On March 28 at 5 p.m., Alaskans across the state retreated to their homes as Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s Health Mandate 011: Social Distancing went into effect.
In a mere four weeks, the quickest spike in unemployment in Alaska’s history ensued, with more than 50,000 jobs lost. About one in seven previously employed Alaskans are now out of work. Those numbers are expected to increase as efforts to flatten the COVID-19 curve continue and businesses keep making cuts to stay afloat.
Many small businesses are turning to the Alaska Small Business Development Center for assistance as they apply for federal aid and try to plan for an uncertain future. The Alaska SBDC estimates that requests for assistance increased 250 percent from an average month.
Meet the Alaska SBDC’s Julie Nolen, Assistant State Director and Matanuska Susitna Director
In July 2020, Julie Nolen will celebrate 11 years as an SBDC Business Advisor. She was born into small business; her family owned The Bagel Factory and Deli in Anchorage during the 1980s. Nolen grew up learning day-to-day operations from her parents while developing the beginning of a lifelong love for small business.
“They’re the lifeblood of our communities,” Nolen said. “Not only do they provide jobs and essential services, they create our culture. And there’s a sense of pride that goes along with owning a business, a sense of working together for the common good… I love being able to contribute to that.”
At the SBDC, Nolen excels at taking the complicated parts of running a business — from applying for loans to writing a business plan — and turning them into simple, achievable steps. Along with her full-time, busier-than-ever job, she is helping her second-grade son Alex finish up the school year at home and navigating the challenges of settling into a new working from home routine with her husband, Andy.
As soon as the alarm rings, Nolen grabs her phone and checks email. She begins writing responses as she makes her first cup of coffee, relishing her quiet time and the chance to get some work done before the rest of her family wakes up.
Nolen makes her son Alex’s breakfast. He likes “toad in the holes” (a slice of bread with a fried egg in the middle) and after he finishes eating she gets him started on his schoolwork.
Despite working from home, SBDC’s advisors communicate regularly. Each day begins with a visit to Google Chat’s “water cooler” feature that the team uses for internal conversations. Nolen says the morning check-in is the easiest way for them to share knowledge and stay up-to-date regarding the news of the day.
One of her colleagues calls into a 4 a.m. Small Business Administration briefing every morning and updates the rest of the team on changes to federal relief programs.
Nolen checks in with the other members of the SBDC leadership team to discuss staff’s remote work schedules and how to meet the increasing demand for their services. SBDC is in the process of hiring temporary administrative staff and business advisors to serve clients.
“Our advisors are working all day every day — previously we worked a standard 8 hours, but now we have to take a different approach to everything: the hours we work, the way we advise, the content of advising, how we communicate with clients and the public,” Nolen said.
Pre-COVID-19, client meetings lasted 45 minutes to an hour, sometimes longer. Now, advisors try to get their clients the information they need in as short amount of time as possible without losing a personal touch.
“Our clients know we’re slammed,” Nolen said. “They don’t expect the same kind of conversation we normally have, but they also know that if they really need us, we’ll give them the time. Some people are struggling right now, and if we can help them through, we will.”
Many clients are facing bankruptcy and the permanent closure of businesses they’ve spent years pouring their time, money, and passion into. SBDC advisors are doing their best to help them access federal relief programs, which many business owners have found challenging to navigate.
Nolen spends the next few hours meeting with clients and following up on emails. She says she hasn’t helped someone with a business plan — previously a focus of her work — in six weeks; now, 95 percent of her time is COVID-19 related, helping businesses prepare to apply for the SBA’s Paycheck Protection Program or Economic Injury Disaster Loan Program.
On Friday, April 17, the SBA announced these programs are no longer accepting applications due to expended funds. Shortly afterward, the Alaska SBDC posted on Facebook that they are confident Congress will pass another relief bill, and encouraged businesses to prepare the documents they will need to access federal relief programs, reduce operating costs and take advantage of any existing financial programs they qualify for.
