Business

Survival of the fittest: Entrepreneurs improvise in bid to save companies during COVID crisis

Canadian entrepreneurs are brainstorming new ways to generate revenue to survive the pandemic. Some have repurposed inventory and even staff while others are launching entire new ventures and products.

Pandemic crushes many businesses, presents opportunities for others

Diana House, left, and Melissa McInerney of Go Fog It, a disinfecting service based in London, Ont. House said the pandemic has made her usual business of developing commercial real estate too risky, so she switched her focus. (Submitted by Diana House)

Amid the economic destruction wreaked by the COVID-19 pandemic, some Canadian entrepreneurs are switching gears to find new opportunities.

"It's been crazy, I'm not gonna lie," said Diana House of London, Ont., a commercial real estate developer who's been working long days to launch Go Fog It, a new disinfecting service. "It's been hard, and it's still hard."

In Moncton, N.B., Luc Jalbert saw sales plummet for his bathroom deodorizer product, so he decided to launch a series of new products, including a portable, low-suds "Soap on the Go," based on a recipe dating back to the bubonic plague of the 14th century.

"We would be in a pickle if it wasn't for us pivoting," he said.

Countless business owners have suffered devastating losses during the pandemic, but many are intent on making it through by generating revenue in a new way. They're motivated not only to save their companies from bankruptcy but to save their employees' jobs.

Here are some of their stories.

COVID Safety Ambassadors

Sheila Wong of Toronto has run BBW International, one of Canada's largest event staffing agencies, for 30 years. The company typically services 1,200 events a year in nine of Canada's biggest cities, but business fell to zero when conferences were cancelled due to the pandemic.

"I had about two or three weeks of mourning, feeling sorry for myself," Wong said. She told her husband it was the first time in her career she had no idea what to do.

"He said just have a good cry," she said. "So I did, and two hours later I called my business partner and I said here's the deal: You figure out how to stretch the dollars to keep us afloat, I'll figure out where the money comes from."

Her idea? Train BBW's team of about 1,500 part-time workers who run registration desks and box offices, and answer questions at large events, to instead work as COVID safety ambassadors for office buildings. Wong has even trademarked the name.

Sandra Beckles has worked at events for BBW International in Toronto for 10 years. Now she's looking forward to being one of the company's COVID safety ambassadors, helping to manage traffic in office buildings. (Submitted by BBW International)

"What we'll do is monitor the flow of people coming into work," Wong said. "Help with the elevators, manage the lineups. We're also planning to consult with the buildings on crowd control, so that people can stay a safe distance apart."

She said her teams will also "de-escalate explosive situations," noting that there have been numerous reports on social media about people getting angry as they wait in line, perhaps feeling their rights are being infringed — not wanting to wear a mask or simply becoming impatient.

"We hire for personality, people who have a high social IQ," Wong said. "Like any kind of customer service job, it takes a certain type of personality." Her company's training portal will give staff language and strategies to keep people safe and calm, she said, adding that many of her staff are eager for new, full-time work.

Wong said she's had good luck getting through to potential clients on the phone to pitch her new service. "There are no gatekeepers at the offices. They're all working from home," she said.

Although she'd hoped retail malls would sign on for the service, so far she's had no bites. But Wong said she's in the final stages of signing deals with two large national property management companies to have her ambassadors work in their office buildings.

Go Fog It

Diana House has a passion for real estate. The company she runs with her husband, Fast Forward Ventures, specializes in private mortgages for residential real estate, plus invests and develops commercial real estate.

COVID-19 hit them hard.

"We had to kill multiple developments that no longer fit our risk profile, due to the uncertainty of the real estate market," House said. "It's too high risk to take on new real estate projects that have commercial rents, because whether people are paying rent now is a very debatable thing."

Her brainwave for a new business venture came as she began to volunteer at local London hospitals to help source personal protective equipment. She also spoke with a "crisis expert" in Toronto about possibilities for her business.

"He said to me you need to start disinfectant fogging and you need to do it now," House said. "I was 'OK, I don't even know what this is.'"

But she found out quickly, partnering with Melissa McInerney, the CEO of London marketing agency TBK Creative, to found Go Fog It. They purchased 180 fogging devices and a large supply of Bioesque, a disinfectant on Health Canada's list of "Disinfectants for Use Against SARS-CoV-2 (COVID-19)."

