, CEO, Primelink
John Watt, President/CEO NBT Bankcorp
Connie Wille, CEO Champlain Valley Family Center

From the start, as the members discussed how their businesses/agencies fared in 2020, the main theme was adjustment. Everyone had been thrust into unchartered waters. Bill McColgan began, “We had to redesign our thought processes. Some of our people could work from home but some had to be in the station. At a time when people needed trustworthy information about what was happening locally, we saw that as an area where we could help. In addition, we stepped forward to develop solutions to homeschooling. Partnerships have always been key for Mountain Lake and we needed to find a way to shift those partnerships to benefit the community at an unprecedented time. With spotty broadband in the North Country, we knew this was a time to take advantage of the fact that we have a linear delivery system in every home.”

Trent Trahan used the word “regrouping” when discussing how the pandemic had affected his operations. This sentiment was echoed by several participants who used the words reorganizing, remodeling, rearranging, pivoting, and upgrading. “In 2020 we finalized the sale of Primelink, our fiber optic company that stretches from downtown Montreal to Albany and everywhere in between, to FirstLight. Now are regrouping and trying to figure out what our future looks like. Couple that with the pandemic and this has been a traumatic year for us.”

“By mid-March we knew we had to redesign almost every process we had in order to continue to conduct business,” John Watt explained. “To move forward we set up principles to help us make decisions. How can we protect our employees, our customers, the communities we serve? We have almost 2,000 employees and about a thousand of them were able to work remotely thanks to our resilient technology platform. As cases seemed to stabilize, we were able to bring many of those employees back on site but with the rise of the curve recently most of the thousand are working from home again. Approximately 700 of our employees continue to work in 145 branches that offer drive-up and walk-up services.”

Addressing NBT’s approval process in the time of COVID, Watt offered, “We needed to rethink how we could close loans remotely and use digital products. At first, we were hung up on compliance issue and regulations but then we said, ‘That’s enough! We’re going to take a little more of a risk here. We can’t ask our customers to come in and sit at a table in a conference room to sign their mortgage note. The pandemic pushed us to make changes, and they work!”

NBT’s most important contribution may be its support of the PPP program. “Within a week we were up and ready to help. We made over 3,000 loans for $540 million dollars across New York State. By our calculations we supported over 66,000 jobs by making those loans and it is our hope to participate further when a second round of PPP becomes available.”

David Coryer observed, “Our revenue fell 25-30% initially but in early summer, we picked back up and now we are up significantly over last year at this time. We have developed a presence in St. Lawrence County and have plans for additional locations in 2021. We continue to operate with a conservative mindset but are thankful we’ve been able to maintain our business in these tough economic times. In the new year we will focus on improving our marketing and social media work.” Adding complexity to Coryer Staffing’s efforts during 2020 were additional unemployment benefits that made it more difficult to identify individuals who were eager to work. In spite of those welcome and necessary benefits, the Coryer team found many qualified candidates who chose to change jobs or return to work. “The North Country work ethic has been alive and well throughout this pandemic,” Coryer emphasized.

According to Kimberly Davis, if COVID hadn’t happened, Clinton County would likely have had extraordinary sales tax revenues in 2020. “When the pandemic hit, we were $1.4 million ahead of projections,” she said. The Treasurer’s Office was essential based on State guidelines but was non-essential according to county rules. That mean the staffing in her office was immediately cut by 50%. “We try to be cautious with taxpayer money so we normally operated on a shoestring so to suddenly lose half of my staff had a serious impact on our ability to handle the work.” But despite the financial impacts of COVID Davis explained the county is still in a good financial position. “Cuts are coming on both the state and county level but we are doing everything we can to make sure the losses will not be born on the taxpayers’ backs.”

In 2020 April Bingel began a new decade of personal and professional growth when her colleague and mentor of 25 years retired. Despite the impact of the nearly year-long pandemic she was pleased to report her practice grew through client engagement, referrals and market improvements. “Wells Fargo Advisors had invested a great deal of resources in technology so when the stay-athome order came, we were able to seamlessly work remotely,” she explained.

In March and April Champlain Valley Family Center was able to pivot and deliver services telephonically and via telehealth. “Even before the pandemic hit, we were dealing with an epidemic of opiate use disorder in the area,” Connie Wille pointed out. “Since then, we’ve seen upward trends in the use of marijuana, cocaine, alcohol, opiates, and stimulants as people have had to isolate during the pandemic.” The Center’s Schuyler Falls residential facility normally operated at 90-95% capacity but was required to take its census down to 65% to provide space for quarantine. In addition, the Center experienced a 20% cut in state funds beginning in the third quarter.

