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Amber Smith’s husband showed up at the door one day with keys to a new auto shop in hand. They’d talked before about the idea of owning their own auto mechanic shop and now he’d found the perfect space. They signed the lease and jumped at the opportunity.

But Smith wondered what she could add to the business, given that she knew nothing about cars. At first she helped with bookkeeping and administration. But with her outgoing personality, it wasn’t long before Smith was out in the community making sure everyone in the small town of Bradford, Ont., knew the Drive True name. Her networking, philanthropy and community involvement has paid dividends.

“I do believe the biggest thing is putting yourself out there,” says Smith. “I didn’t even realize that this was a valuable part of the business necessarily. It was just something I was good at.”

During the COVID-19 pandemic, that name recognition has meant that their business has survived and thrived. Jeff Halpern, Business Success Planner, TD Wealth, and Eric Partee, Account Manager, Small Business, TD, offer their own considerations towards growing a successful and resilient business.

1) Create breathing room

Having cash on hand, or access to working capital, may help increase the resiliency of any business. This can be achieved by setting money aside (e.g., a business savings account), or depending on a person’s financial situation, having a line of credit linked to your business account. “By considering this option ahead of time, you can ensure additional funds will be available if or when you need to rely on them,” says Partee. Also try to avoid having a surplus of inventory on hand: Only order what you need.

2) Develop a long-term business plan

“Take the time to map out a few strategies to grow the business,” says Halpern. “Consider how you will acquire more customers, whether that means hiring more staff, expanding locations or adding new products.” To increase the value of your business, Halpern suggests building a strong middle management team. Having a proficient team in place can actually positively affect the dollar value of a business, and can make it more saleable when the time comes for a business transition.

3) Build strong relationships with your suppliers

Developing a good working relationship with your suppliers can reap rewards during periods of both boom and bust. “During tough times, businesses may be able to renegotiate favourable terms with their suppliers based on the good relationships they have previously developed,” says Partee. Extended payment terms have helped businesses avoid running into a cash crunch by having to pay their suppliers before they receive payment. On the other hand, during good times, strong relationships may prove beneficial as well for special requests, like rushing a shipment.

| Denise O’Connell

It took 14 years of school for Dr. René Caissie to earn his medical degree, but he admits now that he wishes he had stayed a little longer to learn the business side of things.

“If I could go back in time, I would say ‘let’s go back for another year or two to get an MBA,'” he says.

A business degree certainly could have better prepared him to navigate the medical device industry he was launched into when he began creating his own reusable masks at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Back then, he wasn’t thinking about starting a business — he just wanted to help his frontline colleagues who were dealing with a frightening shortage of personal protective equipment.

Months later, Dr. Caissie is now the CEO of Dorma Filtration, the company he founded to manufacture his own line of injection-molded, Canadian-made, reusable masks for healthcare providers.

If you are just starting a business, like Dr. Caissie, you may not have the time or resources for an MBA to gain your business know-how. Annie Boivin, a Tax and Estate Planner at TD Wealth, and Eric Partee, Account Manager, Small Business at TD, offer these helpful ideas for entrepreneurs who want to improve their business acumen:

1) Assemble a solid team

“To support your project, to help grow your business, and to help you realize success, it can help to have a panel of qualified financial and business professionals,” says Boivin. Most businesses need financing, accounting help and good tax advice, and having a good team may help you become profitable faster and keep more of your money at tax time. “Find your trusted advisors and make sure they have an extensive overview of your entire situation,” says Boivin. And, she says, don’t forget to ask lots of questions and seek out information as much as possible.

2) Research your industry

Understanding the industry you’re operating in is one of the most important things you can do as a business owner, and there are many free resources online that detail economic outlooks and trends across different businesses. “Knowing where your industry is headed when it comes to new developments or technology enhancements will help prevent your business from becoming outdated and left behind,” says Partee. He also recommends paying close attention to your competition, their strengths and, just as importantly, where they may be falling behind. This can help a business owner to identify the niche that their business fits into, and potentially uncover an under-served client base.