An employee of Go Fog It in London, Ont., disinfects the bar area of a restaurant. (Submitted by Go Fog It)

"We do disinfectant fogging for everything from residential, medical, office, chiropractic, manufacturing," House said. Go Fog It also works with operations such as daycares and gyms that need more regular disinfecting and may opt to purchase their own equipment. "So for them, we do consulting, strategic supply and training," she said.

The cost of the service ranges from $500 for a residence to $10,000 for a large manufacturing facility. House said the service has billed "six figures" at its London location, and has licensed the Go Fog It business model to entrepreneurs in Windsor and Midland, Ont.

"We've had about 150 licence requests from all around the world, and we're literally talking to people from Qatar to Jamaica," House said. "Getting into the disinfecting space was a way to tap into my passion for real estate and how I can make it safe again."

Doubling revenue amid the pandemic

Luc Jalbert of Moncton made his name with Just'a Drop, a "toilet odour eliminator" carried at large retailers across Canada and in markets around the world. He's not sure why, but sales of the product dropped by 50 per cent once the pandemic hit.

"At Walmart and Shoppers and Jean Coutu and all the retailers, customers just picked up their toilet paper, their basic essential items, and they didn't pick up their Just'a Drop," he said.

With revenue falling, Jalbert started to look for new opportunities for his company, Prelam Enterprises. He and his two company chemists began researching plagues and pandemics, and discovered a recipe for a mixture of essential oils of eucalyptus, rosemary, cinnamon, cloves and citrus that was used during the bubonic plague in the 14th century.

"We researched all those ingredients and found they're very beneficial," Jalbert said. "I wanted a small, portable bottle of a low-suds soap that I could take with me, so if I get out of a store I can wash my hands with a bottle of water in the car."

He branded the product Soap on the Go, and started selling it early in the pandemic, when shoppers couldn't find hand sanitizer on store shelves.

But Jalbert also put his chemists to work on a modern recipe for hand sanitizer made with benzalkonium chloride that was approved by Health Canada.

"Health Canada basically looks at everything, your chemistry, all the instructions on your label," he said. "It all has to be approved."

Luc Jalbert, in his Moncton, N.B., factory, switched from making a bathroom deodorizer to selling hand sanitizer, and he has other COVID-related products planned. (Submitted by Luc Jalbert)

That product, EZ Pur, now accounts for 70 per cent of his sales, which have hit new heights since the pandemic began. Jalbert has doubled his team of eight employees to 16.

"If I didn't pivot, I would have had to lay off people and the company would be in trouble," he said. "Now if I look at my general revenues, we're more than double."

Next on his list: toilet seat sanitizer and a surface disinfectant for businesses to use.

"Consumers will want to feel safe for the next year or two from now, so people will be involved in sanitizing and disinfecting anything they touch," Jalbert said.

Not everyone's new business is booming

In Richmond, B.C., David Hay is the director of sales for Levy Show Services, a company that does exhibit design and installation for trade shows. It also provides "display solutions" such as signs, AV equipment, drapery and floral arrangements.

But just like Sheila Wong at BBW International, Hay said virtually everyone in the event business has been devastated.

"It's pretty much across the board in our industry," he said. "A 100 per cent loss, right from the day of the announcement of the government that large gatherings couldn't happen."

The company employs 30 office staff and during peak trade show season has as many as 100 working on location at various sites. Now, he said, just five or six members of the team have work.

An artist's illustration of how some Levy Show Services inventory could be reconfigured to create distancing barriers. (Submitted by Levy Show Services)

But Hay said the company intends to survive. "We are doing shielding and screening and safety items," he said. "We are getting some traction with some restaurants, and we're looking at offices now."

Levy Show Services has a large inventory of acrylic panels or fabric panels on hand, which Hay said can quickly be reconfigured to create shields around desks, cash registers and reception areas. "A lot of the time, people don't want a complete bubble, but they want some form of safety," he said.

Despite seeing some success, Hay said the company will be in a tough spot for as long as the pandemic lasts. Many in the event industry don't expect conferences to resume until 2021.

"I don't think this new venture will ever come close to what we had before," he said. "We need to be finding ways to get back to business."

About the Author

Dianne Buckner has reported on entrepreneurs for two decades. She hosts Dragons' Den on CBC Television and is part of the business news team at CBC News Network.

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