Like many others, when the severity and scope of the COVID-19 pandemic began to sink in several weeks ago and businesses throughout New Hampshire and the country began to shut down or significantly alter their mode of operation, Michelline Dufort’s initial reaction was dread.
“As we were talking to members about the severity of what they were facing, it felt almost paralyzing,” say Dufort, director of the Center for Family Enterprise at the University of New Hampshire Peter T. Paul College of Business and Economics. “So many member businesses were asking us, ‘Can you help us figure out what to do?’ They were looking for resources, looking for someone to listen, looking for ideas.”
Dufort realized that the Center for Family Enterprise (CFE) – which has been working with businesses for 25 years – was uniquely positioned to provide precisely what New Hampshire businesses needed in that moment: an empathetic ear and actionable recommendations.
Another of Paul College’s outreach centers, the New Hampshire Small Business Development Center (SBDC), was similarly equipped to provide assistance, and has already worked with more than 1,300 people in the business community since the pandemic hit, providing individualized advising and other resources specific to staying on course through the crisis.
“One of our strengths is the highly individualized advising we provide.”
Those efforts will continue to expand, too, thanks in part to the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. Congress has allotted $192 million for the national SBDC network, and with an expected $1.28 million for New Hampshire’s SBDC, the center will be able to build capacity, increase staff and extend additional outreach efforts.
“I am very proud of the excellent work Paul College’s two outreach centers are doing to provide advisory support and guidance to small and medium-sized businesses in New Hampshire,” says Paul College Dean Deborah Merrill-Sands. “This is an incredibly challenging time for business owners as they navigate the impact of COVID-19. The work of our outreach centers is one of the critical ways in which the university and Paul College are supporting the state’s business community and economy through this unprecedented crisis.”
Both organizations plunged immediately into the fray, altering existing successful models to fit the rapidly changing needs of their members and clients.
The SBDC has been advising businesses for more than 30 years (it has supported more than 100,000 New Hampshire businesses in that time and, according to a Paul College economist, delivers an annual economic impact to the state of $147 million), so the connection to the state was already deep.
The organization quickly created a “COVID-19 Assistance” page on its website – it’s seen more than 10,000 page views since it launched three weeks ago – that points toward specific resources around topics like the Small Business Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, New Hampshire unemployment and SBA loan deferments. It also shifted all in-person client meetings to Zoom and has since begun to offer online training and webinars related to COVID-19, including upcoming sessions on the PPP, cash flow analysis and industry-specific deep-dives in hard-hit areas like retail, professional services, manufacturing and restaurants.
While the mode of delivery has changed through the crisis, the organization’s ethos has not – focused, one-on-one attention remains the hallmark.
“One of our strengths is the highly individualized advising we provide,” says Liz Gray, state director of the New Hampshire SBDC. “We don’t just note programs businesses can apply for, we introduce all the options and say ‘let’s look at all of the pros and cons of each of these programs to make sure you are choosing the right one for you now. We’re unique in what we are able to provide to New Hampshire businesses.”
The Center for Family Enterprise similarly offers distinctive support, with a comparable personal touch. Traditionally, the main focus of the CFE is to provide numerous resources for family businesses – including help navigating generational transfer and transitional ownership – and it is also home to a CEO forum that, in part, brings business leaders together in focused peer groups to discuss issues across industries.
Those meetings have moved to Zoom, as well, and have proven to be a valued support system for those involved. Participating businesses have shifted gears from talk of typical operational matters to robust discussion on dealing with the pandemic (including how to apply for and implement the CARES act), creating something of a group therapy session for business leaders working through similar challenges.
The CFE currently hosts five such groups, with nine to 12 members in each (none of the groups feature two participants from the same industry, in order to promote comfortable and open dialogue). Dufort has watched as industry boundaries melt away in favor of business leaders rallying to help each other unconditionally during a time of need.
“It’s almost magical that they are helping each other and being there for each other across industries,” says Dufort. “It’s absolutely the most amazing thing to sit back and watch. I feel very honored that we can be here to help facilitate that.”
The CFE is also facilitating weekly webinars, leaning on resource partners and sponsors – the organization is funded by member support and corporate sponsorships – to provide in-depth discussions led by experts in legal, financial and other industries. The CFE also created a COVID-19 Family Business Resource guide on its website, with insight from CPAs, lawyers, financial advisors and charitable foundations, among others.
Volume is up significantly for both the SBDC and CFE during the pandemic, and it’s been exhilarating to be able to stay in front of that and provide such widespread assistance, Dufort and Gray say. With UNH support, the SBDC was recently able to add three new advisors to keep pace, and may do so again in the near future.
“That illustrates how we are nimble and responsive, that we’re not just waiting to see what happens,” Gray said. “UNH’s support helps ensure that we are able to do our job as quickly and effectively as possible, and that is tremendous.”