What precautions are you taking for the next catastrophe?

This post is written by Bill Reagan, Executive Director of the SBDC and first appeared in the Alexandria Times on September 28, 2017. Lately, our television screens have been filled with scenes of hurricanes and earthquakes, and people struggling to recover their lives – and businesses. For those devastated businesses, survival statistics are especially grim. FEMA estimates 40… Read more »

The post What precautions are you taking for the next catastrophe? appeared first on Alexandria Small Business Development Center.

This post is written by Bill Reagan, Executive Director of the SBDC and first appeared in the Alexandria Times on September 28, 2017.

Lately, our television screens have been filled with scenes of hurricanes and earthquakes, and people struggling to recover their lives – and businesses. For those devastated businesses, survival statistics are especially grim. FEMA estimates 40 percent of businesses do not reopen after a disaster, and of those that do reopen, 25 percent fail within one year.

Tragic events dramatically teach us how much of our daily routines are dependent on infrastructure that we take for granted. We expect to reach colleagues, customers and our support network by email or phone. We count on accessing critical financial or operational records electronically or in our file cabinets. A variety of calamities can make those inaccessible – temporarily or permanently. These include hurricanes, earthquakes, tornadoes, floods, severe storms, fires, pandemics, power outages, demonstrations, terrorism and cyber-attacks.

The aftermath of catastrophes is always chaotic. Larger corporations dedicate staff to emergency planning and have established backup procedures, but small businesses tend to procrastinate such pre-planning, and often flounder through the recovery process. Even when federal, state and local resources are made available, it’s often not obvious when and how to access them.

Since hurricane images are fresh on our minds and September is National Preparedness Month, this an ideal time to pause for a moment to think about the most critical aspects of your business and the many ways they could be disrupted. With those contemplations, you can then plot a few basic preparedness steps. Here are some basics:

  • Check your insurance to see what coverage you have. Is it adequate? Do you have flood and business interruption coverage?
  • Establish a communications plan for alternate ways to reach employees, customers and your support system. This might necessitate keeping key lists and records offsite.
  • Have offsite backup for your digital files. This can include a full copy of your encrypted data on an external hard drive taken offsite, and/or using a cloud storage backup service. Note that offsite storage of data, lists and records must be routinely updated.
  • Prepare a handy, waterproof and fireproof survival kit that includes cash, nonperishable food, water, first aid, sanitation, flashlight and battery supplies. Retailers and restaurateurs might add a manual credit card machine, credit card slips and instructions on what to do in case of an outage. If you have perishable items, consider a generator for refrigeration.
  • Make sure all of these contingency efforts are periodically explained to all staff.

Most emergency preparedness recommendations are too cumbersome for small businesses to realistically undertake. SBA has more succinct guidelines and checklists at SBA.gov/prepare.
Alexandria Small Business Development Center staff interacted with SBA and FEMA following the disaster declarations for both 9/11 and Hurricane Isabel. Most of the resulting disaster loans approved throughout Northern Virginia followed the Alexandria center’s direct involvement. We pray there’s never another occasion to use that expertise, but local businesses should note Alexandria SBDC as their go-to contact in dire circumstances.

Preparedness efforts aren’t easy to prioritize, but they can predetermine business survival.

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HVAC: Accounting for stuff only the birds can see!

Old Hvac Unit
Old roof top HVAC unit scheduled to be replaced.

Necessary – What has this got to do with me? I am building a chic new retail store. I need to focus on the design, merchandise displays and retail image. Who sees this? I know – I know, the space must have functioning heat and air conditioning but, really, why do I need a structural engineer? I want to put my budget were it is visible to my customers.

Most commercial HVAC units will last 15 to 20 years. They probably cost over $10M each without any distribution and, in all but special circumstances, you cannot hope to have a functional commercial space without them. They are as basic as the walls, roof, plumbing, lights, etc. So when the HVAC company, landlord, or MEP engineer says it is time to replace you can be pretty sure they are correct.

