Face masks, gloves, social distancing, disinfecting, temperature checks: this has become the new norm for businesses in the era of COVID-19.
There’s no doubt all industries have been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, but after government officials determined automotive repair shops essential, restylers have had to make many difficult decisions and weigh out the risks of staying open.
What does business look like if we stay open? Can we keep our employees safe? How do we limit exposure? How many employees can we operate with at a minimal expense? Which employees can we operate with at minimal expense? Will the government be providing financial relief? These are all questions every restyler has asked themselves over the past 30 days, and with so much uncertainty surrounding coronavirus, every decision can feel like a gamble.
For Josh Poulson, owner of Auto Additions, located just outside of Columbus, Ohio, this meant closing shop on March 23 and laying off employees, including himself. This is not an easy decision for any business owner to make, but necessary to keep people safe during a time of uncertainty.
Nevertheless, shops and businesses that have had to shut down can’t remain closed forever. “Employees are eager to get back to work”, said Poulson. “A couple are fearful, but I assured them we are sticking to all CDC guidelines for our work environment, including masks.”
Those CDC guidelines have since been the norm at Specialty Automotive Treatments (SAT), our shop in the Miami and Palm Beach market, as we have remained open under the essential business declaration.
During initial shut down orders in early April, we had to make many difficult decisions about how to proceed, including determining who was essential in order to operate at a minimal expense. Ultimately, we’ve had technicians doubling as transporters while office staff processes orders, takes employees’ temperatures daily and sanitizes frequent touch points three times per day. Our sales staff has all been sent to work from home.
Business, of course, is down and it’s been caused by a variety of factors. At SAT, we have had to turn away some sales for custom products because manufacturers aren’t processing orders as they normally would. Products are also taking longer to arrive. With some aftermarket manufacturers, we are facing a three-week lead time for products that used to take two days.
But business hasn’t stopped completely. Despite the state of Florida’s stay-at-home order, people are still taking advantage of some of the special financing and relief programs that some of the manufacturers, including GM and Ford, have rolled out.
For better or worse, we are not in this alone. With the help of the government’s Payroll Protection Plan (PPP), part of the $2 trillion CARES Act stimulus package, many businesses and restylers are getting some relief, although it doesn’t solve every problem caused by the pandemic.
“[PPP] has allowed us to bring all our employees that were furloughed back onto our payroll”, said Kevin Gillis of Integrity Customs in Tulsa, Oklahoma. “Unfortunately, we have lost some employees to other jobs and have others which do not feel comfortable coming back, which we understand.”
Poulson has since reopened Auto Additions with the aid of PPP, and here at SAT, we have also been able to bring all employees back to work.
PPP has undoubtedly provided tremendous relief, but business is still down and it’s forcing many shops to get creative with their teams. “We will be focusing on the building and company vehicle maintenance at first. Then we are building some corn hole boards with our logo to eventually give to dealerships,” says Poulson.
In the face of everything, spirits have not been broken. In many ways this experience has only brought everyone closer together, according to Gillis.
“I have a great deal of hope. We surely have much more to endure, however we have come together as the family we always said we were and are now proving it to ourselves,” he said.
Restylers are also connecting with each other more than ever, sharing advice on how to navigate these new waters. Owners and employees are working to rebuild and relationships with customers grow deeper as we all look to better understand their needs during these times.
During a time when there is no shortage of uncertainty and the available information surrounding COVID-19 feels like it can change by the minute, we have all had to come together and learn how to pivot.
Cristina Jorge is the vice president of Specialty Automotive Treatments, located in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.