OPINION | COVID-19: Lessons for business owners from the Calgary flood

Some tips for employing what we learned in the flood and subsequent disasters to help your businesses recover again.

If the flood of 2013 taught us anything, it's that there is hope

An aerial view of the Calgary flood of 2013. While difficulties reputably make us strong, they also make us irritable and unpredictable. (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press)

This column is an opinion from Scott Crockatt, the vice president of the Business Council of Alberta.

When the flood hit Alberta in 2013, it forced more than 7,000 area businesses to close, it ruined millions in inventory and property, and it sucked hard-earned revenue down the sewer.

The history of similar disasters around the world painted a very scary picture for those small businesses. Statistics out of the United States told us to expect that 40 per cent wouldn't survive.

To people watching the disaster unfurl in southern Alberta, that wasn't acceptable.

I was fortunate enough to be part of a task force consisting of more than a dozen community organizations that was tasked with turning that around. I talked to second-hand clothing stores, stamp makers and art galleries.

They told me heart-wrenching stories of the love, sweat and tears they had poured into their businesses for years. It was crushing to see them on the brink of failure.

In the past two weeks, we've been hearing eerily similar stories of business owners unsure what to do or whether their businesses can survive. I'm here to say that the lessons we learned in the flood and subsequent disasters can help your businesses recover again.

If you are one of those business owners, there is hope, and this is for you.

Right at the start, there are three calls every small business should make: to your banker, to your landlord and to your insurance company.

I'll break down each.

Your banker

  • Know that your bank wants to help you. They have been given specific tools and direction from the government to help you. Every banker I have talked to says they desperately want your call. They want to use every tool in their toolbox to help your business stay in business. Do it. It will go much better than you think.

Your landlord

  • After wages, rent is often the second largest cost a business faces. Your landlord wants to hear from you too. It's to your landlord's advantage to give you a couple months of free or deferred rent. That's a small cost in comparison to having a vacancy in this market. I hear from landlords that too often they get the call too late — only after the closed sign has gone up.

Your insurance company

  • I'll admit, when I ran a small business, the first and last time I looked at our corporate insurance was the day we bought it. Dust off your policy and call your insurance company. You may be eligible for compensation for some of your losses, especially if you have business disruption insurance.

It may not be a flood, but the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic could be just as devastating to Calgary business owners. But there is hope. In the floods, a 40 per cent expected business failure rate was reduced to one per cent. (Jim Brown/CBC)

Next, I want to focus on mental health.

What we learned was that for business owners, taking care of their mental health was the last thing they worried about, but was the first prerequisite to being ready to do the tough things they needed to keep their businesses alive.

It's okay to feel sad, desperate or angry. This crisis was unexpected, and it isn't your fault. If tackling those three calls above feels like a Herculean task, talk to a counsellor. It's okay not to be okay.

Government help

Now, let's talk about the government programs that have been lighting up your screens for the past week.

If you are lost in the sea of announcements, you are not alone. Every day seems to bring a new announcement or plan.

Most small and medium sized businesses don't spend a lot of time thinking about the government. For most entrepreneurs here are the three I'd suggest looking at:

  • Wage subsidy – On Friday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced a wage subsidy of 75 per cent for employees you are able to keep on. This may help you keep more staff working, bring others back, and return to business more quickly. Also, for the first time, you as the business owner qualify for employment insurance. If you need it, apply for it, even if you never expected to use EI. 

  • Emergency credit – A new Canada Emergency Business Account benefit has just been announced that will provide loans of up to $40,000, interest-free, for a year. Details are still coming out about how to access that.

  • Delay payments – You can now delay a host of payments, including your corporate taxes, GST, utilities and WCB payments. This can help you keep some working capital around to make it though this time.

Lastly, every business should be asking themselves, "How can I pivot my business model?"

I've seen breweries making hand sanitizer, photographers doing portraits from the street, gyms doing virtual classes or renting out their equipment for home use, and online conferences, courses, concerts and jam sessions.

There is hope. In the floods, that 40 per cent expected business failure rate was reduced to one per cent.

You have a great business. Get to work on it.

This column is an opinion. For more information about our commentary section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.


Scott Crockatt is vice president of the Business Council of Alberta. He was formerly a lead on the Calgary Business Recovery Task Force.


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