3) Continue your education

You don’t need a MBA but many community or local organizations offer affordable introductory business classes outside of regular business hours. Gaining a working knowledge of basic business principles (e.g. accounting, human resources, leadership) may pay dividends over the long term. “Having a basic knowledge of accounting, for example, will enable you to better converse with your accountant,” says Partee. “It would enable you to ask relevant questions and better strategize your business growth.”

4) Grow your network

Formal and informal networking can be a boon to any new business owner and many business associations exist across the country where you can meet fellow business owners and entrepreneurs. “These associations can be a source of knowledge where a new business owner may glean advice from those who have already been there,” says Partee. He adds that you may also work your networks for referrals to trustworthy professionals, such as accountants and lawyers, which your business may require.

5) Plan and Protect

Starting a business comes with a lot of blood, sweat and tears. It can be important to plan for the possibility of downturns, as well as a time when you may be unable to run the business. “Putting partnership agreements in place, making business contingency plans, revising your personal estate plan and having powers of attorney can be done early on in a business,” says Boivin. “If you don’t have these in place when the time comes, your hard work could go down the drain.” Again, good advisors can help you to determine what you need. Keep in mind that this planning is fluid and can change, so ensuring you update these plans on a regular basis is also important.

You don’t need a business degree to start a business. You need to ask questions, be surrounded by professionals in different areas and hopefully you can learn from them in the process.

– Denise O’Connell, MoneyTalk Life

This isn’t the story that Mandy and Rebecca Wolfe intended to tell. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, the sister team behind Mandy’s Gourmet Salads were in the middle of plans for an ambitious national expansion for their Montreal restaurant chain. When they returned from a short family vacation to find the economy shutting down and their business facing an indefinite period of uncertainty, they had no choice but to act fast.

“We came back to a very new world, where everything was slowly shutting down due to COVID-19,” says Mandy Wolfe. “There was a definite level of disbelief, and we were also panicked, and scared.”

With a robust take-out and delivery service already in place, the sisters quickly closed restaurant eating areas for the safety of customers and put plans in place to keep staff safe, morale high and revenue coming in. They introduced a grocery and meal-kit delivery service to help feed busy families; delivered food to newly-settled refugee families with their charity, the Welcome Collective; and Mandy and Rebecca themselves made sure that three days a week they delivered meals to front-line workers at Montreal’s hospitals and long-term care facilities.

After a few months of uncertainty, the Wolfe sisters say the business is in recovery mode, and they hope they’ve made it through the worst of it. Chris Gandhu, a High Net Worth Planner at TD Wealth, and Eric Partee, Account Manager, Small Business Banking at TD Canada Trust, offer some ideas for business owners to consider as they look to move forward in an uncertain economy:

1) Get creative

Just as Mandy’s moved into grocery delivery and pre-packaged meal kits, companies may be able to rework their product or service offerings to meet a new need. “We’ve heard the stories about breweries and distilleries that have recognized the need for hand sanitizer,” says Partee. “By adapting their product line to include specially-produced hand sanitizer, it allows them to maintain a revenue stream and keep staff employed.”

2) Tell your story

Businesses that have bounced back often have a strong social media presence which they use to let their clients know they are open for business and what safety measures they are taking. This is something the Wolfe sisters made sure to do with Mandy’s. “You may be able to attract a larger client base by providing reassurance and transparency over businesses whose social media presence is lacking,” says Partee.

3) Keep tight budgets

Even though access to wage subsidies, grants and interest-free loans can make it tempting to spend on the business, cash is king, says Gandhu. “Right now, it’s a good idea to really question all your expenses. This may be the time to renegotiate contracts with suppliers, cut unnecessary costs, and maybe choose to do things yourself rather than outsourcing.”

4) Recognize timely opportunities

“This may be a good time to capitalize on the downturn to buy out competitors, or pick up equipment at a discount due to other businesses liquidating,” says Gandhu. “Companies that do this may be positioning themselves for expansion at a discount for when things recover.”

Gandhu also says to maintain close ties with your bank, your business advisors and accountants. They may be able to help you by find cash flow if you need it, and assist you in creating a plan to help you get back on track.

Denise O’Connell, MoneyTalk Life