Fundamental – Few would argue that it is completely fundamental for a tenant to understand who is responsible for the original installation, subsequent maintenance, repair and eventual replacement of the heating and air conditioning in a space. Neglecting to do this would be like moving into a space that might or might not have walls, yet I am often surprised by retailers who are unclear about, even disinterested in, these issues. Until something goes wrong that is.

Bar Joist
Bar joist hold up the roof and are common in retail environments.

Required – But I digress. My intention is not to outline heating and air conditioning systems common to small commercial projects, which is nicely done here. It is, rather, to explain why structural engineering is required for the installation of an HVAC unit. Consider this; all commercial HVAC systems have parts, many of which are large, heavy and sit on something, i.e., the roof. The unit in the photo, for example, weighs upward of 1,200 pounds. Now take a critical look at the structural framing system in the other photo, and ask yourself if it looks like it will be sufficient to hold up the concentrated load created by the installation of half a ton of equipment. In this case the structure is actually holding up the unit shown, so the answer happens to be yes – barely. I point this out because in many cases, especially in existing buildings without available structural drawings, common sense might lead one to ask if a new mechanical unit weighs the same as the one being replaced. Be aware that where common sense fails, the building code does not.

Structural load calculations and drawings which have been certified by an authorized professional are required before building departments will issue a permit allowing heavy equipment to be installed in, or on, a new or existing building. This, of course, includes mechanical, as well as other types of equipment. I mention the later as an aside for all you restaurant owners out there. Restaurant equipment is heavy and installing it in old buildings like those found in historic areas can create problems for unaware owners. Also, in the case of replacement equipment, it is less involved but still necessary to evaluate a new unit even if it weighs less than the old one. In the case under consideration, the replacement HVAC unit proved to be heavier than the existing, meaning it became necessary to provide structural reinforcement before the new unit could be installed.

Roof top image shows location of existing HVAC equipment.
Roof top image shows location of existing HVAC equipment.

How – So what steps were required? How did we arrive at this conclusion? First we had a contractor go up onto the roof and take photos of the exiting equipment, including a close up view of the label. This allowed the mechanical engineer to research the existing unit with the manufacturer who was able to provide a weight. A new unit was then specified according to the new design for the space. Efforts were made to avoid additional expense by matching the new unit with the old and installing it in the same location. Eventually it was determine that, although the location could be maintained, the replacement unit was going to be heavier than the old one. Had it weighed the same or less, the mechanical engineer would have so noted it on the drawings and been done.

Since this was not the case, it became necessary for the structural engineer to completed the process. He went to he site, analyzed the structural type, crawled up on a ladder, measured the bar joist, and checked the location of the existing equipment. Upon returning to his office, he went through a series of calculations to see if the structure was sufficient to accommodate the new unit. Since it was not he had to design and specify additional reinforcement adequate for the new equipment. This information was delivered in the form of signed and sealed drawings and calculations, along with certified architectural and MEP documents, to the building department with the permit application.

Why – The point of this discussion is to show those contemplating a commercial building project what a single line in a lease assigning responsibility for the heating and air conditioning equipment can indicate. In my experience all reputable landlords give full disclosure about the age and condition of the mechanical systems in their properties. Many provide substantial construction allowances for unit replacement and other improvements. Few, though, take into consideration the amount of engineering required in order to make the actual improvement. Professional services, Architectural, Mechanical, Electrical, Plumbing and Structural, are expensive and should be accounted for in the budget for a building project. I would suggest that forewarned is forearmed.

Bridget Gaddis, is a Licensed Architect and LEED-accredited Professional practicing nationally, and locally in the Washington DC area. She holds professional degrees in both Architecture and Interior Design, and with a comprehensive background in commercial retail design, planning and construction has completed projects for such for such well known brands as Chloe, Zegna, and Bvlgari. Her career began in tenant coordination and site planning for two well-known Cleveland developers, followed by six years in store planning for a national retailer. After a move to New York City in 1997, she spent the next years working for architecture firms specializing in retail projects. In 2011 she started her own practice in Alexandria, VA. Ms. Gaddis is the author of two blogs dealing with architectural subjects.

