May 15, 2020

COVID-19 small business strategies: How four Calgary-area firms adapted nimbly to rapidly changing demands

A parking lot maintenance service, a bottle and can recycler, a blanket manufacturer, and a retreat centre adjust their business models

The COVID-19 pandemic has triggered an economic crisis, but it’s also spurring innovation as businesses and organizations embrace new technologies — or apply twists to old ideas.

The ability to move at breakneck speed is an increasingly crucial organizational trait that applies to not only the workforce, but also to citizens who have sprung into action by donating their time and money during these insecure times.

“I don’t think we’re surprised by the number of small Calgary-based businesses that have pivoted to COVID-19-related opportunities,” says Court Ellingson, BComm’94, vice-president, strategy, at Calgary Economic Development (CED).

“Along with the City of Calgary and the Calgary Chamber, we [CED] recently hosted a webinar where we heard that many local businesses are exploring an online presence and offering e-commerce to their customers.”

Shift to e-commerce

But not all businesses are shape-shifters or can respond nimbly to these new economic needs and platforms.

“Although we are more resilient than people may think, there are thousands of businesses in Calgary that have been impacted by COVID-19,” adds Ellingson. For example, a survey conducted for Calgary Economic Development found that 55 per cent of respondents reported a direct negative impact from the pandemic. Firms are responding by cutting operational spending, supply spending, and reducing staff levels.

“The negative impacts of COVID-19 are being felt across the country,” adds Ellingson, “and we are now particularly concerned for the small businesses who will miss the summer tourist season which generates considerable employment and economic activity in Calgary.”

The small businesses that will best weather this economic storm, Ellingson stresses, are those that are adaptable, “and will take this opportunity to learn more about their customers or new ways to communicate with their clients that will lead them to come out stronger on the other side.”

We are witnessing unprecedented agility as well as a shuffle of priorities — from the Dinos Women’s Hockey Alumni Affinity Group dropping off barrels of hand sanitizer at the Calgary Drop-In Centre, to real estate developer RNDSQR’s Small Business Care Box initiative showcasing some wares made by UCalgary alumni. Here, we check in with four small businesses operated by UCalgary alumni that have made deft pivots to their business models in order to keep going during COVID-19.

EverLine Coatings and Services

After snagging a dream deal on CBC’s Dragons’ Den last November, John Evans, BA’11, president of EverLine Coatings, says, “Business was rockin’ and rollin’ — that was, until COVID hit Calgary.” That’s when he watched 80 per cent of the revenue behind his line-painting and parking lot services company vanish, overnight.

Strapped and desperate, Evans laid off his staff of eight — though they were hired back once the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy (CEWS) was announced — and spent a weekend with other franchise-owners exploring one question: What other service could these industrial-strength line-painting machines provide?

As Evans says, “‘Eureka!’ arrived on Monday,” when the braintrust wondered if their equipment could be used to apply disinfectant that could kill COVID-19 on most surfaces.

After locating a Calgary manufacturer of hospital-grade disinfectant, the word got out and Evans’ first client appeared. The owner of a landscaping company wanted his trucks, trailers, tools and offices disinfected so that his “large essential workforce would feel comfortable returning to work,” says Evans.

Doug Manson, EverLine's main operating partner

EverLine's main operating partner in Calgary is Doug Manson, seen testing out the new disinfecting methods now being used to combat COVID-19

EverLine staff now wear a full-face shield, respirator, gloves and rubber boots to ensure they’re staying safe as they work.

While overall revenue will still “likely go down,” predicts Evans, “we’ve been able to keep our staff and we all want to believe that residential sealcoating will be a strong sector this summer with more people working from home. And now that we’ve diversified and can offer a new service, we have regular meetings about improving process and sales strategies.”

SkipTheDepot

Since early March, demand has grown six times for this app-based recycling service that picks up your bottles and cans and takes them to a bottle depot for you, says co-owner James Trask, BSc’10, a.k.a. chief empties officer.

