Weathering the Storm: Small Businesses Navigate Uncertainty
Small businesses are growing in Connecticut.
Over 92,000 people applied to start businesses in the state in recent years—a 59% increase over pre-2021 averages.
“Small businesses are the heart and soul of Connecticut’s economy,” said CBIA president and CEO Chris DiPentima during the National Small Business Week SBA Awards & Resource Expo at Rentschler Field May 4.
DiPentima called the state’s 360,000 small businesses and their 741,000 employees “the central fabric of our communities across our great state.”
However, surviving and thriving as a small business in Connecticut isn’t easy in an uncertain economy.
From finding quality talent to dealing with taxes and rising healthcare costs, there are no shortage of challenges for small businesses.
A panel of small business leaders from around the state discussed best practices and solutions for navigating these challenges at the May 4 event.
“If there’s one group of individuals that certainly have the drive to weather some storms, it is our agile and nimble and gritty small businesses here in the state of Connecticut,” said Jessica Dodge, Connecticut Wealth Management director of momentum for business owners.
Dodge moderated a discussion between Susan King, senior vice president of client services for IQ Telcom, Leading Edge Construction owner Todd Lessard, and Bead Industries CEO Jill Mayer.
With 104,000 job openings in the state, and a labor pool that can only address 72% of those positions, the workforce shortage remains a major challenge for small businesses.
The panelists shared a range of creative approaches they used to fill open positions.
King said that during the pandemic, IQ Telcom began to look outside the state for remote workers to fill jobs.
“Previously, we had people in the state, but it’s a very specific skill set,” King said. “So when we were able to expand our search we got a much bigger pool.”
“We’re trying anything and everything,” added Mayer. “Something that’s worked well for us has been partnering with both local technical schools, but also local universities.
“A lot of it is about hiring for attitude now and then training on the skills.”
Lessard said that as a newer company, finding success in hiring came with realizing that they needed to have a foundation of experienced workers.
“We invested in much higher value workers and project managers and that’s kind of how we’ve seen success,” he said.
“And then with those talented and experienced people, we pair them with the younger guys and try and get them to buy into the culture, and understand projects, and how to treat customers.”
Another major challenge for small businesses is providing benefits for employees.
And that includes trying to compete with larger companies when it comes to benefit packages.
Lessard said that when he started his company, they knew they wanted to provide employees with healthcare coverage, but struggled to find a package that fit the size of their workforce.
Because they didn’t have enough workers, they couldn’t enroll in the plan they wanted.
“So we got a little creative,” he said. “We just tell people that need the insurance, ‘You guys go out to the exchange and we’ll help you supplement that cost.’”
‘Babies at Work’
At Bead Industries, Mayer said they went beyond traditional medical benefits, particularly for new parents.
“We knew that the transition back after maternity was really tricky,” she said.
“So we started a babies at work policy where the first couple of months after maternity they could bring their babies in.”
That included private space for nursing, or a nap for the baby, even designating a babysitter if an employee needed to take a call or meeting.
“You’d be surprised at how uplifting that was in the workplace. It really just showed the camaraderie and the family,” she said.
Cost of Doing Business
Another key challenge—the high cost of running a business in Connecticut, the eight costliest state for businesses according to CNBC’s 2022 America’s Top States for Business.
Panelists discussed reducing taxes and expanding access to the state’s research and development tax credit as ways to help small businesses grow.
“Small businesses want to innovate, and you can’t do that without an R&D budget,” said Mayer.
“It just seems like it’s something that there should be access to.”
“If we want to keep the innovation here in Connecticut, it’s something we have to utilize and incentivize,” added Lessard.
For these small business leaders, success isn’t just about the bottom line, or finding and hiring talent.
They panelists emphasized creating a positive culture to support and develop employees and grow their businesses.
“For us, really elevating the level of accountability in the organization was how we keep people because the one thing you don’t want to do is pull more than your weight,” said Mayer.
King stressed that it’s important to support employees and to give them a sense of ownership.
“I started to let go and give people their own sort of power to make decisions and to run their teams,” she said.
“They really just took off and did it as we all know that they should or they would, and I think just supporting them in the backfield was really the best decision I could make.”
The panel agreed that building morale and communicating with the team is critical, especially in the wake of the pandemic.
“Just making sure that they were okay, their families were okay, and just asking them every now and then I think really goes a long way,” said King.
“Feedback is important,” added Dodge. “Having that space to communicate is essential.”
“It continues to keep the trains running on time, but also allows some space for creativity because we can’t be in all places at all times,” she said.
Mayer said that focus on the team and culture helped the business through the so-called silver tsunami of retirements.
“I believe that the fact that we could go through that and still be growing and still be thriving makes me very proud because it means that what they left behind stuck,” she said.
“We still have our deep set principles and our core values that carry through the generations.”
Adapting and Growing
Everyone agreed that it’s important to adapt as leaders as circumstances change.
“I’m at the point where I plan to be but it took a few years and it took sort of outside push from somebody to say ‘Hey, what do you want to do?’” said King.
“You kind of have to naturally grow with where the business wants to take you,” added Lessard.
“Trying to feel and understand that is hard. You grow yourself as a person and you gotta have that confidence that you can do it.
“And yeah, it’s a journey for sure.”
The National Small Business Week SBA Awards & Resource Expo was produced by CBIA and the Connecticut District SBA and made possible by Liberty Bank, J.P. Morgan Chase, and Connecticut Wealth Management, with additional support from Live Oak Bank, BDC Capital/CDC New England, Savings Bank of Danbury, M&T Bank, Comcast, Berkshire Bank, and Webster Bank.
EXPLORE BY CATEGORY
Stay Connected with CBIA News Digests
The latest news and information delivered directly to your inbox.