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5 New Year’s Resolutions for Your Small Business

We’re all used to the practice of making resolutions at the start of the year about things that we wish to do in our personal lives, whether it is losing a few extra pounds, finishing a degree or obtaining additional training or education, working out on a regular basis, or spending more quality time with family… Read more »

The post 5 New Year’s Resolutions for Your Small Business appeared first on Alexandria Small Business Development Center.

5 New Years Resolutions for Your Small BusinessWe’re all used to the practice of making resolutions at the start of the year about things that we wish to do in our personal lives, whether it is losing a few extra pounds, finishing a degree or obtaining additional training or education, working out on a regular basis, or spending more quality time with family and friends. Unfortunately, by the end of January many of these resolutions have been swallowed up by the everyday events of our lives, and we find ourselves feeling guilty and frustrated.

This time of year is also important for making resolutions for your small business. To avoid the failure and frustration that often accompanies personal resolutions, these should be simple, specific, and actionable to increase the chances of success. A few suggestions for small business owners are:

  1. Update Your Business Plan. Whether you started with a formal business plan or ideas on the back of a napkin, this is a good time to dust off your original plan and see how your vision worked in the real world. Has your small business worked out as planned? Are there things that you know now that you wish you would have known when you started? Where do you see your business being this time next year? What do you have to do to accomplish that? It may be as simple as taking the time to really think about these issues and write down your thoughts to spur on your business’ growth in 2015. The Business Planning Guide on the Alexandria SBDC’s website can be an effective tool to use to update your plan
  2. Understand Your Business Finances. You pay the bills, and you, or your accountant or bookkeeper, files the taxes, but do you really understand the financial position of your business? Many small business owners are passionate and very knowledgeable in their area of business, but often less so when it comes to financial operations. Make 2015 the year that you look at the numbers and really understand what they mean. This may involve an “educational session” with your accountant, a financial discussion with SBDC Business Analyst Jack Parker, or registration for one of the many classes in the area on finances, accounting, Quickbooks, etc. By monitoring your finances on a monthly basis, or at least quarterly, you will know how you are doing and be able to make informed projections of your cash requirements for the year.
  3. Update Your Website. This probably does not involve starting from scratch with a whole new site (the Alexandria SBDC did that last year – a lot of work, but worth it!). How new is the material on your site?  If the last time you added new content was 2012, you have some refreshing to do! Is it time to add a blog, or just to add new content, videos or photos? If your site is not interesting enough for you to go to it on a regular basis, why should anyone else? Make sure that it reflects what you want your business to present to the world. Remember that Alexandria City businesses can schedule a session with the SBDC to review your site and get suggestions from the experts.
  4. Try Something New with Social Media. Are you overwhelmed by social media and how much time you think it will take from “doing your business”? Wherever you are in the social media spectrum, from active participant to total novice, you can resolve to take yourself up a level. Do not try to do it all at once – that is a sure recipe for failure and frustration. Figure out which social media platform would be the best one for you to explore for your industry and work on mastering that one in 2015. Alexandria SBDC social media consultant Ray Sidney-Smith has published a book, Social Local Mobile Success: Small Business Marketing Strategy Explained.  It is available as an e-book or in paperback from the major online outlets and is a great source of information for small business owners who want to “up their game” in this area. Treat yourself to a copy for the new year, follow through on one platform, and see how the increased visibility helps your business.
  5. Measure The Impact of Your Decisions. While you are understanding your finances, updating your website and increasing your social media presence, it is important to see how this increased activity brings change to your business. Decide which metrics are most important to you, then make a plan on how to measure and analyze that information. Make sure that you have Google Analytics installed on your website and synced with your social media. Understand your sales cycle by looking at your financial reports and knowing which periods of the year are busy and which need a boost. While this may not be the most interesting or exciting thing that you do for your business in 2015, it may be the most important. Having good data is the first step to making good decisions.

It is your business – empower yourself to take control of it in 2015!

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