Changes in Business Climate: NNY Q&A with Jim Murphy

Jim Murphy stands in front of the Massena Town Hall. Christopher Lenney/NNY Business

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The New Face of Business: How the north country is responding

Controller Lisa A. Sawdey and General Manager Les W. Berghorn stand for a photo at the Afgritech plant in Watertown. Kara Dry/NNY Business

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Westelcom Expands And Grows During Pandemic: Acquires Washington State telecommunications company

Paul Barton, president and general manager of Westelcom Family of Companies.
PHOTO PROVIDED BY WESTELCOM

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A Critical Moment in Time

Word Inequality cut with scissors to two parts In and Equality, gray background, top view

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Taking Care Of Business

Sarah O’Connell

As I write this, we are in the fifth month of the COVID-19 pandemic. Businesses in the North Country region have gradually been reopening through the four phases under specific guidelines and with many restrictions. 

    However, for businesses that deal with health and wellness, many are still not allowed to reopen yet due to the level of physical contact or proximity that is part of their normal customer interaction. 

    As the North Country region entered Phase 3, massage therapy businesses were allowed to reopen, as were hair salons and some other personal care services. As we all struggled with the isolation and anxiety produced by the crisis, this was a much welcomed development for those who needed the comfort and care that was beyond essential survival. At the same time, the operators of these businesses had to prepare rigorous safety plans for the state of New York and develop schedules and strategies to minimize risk to their customers. 

    On the other hand, physical fitness businesses like fitness centers and group yoga classes continue to be under additional scrutiny due to the risks inherent in gathering people together in activities that might increase transmission of the virus. Some exercise-related businesses have pivoted to offering virtual or online classes, particularly those with certain instructors who have a dedicated following who are willing to pay through an online payment portal to participate in a Zoom or similar digital meetup. 

    While doctors’ offices and medical clinics were open all along for emergency visits or telemedicine, dentists were not generally allowed to open until June 1 except for emergency situations. However, many of our local providers have noticed that their patients are delaying some appointments like routine checkups until later on in the year. The procedure for entering a medical office often involves waiting in one’s car until called, answering questions about recent health issues, possible contacts with ill people and travel outside the area, and undergoing temperature checks. 

    Some mental health providers who already offered online or telephone counseling have been able to continue to offer that support and have even expanded their customer base due to need. NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) has gathered a pool of volunteer mental health counselors to handle calls from people feeling especially stressed or anxious during the pandemic. (1-800-950-6264). It can also offer connections to local resources. 

    As with all businesses reopened or reopening in the various phases that the state allows, the key to getting customers, clients or patients to return is to demonstrate clear and well-thought out approaches to providing as safe an experience as possible. Surveys and anecdotal evidence have shown that many people are still very wary of venturing out into situations that might expose them to the virus. Reports of uneven or absent compliance will only delay the process of economic recovery. Recent spikes in infection were directly related to unsafe gatherings during July 4th celebrations leading to the reclosing of some area businesses. Enforcement of the safety guidelines needs to be universal to bolster the confidence of the general public. 

    As of this writing, the EIDL (Economic Injury Disaster Loan) program was still open and the application window for PPP (Paycheck Protection Program) loans was open until Aug. 8. Go to www.sba.gov for more information. The SBDC advisors are here to help you through the application process and beyond. We are also available to help you with any other business needs, whether it’s ideas for recovering, marketing, or opening, expanding or buying a business. We are available by phone and email and can have video sessions as well. As the JCC campus begins its reopening process, we will keep you informed if and when we can resume in-person appointments. 

    The New York Small Business Development Center at JCC offers free, individual, confidential counseling to new or existing business owners in Jefferson and Lewis counties. For more information, contact 315-782-9262, sbdc@sunyjefferson.edu. St. Lawrence County residents can contact their SBDC at SUNY Canton, 315-386-7312, sbdc@canton.edu 

Planning Ahead For Your Business

Jennifer McCluskey

I am proud of all the work that you and all of our North Country business owners have done to make it through this difficult time. We may have a long road ahead, but you have worked hard to get here and have held on through many challenges. One way to be stronger for the path ahead is to take a good hard look at how your business did during this crisis and find out if there are things that you could do better to prepare for the future. This is a great time to figure out a solid contingency plan for your business, since this disaster may have exposed areas in which your business is weaker. You have a chance now to learn and to figure out policies that will allow you to be better prepared in the future. 

