I originally wrote the following article in the middle of 2018. At the present time, it seems like we are in the middle of a big market recession driven by COVID-19. Unfortunately, we never know if market volatility is in front of us or behind us. As a business owner, market volatility and the things that create it can also create a unique set of challenges. You must be aware of and plan for these challenges, especially when times are good, in order for your business and those who depend on it for their livelihood to be protected.
If there is anything certain about the market, it is that it is uncertain. The market, however, is “cyclical” meaning history tends to repeat itself. I attended a financial seminar shortly after the 2008 market correction. The speaker's presentation was titled, “How the Market is Cyclical.” During the introduction of the presentation, Time Magazine cover articles were cycling across a projection screen. The titles were things like, “The Great Recession,” “Unemployment at an all-time High,” “The War on Terror,” “The Worthless Dollar,” and “Bankrupt America.” What the audience did not realize until the end is the dates were missing on the cover articles. These were not articles from the present, as we all assumed, but all these articles were published in the 70’s.
Whether it is the Great Depression in the 30’s, The “Oil Crisis” in the 70’s, “Black Monday” in the 80’s, “The Tech Bubble” in 2000 or the “Great Recession” in 2008 or more recently the COVID-19 pandemic, economic downturn and volatility in the markets are inevitable. For most general “investors”, the remedy can be as simple as staying the course and not panicking (allowing time to provide what is typically a quick market rebound).
Unfortunately for business owners, there is more involved and more at stake during down market times. Whether it is business overhead costs (rents/mortgage), employee costs (hiring/laying off), equipment, debt, or employee benefits (insurance/retirement contributions), a market correction can dramatically alter the trajectory of a business and, in some cases, close its doors.
So, what should a business owner do to protect themselves and their businesses in the event of another market downturn? There are three important aspects to keep in mind: Be Aware, Be Lean and Be Balanced.
“Knowing is half the battle.” Being aware that an economic downturn is inevitable and its effects alone are very important. This awareness can drive your behavior as a business owner into making well-educated decisions to protect yourself and your business from the pitfalls of slow times. Seek a consultant or find reliable information that can provide you with the ability to withstand any season that may come.
“The skinnier you are the faster you can move.” Re-invest in your business but also save some profits for yourself during good times. It can be very easy to get complacent, especially when times are good. Too often we hear stories about businesses that have failed, and it usually goes something like, “Man, it was like we were printing money back then; no one saw it coming.” Liquid deferred compensation plans and cash on hand accounts are a good way to be able to be flexible and stay afloat in tough times.
“The right answer is usually somewhere in the middle.” Work towards a healthy balance sheet. For most business debt and financial leverage is a necessary evil. When times are good and profits are high, it is very easy as a business owner striving for growth to invest back in the business. This is something you should do but be mindful that the dollars you spend are supported by dollars you are also saving. Align yourself with people who can provide you with ideas of how to best apply your debts so that you have flexibility and options if you need to adjust.
Running a business can be one of the most difficult and yet rewarding things you can do. As a business owner you are responsible for many things to run your business successfully day to day, but at the same time you must avoid a litany of pitfalls like economic downturn. We cannot always depend on or hope for government intervention or relief in these times as we have uniquely experienced with the passing of the CARES Act legislation which carved out several programs to assist small businesses. Furthermore, many small business owners missed the boat completely or are still waiting for some of these programs and many may never get the relief promised from these programs. It is important that you empower yourself with education and specific strategies tailored to protect you, your business, and the employees whose livelihoods rely upon the success of that business.
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Written by: Ronnie Thompson