Tips For Doing Business In A Time Of Crisis

Tips For Doing Business In A Time Of Crisis

Will Chen, BA’01

Will Chen is a Managing Partner at Surmesur Custom Menswear in Vancouver BC. He graduated from UBC with a BA in East Asian Studies in 2001 and completed his Diploma in the Accounting Program in 2002. Here he shares his recent experiences in managing a business during COVID-19.

2020 had started as a year of optimism and growth. My wife and I just had our second baby, and I had closed my business and invested six figures to join forces with Surmesur, one of the top custom-tailored suit shops in the city. We signed a 10-year lease on a beautiful new retail location in the Bentall 5 tower, and negotiated generous contracts to reward our amazing team of stylists and tailors at our existing Yaletown showroom.

Two weeks later, the shutdown happened.

Our doors were shuttered for 10 weeks. Our entire sales and tailoring staff was furloughed. Clients were emailing us about their cancelled weddings, and Yaletown had become a boarded-up ghost town. The 6-figure investment I had put in for our new location quickly got gobbled up by pre-existing obligations like rent and tax remittances, which seemed immune to COVID-19.

We needed to adapt in order to survive, and we needed to do it quickly. Here is how we’ve managed during this tumultuous time:

  1. We became clear on our new reality. Developing new protocols for what we could and couldn’t do while keeping everyone safe was our number one priority. PPE was sourced and purchased for client and staff use. During our search we stumbled upon a reusable non-medical mask supplier and started selling those to individuals and businesses who were looking for better-looking and better-fitting masks or corporate-branded options. Our sales model shifted from relying on retail walk-in traffic to booking in past clients on an appointment-only basis or virtual consultations. Aside from ensuring minimal numbers inside our showroom for social distancing, it also improved our client experience, as now our stylists could devote their full attention to their client’s needs in a private setting.
  2. We have shifted the way we network. Another vital lifeline that got choked off was our reliance on professional events for networking, branding and client acquisition. Within a week of re-opening, our staff joined 4 local BNI (Business Networking International) groups that adapted to meet weekly over ZOOM. With a heavy emphasis on generating referrals, we were able to create over 200 local ambassadors for our brand and services through these groups.
  3. Reassessed our offerings. Promoting tailored suits on the casual west coast was already challenging, so the new norm of working from home made a sizable dent in our sales volume. While we still had a handful of loyalists determined to look and feel their best during this time, we introduced new fabrics and product lines to broaden our appeal. Stretch Italian wool suits and Bamboo Stretch dress shirts that don’t wrinkle have been a hit with everyone, as well as the launch of a custom-tailored Stretch Denim collection that is as comfortable as athletic wear.
  4. We learned what resources were available. With the Canadian Emergency Wage Subsidy we were able to not only keep the majority of our staff, but we were also able to extend an opportunity to workers in the hospitality industry. Given that many of them are already well-versed in forging relationships and providing outstanding client experiences, we created a program for them to be able to make extra income through referral lead generation and becoming Personal Stylists during the day, with earning potential capped only by their own efforts. So far this has been an appealing way to bring their valuable skill sets to an entirely different industry.

Franklin D. Roosevelt once said: “A smooth sea never made a skilled sailor.” Our mission as a business has always been to help others become the best version of themselves, which means that we need to consistently be doing the same no matter the circumstances. By staying true to our values, we’ve been able to navigate ourselves and others through these tumultuous times.