I spent 27 years of my career working for one department store chain, May Department Stores, which owned Meier & Frank in Portland, Robinsons-May in Los Angeles, where I worked, and many other stores across the country including Marshall Fields, Foleys, Lord & Taylor, Filenes and other recognizable regional names. At the time, May was the largest department store operator in the country. (Macy’s is the current owner).
I was in Los Angeles as the vice president of footwear for our 75 stores when the Northridge earthquake hit in 1994. In an instant, life changed for millions of people in the San Fernando Valley and the Santa Clarita Valley, where I lived with my family. Seventy-two people were killed, 9,000 were injured. 82,000 homes were damaged or destroyed, and tens of thousands of businesses were destroyed. The I-5 freeway was closed for months, and many of us had to take the train to work each day as the access roads were all closed. We had neighbors two blocks away whose home collapsed, but thank God there was no damage to our home and my family was safe. (We had just moved from Oregon six months before, and had never experienced anything like that in our lives! And we were the only household who had a transistor radio with fresh batteries; handy as our entire neighborhood was outside at 4:31 am!)
Dozens of our Robinsons-May stores were severely damaged, and in some cases completely destroyed. At our corporate headquarters in North Hollywood, our building actually served as a bomb shelter in WWII so the structure was in good shape, but all the sprinklers went off in the building, files, furniture and wall hangings were thrown everywhere, and the technology grid in the building was severely damaged. In those days everything was paper-based, so I still remember to this day the 24-7 whirring of industrial fans in my conference room drying all my files, and traveling to New York City footwear markets with my dried crinkled paperwork!
Why did I take this trip down memory lane? I equate it with what our businesses have experienced since 2020 with the COVID-19 pandemic, which continues to this day. Instead of a region being impacted, the entire world is being impacted, but let’s look at it through the business lens of our region.
In 2020, our Clatsop Small Business Development Center (SBDC) advised and worked with 278 businesses. As CEDR director and enterprise zone manager, I have been working with several of our larger employers with growth strategies and plans. Many of these businesses will emerge bigger and stronger than ever when the pandemic is over. How? Why?
They have pivoted to a business adversity response plan that has gone on for almost a year now. Focused on sales, managing cash flow, managing payments to financial institutions that have been negotiated, taking advantage of EIDL and PPP programs to keep staff employed and business operations in control, reviewed operations and staffing levels, used the internet and print and broadcast media to let consumers know they are still in business, changed their business model to compete in these unparalleled times, made agonizing decisions to ensure the survival of the business, and looked through the lens of how the business will recover and grow after the vaccinations have been made broadly available and distributed.
When the earthquake hit, we thought it would take forever to rebuild sales and profits. Two years later, business had recovered all of the losses, rebuilding had been accomplished, and the future was bright, with a bottom line that was stronger than ever.
You may say that our current situation is different from what I compared it to earlier in the article, but I see many similarities for businesses both large and small. Residents and visitors to our region are looking forward and are very anxious to getting things back to the new “normal.” There is high pent up demand for products, experiences and services, including our amazing restaurants who have been amongst the businesses most impacted, and are looking forward to serving everyone again.
Our entrepreneurs will lead the way, and we will work side by side with our city, county, state, federal and private sector partners, and community at large, to support each and every business as they pivot to not only regain business lost over the past year, but to grow and prosper for many years to come.