“With most people staying at home and avoiding high-traffic places like a bottle depot, [it] means we’ve had to scale significantly in a very short period of time,” explains Trask, who, along with partner Tom Gayef, BSc (Eng)’08, launched SkipTheDepot two years ago

Tom Gayef, BSc (Eng)’08, and James Trask, BSc’10

Tom Gayef, BSc (Eng)’08, and James Trask, BSc’10, have seen business at SkipTheDepot grow six-fold since March

Trask says making sweeping changes such as scaling supply from contracting drivers and vehicles, and boosting customer support, software functionality and server resources “is difficult in the best of times, but when you add the very important health and safety precautions to the mix, well, it’s been challenging, but —  and only in a business sense — a good problem to have.”

Here’s how SkipTheDepot works: After this on-demand service has transported your bottles and cans to a depot, you can opt to have your refund e-transferred to your bank account, or you can donate the amount to the charity of your choice. About 30 per cent of each transaction is taken by SkipTheDepot, whose customer base, Trask says, “just eclipsed 20,000 people, and has facilitated $100,000 to charity and non-profit organizations” since its inception.

Hippo Hug Inc.

When COVID-19 struck, the owner of Hippo Hug thought she’d have to shutter her small business. Instead, Leslie Brooks, BA’01, who since 2012 has been producing weighted blankets for those suffering from insomnia and anxiety, has doubled her staff from five to 10 and is now sewing cotton masks, with orders recently topping out at 32,000.

Leslie Brooks, BA’01, UCalgary Alumna

Alumna Leslie Brooks, BA’01, and her staff at Hippo Hug are working seven days a week sewing masks

“Honestly, I am now at work at 7 a.m., seven days a week, just trying to keep up with orders,” says the English grad. “When CEMA [Calgary Emergency Management Agency] wanted 24,000 masks ... well, that changed everything. We actually had to hire more staff and buy more machines.”

The day that Canada’s chief public health officer, Dr. Theresa Tam, recommended people wear non-medical masks when in public, Hippo Hug made a quick post on Facebook and Instagram, alerting followers about their selling masks online. In less than 12 hours, it had received 100 orders and the demand has only continued to skyrocket.

The company’s margins are thin, but the heartwarming inquiries from people who have ordered extra masks for health-care workers and from those who want to drop off masks to seniors, “have made our team feel like we are doing our part,” says Brooks. “It might be small, but it feels like something.”

The Crossing

Set on a 145-acre swath of land 20 minutes northwest of Cochrane, The Crossing is a small meeting centre that offers an alternative space for corporate meetings, personal retreats, and small weddings. By mid-March, the venue had been walloped with COVID-related cancellations, forcing general manager Jori Guetg, MBA’08, to lay off most of their 19 employees.

The federal government’s CEWS program allowed Guetg to rehire some of her full-timers, who promptly began tackling overdue maintenance projects. But as Guetg and The Crossing’s chefs surveyed their commercial kitchen, their thoughts turned to the needs of the community.

Veterans Association Food Bank

Volunteer veterans and (R) Executive Chef Doug Ghanam at the Veterans Association Food Bank

A kitchen that not so long ago made meals exclusively for guests is now producing 100 meals a week, 100 one-litre containers of soup, and 20 food hampers that are being delivered to three nearby charities: Homes for Heroes, the Veterans Association Food Bank, and Helping Hands.

“If, back in February, you had told me that I’d be selling cheesecakes as a fundraiser so we could make meals for people like our veterans, I wouldn’t have believed you,” admits Guetg. “But, when the veterans want to help our chef distribute the meals to all the homes because they are so grateful and excited that there are people who care about them — it’s awfully humbling and gratifying.”

Do you know of any alumni-run businesses or community heroes who are making a difference during COVID-19? Let us know at: alumni@ucalgary.ca.