    One big area where businesses struggle significantly is cash flow and being able to set aside a “cushion” of savings. Sometimes businesses expand too fast or buy that bright shiny piece of new equipment maybe before they were ready. This pandemic may have shown you that your cushion might have been too small to deal with a possible emergency. Have you ever played the board game Risk? In the game of Risk, if you expand too fast then on the next turn the other players will wipe out all your armies because you’ll be too weak to defend. You have to expand slowly from a solid base that can be maintained. It’s the same in business: you need to shore up your current business and have enough savings to support yourself before you start trying to expand. 

    I know this is hard for businesses that are constantly living on the edge of solvency. But maybe now is a good time to make a financial plan to figure out how you can get to the point where you do have enough of a cushion to get through a couple of months with little to no income. And if you don’t think it’s possible for your business to ever get to that point, maybe you need to make some radical changes, or possibly maybe it’s time to move on and try something new. Talk to your SBDC counselor. We can help you develop strategies, look through your budget and see where changes can be made, and provide support in whatever way you need. 

    Other areas you might want to consider looking at include:  

  • Develop work from home or contingency location plans. You may have found that having some of your employees work from home went OK for your business. If you likely now have the technology capabilities you need to implement this strategy again in the future if needed.  
  • Assess communication between you and your employees. Now that they are back in the office, find out if there could be ways that you all could communicate better in the future. What systems are you going to put in place so people can get access to critical information and can make critical decisions? Does everyone know his or her role in a crisis?
  • Put key business instructions in writing in an employee manual, or consider training employees to be able to do each other’s jobs. What if a key employee or owner gets sick? Would the business be able to function without that person? Are other people than the business owner authorized to speak to the bank, accountants, and attorneys if needed?

If you need assistance with your business during this difficult time, you can reach out to your local Small Business Development Center office. If we can’t meet with you in person, we can talk on the phone, teleconference, or email, whichever works for you. We are free, confidential, and always available to help. You can reach the SUNY Canton SBDC at (315) 386-7312, SUNY Canton SBDC at Clinton Community College at (518) 324-7232, or the Watertown SBDC at JCC (315) 782-9262. 

Small Business Startup: Creative Styles Pet Grooming

Sydney Schaefer/NNY Business
Kasie Naklick, owner of Creative Styles Pet Grooming.

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Five Tips For Starting Fresh With Your Business

Jennifer McCluskey

As we start with 2020 it’s a great time to think about how you can freshen up your business to grow and have a greater impact this year. There are a few simple things that you can do to start your business off right:

Tip 1: Take Care of Yourself
Small business owners are some of the hardest working people I know. Long hours, no sick leave, and being the one in charge of all the moving parts can wear on you after a while. Frequently your needs get pushed to the side so that your business can succeed. While this can be necessary, it also means that occasionally you do need to take care of yourself. Take time out for you, whether it’s an actual “unplugged” short vacation (scary, right?), or a weekly yoga class, or even a Saturday hiking in the mountains with your family, do what you need to refresh yourself. You’ll return to your business rested and more able to see the big picture.

Tip 2: Get Organized
Getting organized will help you cut down on wasted time. Have you found yourself looking for a file for over an hour since you didn’t put it in the right folder? (Speaking from experience on that one). Or do you frequently forget tasks? During one of the slower times in your business, it can be a good idea to declutter, get your systems back in place, or try a new time management technique. I’ve found the yearly file cabinet purge and restructuring is really helpful for when business gets too busy later. There are also a lot of apps that can help you get organized. A couple of my favorites are Quickbooks Self-Employed for keeping track of business income, costs, and mileage; Cozi, a free calendar system; and Colornote which allows you to set Post-it note reminders on your phone. Also see what tasks are “time wasters” and see if there are any that you can outsource. Getting a bookkeeper to keep track of the giant box of receipts, or a Virtual Assistant to help with scheduling and returning emails may be more cost-effective than you think if they allow you to spend more time on tasks that create sales.