Switching gears to “mom mode,” Nolen makes ham sandwiches for lunch and checks Alex’s progress on his schoolwork before diving back into advising work.
It’s time for dueling Zoom meetings! Nolen says Zoom meetings are a bit of a challenge when working and parenting simultaneously.
“When it’s time for Alex’s second grade class Zoom meeting, it’s his chance to see his friends and teachers and he’s really excited for that kind of attention. I do my best to block out the noise,” Nolen said.
“When it’s my Zoom meeting, sometimes he pops in and out — I was in a meeting with MTA executives and he was in the background, but everyone just laughed. We’re all going through it together.”
Nolen says that the balance between working and teaching is really hard. She feels guilty about not being able to give him more of her time but is operating in “crisis mode” for her clients.
“I feel better when I see my husband Andy coming up with fun lessons like ‘shop class’ when they work in the garage together. I don’t know how single parents can do this,” she said.
Nolen joins a meeting with Mat-Su Assemblywoman Stephanie Nowers to discuss a survey of borough businesses that will help guide COVID-19 recovery efforts. Both women serve on the Assembly’s recently revitalized economic development committee.
After quickly checking the news and social media to see if there are any updates about SBA programs, Nolen is ready for more client meetings.
While getting dinner started, Nolen tunes into the State’s COVID-19 briefing and continues to check email on her phone throughout the evening while her family settles in for movies on the couch.
“I’ve been feeling a lot of anxiety, and it’s hard for me to unplug and relax; the lines between work and home feel really blurred,” says Nolan. “And, anything I don’t get done in the evening is waiting for me in the morning…we’re so busy that I’m barely able to keep up with the number of inquiries that come in overnight.”
Despite her own tendency to work long after 5 p.m., Nolen has been encouraging staff to minimize overtime.
“It’s not easy talking to small business owners who are worried about their futures, especially people who own seasonal businesses and might not be able to open,” says Nolen. “We’re business advisors but quickly become informal counselors. Clients talk about their troubles and we witness their suffering. A lot of clients call us in tears. We’re glad we can be there for them but we have to preserve our mental health too.”
For Nolen, that means making the occasional escape to her cabin near Skwentna.
“We went out last weekend, it’s snowmachine-in only and it felt so good to be out there. I put in my ear buds piping with John Prine tunes, got some fresh air… it was beautiful and I had so much fun. Just leaving work behind really recharged me.”
Nolen is in bed, trying to get rest before starting another day serving small businesses in Alaska. Work has been challenging, but Nolen’s overarching feeling is pride in the SBDC team.
“Everyone is stepping up, everyone is helping out. When one center is overloaded another center jumps in to help. We’re meeting this challenge head on, together.”
Meet Seward Brewing Company’s Co-Owner Hillary Bean
Hillary Bean and Erik Slater purchased Seward Brewing Company from its original owners in 2014. Longtime members of Alaska’s hospitality industry, Bean leads operations while Slater oversees the brewery and culinary side of the business. Together they serve hundreds of visitors and locals during their five month season that runs May through September.
Boasting four flagship beers — Rockfish Red Ale, Inked Out Stout, El Jefeweizen Chile Wheat, and Pinbone IPA — along with other specialty brews and what Bean says is the best burger in Alaska, more than 850 people visit the brewery per day at the height of the season.
“The income we generate in the summer months sustains us for the whole year,” says Bean. “Starting two months late is a real kick in the gut when you are only open five months total.”
Although they prefer to be seasonal workers, for the last three years Bean and Slater operated another restaurant in Seward, Chinooks, which is open year-round. The couple also operates employee housing for some of the brewery’s seasonal workers as a separate business.
“We were planning to use the income from Chinooks to tear down the old employee housing and build something eco friendly that can be shut down in the winter,” says Bean. “Instead we’re using our savings to stay financially stable this year.”
Although putting their plans for the housing project on hold is disappointing, Bean feels fortunate that she’s able to stay operational for the foreseeable future. Many businesses are facing a much more dire situation.
