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New Normal: Taking care of business in a COVID-19 world

Story and photos by Marge Swayne

Sheri McGuire, executive director of the Longwood Small Business Development Center (SBDC), isn’t one to sit around. Since March, she’s had to get used to it.

Instead of hitting the road to keep up with a district that spans 9,471 square miles from Petersburg to Martinsville, McGuire’s in her office most days. She’s “zooming” full speed ahead — but in a different way.

“Some days I have four or five Zoom meetings,” McGuire added with a typically optimistic smile.

Assisting McGuire at the SBDC office in Farmville are Brandon Hennessey, Jennifer Baldwin and Sherri Moore. Serving clients in SBDC’s western region are Lin Hite, Michael Duncan, Kelvin Perry and Michael Scales. Director of the Crater SBDC Center in the eastern region is Ellen Templeton.

For more than 30 years SBDC has provided free classes, consulting, and personal consultations for aspiring, new, and experienced business owners. Since the COVID pandemic began, requests for consulting have increased in Buckingham, Cumberland and Prince Edward by 160%. With SBDC’s assistance, clients in these counties were able to access an impressive $1,394,118 in COVID funding.

McGuire’s confident that Farmville’s business community will weather the current COVID storm and emerge even stronger on the other side. SBDC’s team of business consultants and contract specialists are dedicated to making that a reality.

Longwood SBDC opened its doors in Farmville in 1989 as part of a state and nationwide network. The center in Farmville is funded through Longwood University, the U.S. Small Business Administration, and local county and city governments where Longwood SBDC maintains office locations.

As an added bonus for the small business owners it serves, Longwood SBDC offers services free of charge.

Radha Metro-Midkiff and husband Dick Midkiff, owners of the Corner Coffee Junction in Dillwyn, are especially appreciative of SBDC’s free services. The couple opened their business last November and then had to shut it down for eight weeks when the pandemic hit in March.

“SBDC has been such an important resource for us during this pandemic,” Metro-Midkiff said. “They connected us with bankers at First Citizens and helped us find the Virginia 30 Day Fund. When we opened last fall, Sheri McGuire and Brandon Hennessey shared their expertise with us in every aspect of running a business.”

Facing a pandemic was an added challenge for the new business on the block.

To assist its clients across the region during these uncertain economic times, SBDC recently added three specialized consultants.

“CARES Act funding gave SBDC the opportunity to expand our base of contract consultants,” McGuire explains. “To get through this pandemic, we knew that our small businesses were going to need particular support in three core areas: operations, marketing and financial management.”

One of those consultants, restaurant/tourism expert Dr. Vince Magnini, recently paid a visit to the coffee shop in Dillwyn to answer questions and explain business options.

Also joining the SBDC team were Katherine Beale, retail specialist, and Teresa Davis, specialist in accounting and record-keeping. Two current SBDC contract consultants are also active in the COVID recovery effort. Ilsa Loeser offers courses on marketing strategies, and Michael Duncan consults on manufacturing operations.

Recently Michael Duncan guided YakAttack through a transition that benefited that business as well as area medical personnel in need of personal protective equipment (PPE).

Owner Luther Cifers wasn’t familiar with Longwood SBDC until he moved his company to Farmville in 2018.

“Sheri McGuire introduced herself, and we developed a relationship with SBDC,” Cifers added.

Michael Duncan, manufacturing specialist, was YakAttack’s one-on-one contact.

“After the pandemic hit we had a lot of orders that just dried up,” Cifers said. “We have an engineering staff on-site and can design products in-house, so we decided it would be a shame to just sit out this shutdown.”

In a matter of days YakAttack literally shifted gears from manufacturing kayak gear to PPE.

Duncan’s expertise made the process easier.

“Michael Duncan helped us navigate the whole PPE thing,” Cifers says. “He guided us through all the regulatory hurdles. Having an advisor like Michael Duncan saved us from making a lot of mistakes.”

While all Farmville businesses were affected by the pandemic, some were hit harder than others.

Amanda Wells, owner of Four Paw Bed & Biscuit, considers herself one of the lucky ones. When her dog daycare attendance dwindled in March and April, grooming services kept the business going.

Now she’s thankful that her four-pawed clients are starting to come back.

“Some days we’re back up to 40 dogs a day,” she says with an enthusiasm that says she loves her job.

When Wells opened her business three years ago, she felt confident in her ability to care for dogs. Like many small business owners, Wells didn’t know much about the mechanics of running a business.

“From the beginning, SBDC’s been a vital piece of Four Paw,” she said.

In addition to providing business analytics needed for a bank loan, SBDC helped with projections and other important aspects of the business.

“When it’s time to add an expansion, I’ll be calling SBDC,” Wells added. “I know Brandon Hennessey will advise me on the best way to do it.”

Wells echoes other local business owners who are thankful for an experienced adviser when questions and concerns arise.

“During these troubling times we’re experiencing right now, it’s nice to know SBDC is just a phone call away,” she added.

A phone call to SBDC was the first step for David and Danielle Bapport when they were looking at buying Buggy Top Utility Barns and Sheds in Cumberland two years ago.

They’re especially appreciative of their SBDC connection now.

“I am so thankful for Brandon and the gang at the SBDC,” Danielle Bapport said. “Even without a pandemic, things can get confusing. I’m thankful to have someone who will take the time to listen and guide me. In the small business world decisions have to be made every day — I owe my confidence to the SBDC.”

Audrey Sullivan, owner of Red Door 104 art studio and gallery, also appreciates SBDC’s advice and Brandon Hennessey’s in particular. For her it’s personal; Hennessey’s also an artist.

Hennessey taught art at Prince Edward County High School before completing his MBA at Longwood University and joining SBDC as a business analyst in 2017.

“Since the pandemic I talk with Brandon every week,” Sullivan says. “He throws ideas out like a tennis ball machine throws balls, and while his ideas are all brilliant, they’re focused more on technology than I’m comfortable with.”

Sullivan says she never felt pressured to do things SBDC’s way. Hennessey advised her to do what was comfortable for her.

“I love working with SBDC,” Sullivan said. “All those questions you have about your business — SBDC not only answers them, they can help implement what you have in mind.”

Summing up an opinion shared by many business owners in Farmville and surrounding counties, Sullivan added, “SBDC helped me look at my business from a different perspective — sometimes that’s all you need.”