Tip 3: Improve Your Customer Service
Take a moment to see if there are any things you can do for your customers to improve their experience. For example, do all of your employees greet your customers with a smile? Now might be a good time to check in about that. Ask your customers if there’s anything you can do to improve, either off-line with conversations or comment cards, or online by getting Google or Yelp reviews. If there’s something that you can improve on, they’ll tell you. More reviews also help bring more people to your website. Do you have really great customers who refer a lot of business to you? Maybe get them something special as a thank you.

Tip 4: Get To Know Your Finances
If you feel like you don’t have a good handle on your expenses or know the streams of income that are most important to your business, it might be a good time to get your bookkeeping in order. Whether you keep books by hand, Excel, or use a software program like Quickbooks, it is very important to know your profit margins and overhead expenses. Making sure you do your data entry in a timely manner can save a lot of headaches at tax time and can help you keep a better eye on changes you might need to make in your business. For example, your prices may have to change to match with different costs. Take a look at your numbers and see how you feel about where you are.

Tip 5: Meet With the SBDC!
Would you like to do some of these, but just don’t know where to get started? That’s what we’re here for! The Small Business Development Center offers FREE confidential business counseling, and we can help you with any of the above tasks, and more. Just contact the office closest to you. You can reach the SUNY Canton SBDC at (315) 386-7312, SUNY Canton SBDC at Clinton Community College at (518) 324-7232, or the Watertown SBDC at JCC (315) 782-9262. We’d love to help.

The Basics of Special Needs Trusts

Timothy Doolittle

Special Needs Trusts (“SNTs”) are an essential tool both when a person with disabilities has assets to protect and when that person’s parents are considering their estate plan. Whether the person with the disability has funds, receives funds from a personal injury settlement, or receives funds and property as a gift, the money must be managed carefully. SNTs (or Supplemental Needs Trusts as they can be referred to) are the best tool to use for asset protection for those with disabilities. 

    The primary goal of an SNT is to preserve a disabled person’s access to needs based public benefits when receiving a lump sum or inheritance. These benefits might otherwise be lost when the individual acquires resources over a given threshold. A person who is disabled may be receiving Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) on a monthly basis and may have Medicaid coverage to pay for the costs of healthcare. Medicaid and SSI are means-tested and impose limits on resources, so an influx of money from an injury settlement or inheritance could result in a loss of benefits access. 

    An SNT makes it possible to avoid this loss of benefits. When properly drafted in accordance with the law and when properly structured and maintained, SNTs allow money to be used for the benefit of someone who is disabled without jeopardizing benefits access. The assets held in the trust are not counted as resources for Medicaid or SSI calculations but can be used to supplement and enrich the quality of life of the person who is disabled, beyond what governmental benefits provide for. When SNTs are created, it is important to know what specific type of trust must be used. There are two primary kinds of SNTs: first-party trusts and third-party trusts. The unique situation of each person will dictate which type of trust will need to be created. 

    If the money or property being put into the trust comes from the person who is disabled, the trust is a first-party trust. This situation can occur if the individual receives a windfall inheritance, receives a personal injury settlement, or if they simply have built up assets based on gifts from family members. A third-party trust can hold assets that are deposited in the trust directly by any third-party source, like a grandparent, parent, aunt, uncle, neighbor, etc. 

    A first-party special needs trust can be established only by the disabled individual, parent, grandparent, guardian or court. They also can only be established for someone under the age of 65. In some situations, courts would monitor these trusts. The main drawback of a first party SNT occurs when the individual with a disability dies. At that point, the SNT must contain terms that names the state providing Medicaid benefits to the individual as the primary beneficiary of the SNT’s assets. This is known as the “Pay-Back” provision, to allow the state to pursue reimbursement for the costs of care expended during the individual’s life. 

