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Hindsight: The Ups And Downs Of A Small Business Owner During The Pandemic

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NHPR is checking back in with Granite Staters to see how they're holding up as 2020 comes to a close. It's part of a series we're calling Hindsight.

Sharon Eng is the owner of a manufacturing company in Belmont that makes electrical components. NHPR hasfeatured her in a few stories this year while reporting on all the ups and downs of being a small business owner during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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Morning Edition host Rick Ganley called Eng to talk more about what she's learned this year.

Rick Ganley: At one point you had to shut down your manufacturing company, I understand, and go on unemployment. But now you're back up and running. How are things going now?

Sharon Eng: Well, we are back to operating 40 hours a week, which is good. Our sales are still off from the same kind of pace they were a year ago at this time. But we feel like we're gradually recovering.

Rick Ganley: How long were you shut down for?

Sharon Eng: We were shut down completely for about a month. And then it took us about another three months to be able to get up to full time.

Rick Ganley: State restrictions and general recommendations here have evolved since March, as you know. Have the challenges of running your business changed since the beginning of the pandemic?

Sharon Eng: Well, anybody who's running a small business just wants to know what the conditions are that you're going to operate under, and COVID changes everything that way. On a micro level, I need to make sure that my employees are staying well. So I need to have more regular contact with them about here's what the CDC is saying. These are our guidelines. Here's how we need to behave. This is how you need to behave outside of work. Then providing protective equipment like masks, making sure that we're keeping surfaces as clean as possible, making sure that hand washing is going on.

I'm not in control of what they do outside of work. So whatever they do, I'm exposed to, too. So I worry about them getting sick and being able to continue running the business smoothly. Luckily, none of our employees have gotten sick so far. Touch wood. But on a more macro level, the virus affects the operation of the economy in general, and that's something that I can't control. So it's like dancing on the edge of a knife blade. Things can be great one moment and they can be terrible the next. And you just never know when the cliff is coming.

Rick Ganley: Are you confident that you can keep the doors open through the winter?

Sharon Eng: Well, you can never say anything with 100 percent confidence, but I know that I run the business with a conservative outlook. I always think of the worst thing that could happen. And if I can manage the worst case scenario, then I can manage anything else that comes. I'm ready for it. So what I just keep emphasizing to our employees is the need to stay healthy. And we'll run higher inventories than we usually would just in case somebody gets sick. We're doing more cross training to make sure people can do other jobs if they have to. But I am afraid of what happens with so much COVID in the community. I watch the statistics every day.

Rick Ganley: What about federal or state aid? How important has that been and are you looking for more?

Sharon Eng: So, I think that a lot of the aid that came out was really good. The best thing, I think, that the government did was the supplementary payments for unemployment, because that made sure that my employees would come back to me when we were able to open up again, because they knew that they didn't lose their jobs because of anything that they did or that I had done to run the business badly. It was a situation that was beyond our control. And because they could pay their bills, they could wait until things improved to come back to work.

Because if I had lost all of my employees while we were furloughed, I wouldn't have been able to start back up again so easily. The PPP monies, and the Main Street grants and the EIDL that came from the Small Business Administration have been really important in shoring up our business and making sure that we could get through when there's a cash flow crunch. I'm not looking personally for more money from the government. If we can keep business at the state that it is right now, we're okay.

Rick Ganley: What have you learned most about yourself, or about your business, about your employees through all this?

Sharon Eng: My employees will talk about that it's like being in a family here. Hard times can either make you pull apart or they can make you come back together. And employees with children -- I'm really glad my kids are not school age anymore, because managing through this pandemic is difficult for families. And to have to come to work every day and to manage your children learning remotely is a big challenge, but I think the value of working together in a positive way has really come through all of this.

For many radio listeners throughout New Hampshire, Rick Ganley is the first voice they hear each weekday morning, bringing them up to speed on news developments overnight and starting their day off with the latest information.
Mary McIntyre is a senior producer at NHPR.
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