According to a survey by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, nearly half of businesses nationwide say they have less than six months until a permanent shutdown is unavoidable.
The first thing Bean does in the morning is grab her phone to read the news and scroll through Facebook, looking for COVID-19 updates, the latest from the White House, and a bit of pop culture for levity to balance a general sense of anxiety.
“It’s like I’m going through the stages of grief — mad, sad, scared, resolved — but you can’t really get resolved because everything keeps changing,” says Bean. “Will we be able to open our dining room? How much is tourism going to drop this year? What does this mean for next year? I can’t even speculate right now, but I’m not banking on pulling in nearly the amount we did last year.”
Bean heads out for a walk around her neighborhood to keep her stress levels down, and then home to check on her 16-year-old daughter, Rowan.
After answering emails, Bean logs into her bank account to see if any federal relief funds have been deposited. She applied for the PPP loan earlier this month through First National Bank Alaska, with assistance from Nolen.
“I’ve limited myself to checking once a day,” says Bean. “But I’m monitoring it closely because we usually have income and without it the balance can get really low. I have about four different business plans in my head depending on what happens with coronavirus.”
Although she hasn’t received federal funds yet, she knows they are on their way.
“The bank’s branch manager, Melissa Schutter, called me to let me know we were approved! My husband texted our chef right away; she said she had tears of relief in her eyes knowing she would get paid in May,” Bean said.
Along with New York-style bagels for breakfast (obtained by trading flour and banana bread with a neighbor) Bean makes Slater a French press of coffee, which he drinks before heading to Seward Brewing Company.
Earlier this year, a sprinkler in the brewery broke and three floors flooded, necessitating repairs to electrical panels and the elevator shaft. Bean spends some time on insurance paperwork and checks in with the brewery’s general manager.
“I’m glad we’re able to take care of repairs now, during shoulder season while the town is on lockdown,” says Bean. “The busiest part of the season hits June 15 and we have 90 days to make money. The Fourth of July is definitely our busiest day of the year. It’s crazy to think we won’t have Mount Marathon and the crowds of the people coming to town for it this year, but I know the Race Committee thought long and hard before making that call.”
2:30 to 3 p.m.
Bean’s daughter finishes school for the day, and they have a snack and hang out.
Bean balances the checkbook for both businesses — Seward Brewing Company and Employee Housing — as well as her personal checkbook. Once she’s done, she spends some time on her newest hobby, puzzles.
“In a normal year, employees would be coming into town, I’d be getting all their paperwork going, getting the house ready for them,” says Bean. “We would be getting the brewery cleaned and ready for opening. Instead, I’ve become a puzzle nerd.”
Seward Brewing Company typically employs 52 people during their operating season. Although Bean is unsure of how that number will change this year, she said it will definitely decrease.
“My husband is a chef and makes dinner every night, so we’ve been eating really well,” says Bean. “We try to do one big store run every two weeks and a quick trip for fresh ingredients once a week.”
After dinner, the family plays board games — Scrabble, Scattergories, Trivial Pursuit, (Monopoly was banned after games got too cutthroat) — and then watches a movie.
Bean goes to bed but lies awake until 2 a.m. watching Ancient Aliens, which she says keeps her from thinking about more somber subjects.
To other business owners facing the same challenges as the Seward Brewing Company, Bean’s advice is to throw out previous years’ business plan.
“I’ve heard it might take three years or more to build back up. You have to think out of the box. Keep your overhead low and payroll down to survive the next couple seasons. Whatever you are feeling right now, I can validate it. I’ve felt it myself.”
Gretchen Fauske is a marketing-minded economic developer fueled by a passion for entrepreneurship, innovation, and small business. She is the associate director for the University of Alaska Center for Economic Development, Board President for Launch Alaska, Vice Chair for Anchorage Downtown Partnership, and a Gallup-certified CliftonStrengths coach.