Even before the COVID-19 pandemic began, I wondered how to get the word out about our local businesses. As a Black Diamond Councillor and a member of the recently formed Inter-municipal Economic Development Committee (IEDC), the growth and sustainability of our businesses is top of mind. The IEDC commissioned a report on the state of our business community and the main point that emerged was locals don’t know of all our wonderful companies. I figured with my writing background, I could easily feature a business every few weeks and help spread the word that way. Then the pandemic began. Now it is even more important we support our own, so here goes. To try to keep me impartial, each business I feature gets to pick the next one. I hope you enjoy learning about our community businesses and how they are coping.
Matt Wagstaff is a numbers man. His background in finance has bent him this way, and no amount of virus talk, government health regulations, or fear of the future can change that. As one half of the ownership team at Rona Black Diamond, he is watching his spreadsheets closely and wondering how to make this new reality work.
“I’m a little bit nervous,” he admitted, “but we need to be optimistic.”
In years past, this being optimistic thing wouldn’t have been too hard. With the promise of spring just around the next bend and orders of plants and soil starting to trickle in, optimism should be easy to come by. The seasonal orders for soils, seeds, patio sets, plants, posts and rails, and outdoor lumber were placed months ago, bought and paid for as they say, when reality was very different.
“This is just the nature of the business and the season. This time of year, we’ve pre-bought for the next three months,” explained Wagstaff. In an ordinary year, he would have no reason to be overly concerned. As spring turns to summer and the sales are good, the credit gets paid off, no problem. But this is no ordinary year.
As the province laid out new restrictions and curtailed the economy to essential services, Wagstaff watched his March sales numbers fall flat. While the numbers showed him it was a good month traffic-wise with home builders pushing to get their projects completed, Wagstaff watched his business morph from a construction focus to a retail.
“There’s lots of uncertainty in the home building market,” explained Wagstaff. “We used to be 80/20 construction to retail, now more like 40/60.”
The numbers don’t mean what they used to in this new reality. That’s left Wagstaff looking for new measures of success and shifting focus to retail customers and a different outlook for his business.
“I’m thankful for every single customer
who’s come into our store.”
“Our days are full,” said Wagstaff of he and his team. “It’s gone from a contractor business to retail and we are thankful for all our customers.”
“I think it’s going to be easily worthwhile to focus on the seasonal aspect of our business,” mused Wagstaff. “We are getting plants in this season, we bought them in December and January.”
Also on the docket for customers are long-procrastinated home repairs and upgrades. “People are organizing their houses,” he stated. “People haven’t painted their walls in 15 years. There is good news there.”
“I’m thankful for every single customer who’s come into our store,” said Wagstaff. “We are focusing on customer service, protecting our staff and customers. We’re trying to keep as normal as possible.”
The only other break from normal is the store no longer accepts returns. “We’re not doing returns right now. We just can’t control that,” explained Wagstaff, whose team is also applying all recommended practices set out by the governments and Lowes’ management.
He and his staff are taking more phone calls than ever before, from people who need advice, to those who want to place an order and not come into the store. Rona Black Diamond has upped their home delivery game and have also been offering curbside pick-up.
One bright point so far is Wagstaff has not had to let any of his 20 employees go. He is well aware of the federal wage subsidy available to businesses but as of yet, his business does not qualify. Proof of a 30 per cent drop in monthly revenue compared to last year is required to access the subsidy and Wagstaff said March numbers did not meet that criteria.
Being a numbers man doesn’t grant access to a crystal ball so Wagstaff is still working on the next steps for the business. What his business will look like in the coming months is a question he cannot answer.
“There’s no playbook here. We’re taking every action possible to keep the business viable,” he said.
“It’s exciting and scary as hell,” Wagstaff admitted. “When I get home I’m mentally and physically exhausted and trying to make sense of it all. All we can do is support our customers and staff as best we can.”
Wagstaff asked to include one last thought: “We have all been asking for more time in our lives. Now is the time to embrace this and focus on trying to find the bright spots in our lives. We have so much to look forward to.”