    A third-party SNT can be created by anyone who wants to leave money to someone who is disabled. Third-party SNTs can be funded up to any amount, with any type of asset. The trust can be used for virtually any purposes to benefit the person with special needs, except for that the person’s own money cannot be held in the trust. Often times, parents of a child with disabilities will set up a third-party trust as part of their estate plan, to ensure any inheritance meant for the child will not affect their public benefits. 

    Upon the death of the disabled beneficiary of the third-party special needs trust, the money and property can transfer to any other relatives or beneficiaries that the trust creator chooses. Because the money and assets in the trust never belonged to the person who was disabled, the state has no ability to require a pay-back provision. 

    Special Needs Trusts can provide very important protections for someone with disabilities. If you are in a situation that calls for a Special Needs Trust, reaching out to a qualified attorney well versed in the area is a must. 

Timothy Doolittle primarily focuses his practice on estate planning, as well as asset preservation for individuals. Mr. Doolittle is a magna cum laude graduate of the State University of New York at Buffalo, Honors College. Mr. Doolittle is admitted to practice in New York State and is a member of the New York State Bar Association. Contact Mr. Doolittle by emailing TDoolittle@WladisLawFirm.com.

Revolutionize Your Resolution

Jessica Piatt

With the arrival of the New Year you might be inspired by the occasion to set personal resolutions to better yourself. In fact, you might resolve to travel more, learn a new skill, dedicate more time to reading or even working out. But what about your business? 

    If you want to grow your business in 2020, then you should be making New Year’s resolutions for your business, not just yourself. 

    I’m not talking about lofty goals with desired results set haphazardly. I’m talking about real resolutions. While resolutions are often derived from goals, the two are not the same. A goal is the object of one’s ambition, an aim, or desired result, whereas a resolution is a firm decision to do or not to do something. This year ditch the dusty goals you know you’ll abandon by mid-March and instead revolutionize your resolution by committing your company to a decision and taking immediate action. By making resolutions for your organization (and following through with them) you are deciding to better your business. 

    Decisions are made with intent and often with a strategy to deploy them. You should set your resolutions in the same way. They should be both intentional and SMART: specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and timely. 

    When you set your business resolutions for 2020, there are two important statements to keep in mind: your mission and vision statements. Your business’s mission statement defines your organization. It is the reason for its existence; thus, it should be the driving force behind everything your company does. Your business’s vision statement describes where your business aspires to be. It serves as the guide for choosing courses of action. Both your mission and vision statements are vital to the development of your organization and should be considered when making New Year’s resolutions for your business. 

    Maintaining that your resolutions should be SMART and should consider your mission and vision statements, here are a few ideas to get you started on revolutionizing your resolutions in 2020.  

Invest in Your Employees 

    This year resolve to invest in your company’s most valuable asset, your staff. By investing in your employees, you make your staff part of the long-term growth for your organization. Business resolutions with a focus on employees through areas such as communication, training, development and recognition, can have a significant impact on productivity and office culture.   

Inspire Loyalty 

    Now, depending on your business or industry, this category can vary but whether it’s your customers, members, or clients, maintaining healthy relationships with your consumer basis is vital for growth. In 2020, set a resolution with your customers, members, or clients at the center of your decision. Consider improving customer service or enhancing retention rates. Your resolution in this area should focus on inspiring loyalty.  

It Starts with You 

    If you want to incite change in your work world, recognize that it first starts with you. Become an example of the change you want to see in your workspace. Your action will inspire others to do the same. 

Change is kindled by a decision. No matter what you resolve to do in 2020, setting SMART goals will prevent you from giving up on your New Year’s resolution in the first quarter and considering your mission and vision statements will propel your business forward. SMART goals with a foundation of your mission and vision statements will help you to achieve your resolutions for a more prosperous year.