Twinstate had systems set up for disaster recovery and already had about 50% of its staff working remotely before the pandemic struck. “At one point we had over 90% of employees working remotely. When a crisis hits, you’ve got to have a plan and it needs to be a resilient plan,” Devi Momot emphasized. “We were ahead of the curve and after a few weeks, business settled into the new routine for us.” She continued, explaining the company’s support from PPP. “The talent pool for IT and Cloud engineers, is tough. You don’t hire highly capable people off the street. It takes a lot of training, certifications and experience to do those functions well. We just couldn’t risk losing any of them and with the help of PPP we were able to keep our team intact and our service business strong.”

Our conversation then turned to businesses’ most valuable resource – people – and the impact the pandemic has had on them.

Wille, Momot, and Bingel all called attention to the isolation and poverty in the North Country. The stress of the pandemic is exacerbated by poverty. Difficult circumstances have now been deepened by what is going on in peoples’ lives. “There is a tremendous need for our services,” Wille emphasized. “We know that pandemic fatigue will result in more suicides and overdose deaths, and an increase in substance abuse and relapses.

I asked my group what they thought the North Country’s greatest challenges were:

Wille: Lack of access to high-speed internet, the border closing, reduction in tax revenues, budget cuts, workforce issues, transportation, school closures.

Momot: The cost of school and property taxes and state mandates that are costly to businesses, large and small, or onerous and without necessity.

Coryer: Overcoming the pervasive poverty, substance abuse and foster care challenges that so many people face in our region. MHAB and the Alice Project are doing wonderful work in this regard and are shining examples of how we can better support our most vulnerable.

Bingel: The COVID-19 restrictions and the border closing but there is light at the end of the tunnel as the various vaccines are available in the new year.

Watt: I agree that access to high-speed internet is a critical issue.

McColgan: So many areas within our region require infrastructure investment, particularly with regard to high-speed broadband and cellular coverage, as well as investments in education and education initiatives. I am concerned that, in the short-term, the loss of state and local revenues resulting from the ongoing impact of the pandemic, coupled with the existing state budget deficit and expected cuts, will impact these investments necessary for our long-term growth and success. I am hopeful that, as we get past the pandemic and the border reopens, both the private and public sector can again focus on building for the future. We also have to be wary of sustaining the quality of life we must be able to offer to folks who live here or may consider moving her. It’s important we continue to support our cultural and educational institutions, our restaurants and entertainment venues, our recreational offerings, and more while also maintaining the social service that will help folks struggling through the economic downturn.

Our final discussion centered around thoughts about what the North Country needs to do to create a prosperous future?

Bingel: There will be demand for goods and services as travel restrictions wane next year and building upon some of the successes the North Country and Chamber have done in the past such as the fishing tournaments are a great way to showcase and bring business to the area.

Watt: This is pent up demand in many sectors which will be felt in the back half of 2021. The North Country needs to position itself to benefit from this demand.

McColgan: We need to strengthen the broadband and cellular infrastructure we have discussed today in order for our region to keep and attract individuals and families. Beyond that one key to success, it is what it has always been: working together to establish the kinds of partnerships and initiatives that can promote our remarkable history and beauty, strengthen our educational, cultural and civic institutions, and build on our reputation and positioning as a great place to do business.

Coryer: Stay true to the blueprint Garry Douglas and his team have implemented since the Base closing in the early 1990’s. Continue investing in workforce development programs and efforts that improve the labor pool. Doing so will continue to attract world class companies and organizations that desire access to the U.S. marketplace and proximity to New York City, Montreal and beyond.

I ended by encouraging everyone to share something we should be mindful of in 2021.

Momot: The children who are being left behind by this pandemic.

Wille: Our youth. What can we do? How can the community come together to create solutions?

Bingel: We are in the same storm but on different ships. Be mindful of others and what they are dealing with.

McColgan: We must be wary of disconnection and isolation during these difficult times. Such separation can lead to a loss of personal connection and experience with a wide range of our neighbors who may be suffering, and can cause a troubling lack of empathy. We need that empathy to face problems — and find solutions — together.

Davis: Pay more attention to poverty and its pervasive and long-term implications.

Coryer: Take this time to be more empathetic and kinder. Everyone around the world is collectively facing this pandemic together. The more we can come together to support one another, the better we all will be.

Watt: Getting our children back in a regular environment where they can resume learning in a more traditional manner. Supporting reemergence of small business in our communities is critical to our long-term economic success.