There’s hardly a small company left unshaken by Gov. Tim Walz’s stay-at-home order, which shut down all nonessential workplaces. Even well-established and successful small businesses work over a very small net, with narrow profit margins and limited cash and emergency funds on hand.

We looked to three employers on the Top Workplaces small companies list for some key strategies they have adopted to pivot, adapt and stabilize operations, while positioning themselves to move ahead.

Giving back to its industry

JT Mega is an ad agency that works with food and beverage clients. Its 69 employees were abruptly sent home with Walz’s order. They continued to work on campaigns for some of Minnesota’s most well-known food brands, as well as for food-service suppliers.

In April, the St. Louis Park-based agency created Turn the Tables Minnesota (turnthetablesmn.com), a website and social media campaign with the #letstakeouttogether hashtag. It features lists and maps of local restaurants that have kept cooking, along with photographs of their drool-inducing menu items.

The site encourages patrons to support the eateries by choosing curbside delivery and takeout rather than third-party delivery services.

“Ordering directly from local restaurants means that they don’t have to give a sizable cut to the Grubhubs and DoorDashes, which really limits their profits,” said JT Mega president/co-owner Phil Lee.

“This came from us; no one asked us to do it. We were thinking about how we could leverage our expertise to help our clients now, when they’re in this tough environment. We have the talent to pull it off and we needed to do this for the industry we love. They are our bread and butter.”

JT Mega ate the cost of the campaign and paid for digital and radio advertising. The agency also enlisted ­restaurants in the promotion, handing out window clings and information packets.

“It’s been fun rallying support and seeing diners post pictures of their takeout dinners on social media, from a high-end Mother’s Day feast to taco night,” Lee said. “Turn the Tables is getting positive reactions.

“Advertising is an ego-driven business but we try to be team-oriented. One of our mottoes has always been, when our clients do well, we do well.”

Investing in the workforce

Award Staffing is practicing what it preaches. Even as its business has contracted, managers have invested in personnel changes and additions.

With six Twin Cities offices, Award Staffing screens and places temporary and permanent workers in industrial, manufacturing, clerical and technical jobs. Until the coronavirus brought business to a halt, the team of 53 recruiters and salespeople were scrambling to find enough workers in an era of record low unemployment.

The agency predicts that need will resume as businesses reopen.

“Right now there’s a flood of talent that is available and looking for their next opportunity. Some key people have been furloughed,” said Derek Freese, director of sales and marketing.

“As we climb out of this and scale back up, we predict everyone is going to be back in the search for qualified individuals. Businesses looking to upgrade their teams should make the commitment and do it now.”

While their operations slowed to a crawl, Award Staffing polled 317 companies on their expectations for the post-pandemic business climate. Two-thirds anticipated it would take at least six months to return to normal.

“Right now, everyone in every business is working twice as hard for half as much. It’s a time when companies see who is stepping up and should maybe say goodbye to some who aren’t. We’re doing that internally so when our business increases we will have solid people trained and ready to go,” Freese said.

“We saw this in the 2008 recession: A lot of good recruiters were laid off, and we snapped them up.”

Building on its strengths

At New Directions, which provides housing and services for people with intellectual disabilities, the job of managing changes driven by the pandemic has fallen on 30-year-old CEO Ross Kigner.

Although Kigner is just two years into his top leadership role, he’s had a lifetime to prepare. His parents began the business in 1981, providing support to six adults living in one house in St. Paul’s Como Park. New Directions has grown to serve adults in its 14 residential communities around the metro area; it also supports 35 adults who live with their families.

Kigner grew up tagging along to the group homes and began working the night shift, providing direct care in his college years.

“I’m able to understand someone with higher needs because I know what their day looks like,” Kigner said.

He assumed the top job in the family business when his parents retired. He’s turned to them for guidance in this demanding time.

New Directions residents have typically left their group homes every day for jobs or day programs. With those activities curtailed, New Directions has become a 24/7 business, reworking tight budgets and bringing on staff to keep clients productively occupied.

“We’re confident in our ability to provide residential support but we’ve had to figure out new programming,” he said. “For our population, having the routine disrupted is incredibly difficult. It’s tough for people who don’t understand why they can’t be at work and can’t see their friends and family.”

As an essential business, Kigner has overseen a barrage of new government regulations and safety rules, additional staff training and acquiring protective gear. He said it’s “a point of pride” that all staff and clients have remained virus-free to date.

“So far, so good. We’ve adjusted our personal lives to limit our own exposure to others so we can keep the people at our workplace safe,” he said. “I don’t want to sound cocky. This won’t be behind us for a while. In football terms, it’s like when you have a one-point lead in the fourth quarter and you don’t have the ball.”

 

Kevyn Burger is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer and broadcaster.