Random Holiday Season Thoughts and Information

Here are some thoughts and information as we head into a weird Christmas and New Year’s season.

Have you noticed the low winter produce prices? I saw a supermarket ad insert and realized while the supply chain has adapted there are still demand changes. With limited restaurant dining, there’s less produce being sold to restaurants, meaning there’s more supply for shoppers. Take-out meals usually doesn’t mean breakfast so that means suppliers sell less fruit to restaurants. I’m also guessing many people don’t order salads for take-out as often as they would if dining in. 

I haven’t worn a watch since mid-March. Really nice.

I know people whose businesses are thriving, others who are getting by, and some who’ve been decimated. One client had her customer base shut down by the closures, all over the country and internationally. Can’t sell product if your customers are closed.

Over the weekend I read two complementary articles on the virus and it’s spread. First, in the New York Times “The Morning” email the journalist gave three tips based on a survey of 700 epidemiologists plus conversations with other experts. The three tips are:

The top behavior to eliminate is: Spending time in a confined space (outside your household) where anyone is unmasked.

The behavior to minimize is: Spending extended time in indoor spaces, even with universal masking. Because masks aren’t perfect.And what’s less risky (the good news)? You don’t need a mask to go for a walk, a run, or a bike ride. Great advice on how to judge all of this: “If I had a birthday candle in my hand and you’re too far away to blow it out, I can’t inhale whatever you exhale.” Ninety percent of the epidemiologists had recently visited a grocery store, pharmacy, or another store.

On the opposite end of the political spectrum, Holman Jenkins, Jr. gave some similar advice in the Wall Street Journal. He summarized recent virus occurrences by noting all the hubbub about mask wearing has got us away from paying attention to safe distancing. Two of his best statements:

“it doesn’t matter how many of us wear masks if the young, who have the least to fear from Covid and are most likely to spread it unwittingly, aren’t wearing them.” 

“If you need to wear a mask to participate in an activity, consider not participating in that activity. Much of life and business can proceed normally while keeping 6 feet apart from those we love and those we don’t.”

I hope teachers are right behind health care workers when it comes to the virus. Kids need to be in school, they miss the interactions, many are falling behind, and it’s hurting families if a parent has to reduce hours or quit their job.

Online meetings are here to stay, especially for routine type meetings, but won’t replace in-person meetings where relationships need to be forged. I can see organizations like Rotary having a hybrid of in-person and online meetings. Not so sure about it for networking groups that thrive on getting to know each other.

Christmas will be strange (as will other seasonal celebrations). No big dinner with wrapping paper all over the floor. No post-dinner game sessions. No going from one house to another for morning presents.

I’m sure we’ll survive.

“One thing a person cannot do, no matter how rigorous his analysis or heroic his imagination, is to draw up a list of things that would never occur to him.” (Economist) Thomas Schelling

Passion and Emotions Win the Battle

I’ve been really into the Murder Book Podcast by Michael Connelly, author of over 30 mysteries and executive producer of the great series, “Bosch.” The podcast is about a 30-year-old murder that’s finally brought to trial, is filled with interviews with key people, wiretap recordings, and courtroom recordings.

Listening to the closing arguments, I was struck by three things and how those things can benefit all of us:

  • Passion was oozing from both the defense attorney and the prosecutor. There was no doubt about what they wanted, how much they wanted it, and what they would do to convince the jury, even if it meant stepping over the line and getting admonished by the judge. In business it should be obvious to everybody how much we like (love) helping our customers/clients.
  • This wasn’t TV where all the actors are good. This was real life and the defense attorney was a soooooo much better presenter than the prosecutor it was ridiculous. The defense attorney  sounded like a high-quality professional speaker. When listening to the prosecutor you hear a lot of “ah,” “um,” and “like.” It reinforces why we should know what we’re saying so we sound like an expert not someone making it up on the fly.
  • The emotional tug at the jury was based on facts. They both pulled facts from the case, added influence to them, and strove towards a compelling argument. In other words, they were like a good salesperson pointing out why what they have solves the customer’s problem (after asking questions to determine what is the actual problem).

To summarize, passion, presentation skills, and fact-based emotion will help all of us.

“Inviting people to laugh at your while you are laughing at yourself is a good thing to do. You may be the fool, but you are the fool in charge.” Carl Reiner

Zooming Around

What have you learned from four months of intense Zoom, Teams, WebEx, Google Meetup, Amazon Chime, and other online meetings? Here are my thoughts.

Positives

  • Unlike the telephone, we get to see other people. And a lot of other people.
  • Also unlike the phone, we can make or view presentations.
  • There have been a lot of learning opportunities (and God knows we all have had the time).
  • They’re safe, unless you spill your coffee on your keyboard.
  • We can actually see nuances like facial expressions.
  • We get to be casual.
  • These meetings will replace some phone calls. I’d much rather have a Zoom call versus a phone call if we have to go over things for an extended time.
  • Most important, we can easily mute what’s going on and still look interested.

Negatives

  • Fatigue as in Zoom fatigue but it applies to all online calls. There can be just too many.
  • They take longer. A 5-minute call is a 20-minute Zoom, which would be 45 minutes plus travel if in person.
  • Connectivity becomes a much bigger issue than cell coverage.
  • There are some home-offices I just don’t want to see.
  • There are personal hygiene habits best not seen.
  • People talk over each other (just like they do in meetings).
  • You catch people multi-tasking and asking others to repeat themselves (pay attention the first time please).

Any other positives or negatives to share? Let me know. Seriously, these meetings are here to stay. They won’t replace the phone, especially calls while we’re in the car, walking the dog, etc. They surely won’t completely replace in-person meetings and get togethers. They’re another method of communication. 

There’s been a lot of talk about the demise of meetings, in-office versus remote work, and similar is divided by type of work. Those in tech and similar are convinced there’s not much need for offices. But you still have to build a relationship to get a client. Creativity doesn’t happen over the phone or online. Just a guess, but when hiring someone you may want to look them in the eye, in person. Even in construction, a relationship means they trust your bid and you don’t build six or seven figure relationships online. 

I paged through my membership directory for Seattle Executives and of the over 100 businesses in the group I only noticed a handful or so of businesses that can survive long-term without in-person contact. A new norm indeed and still a work in progress.

“I would imagine that if you could understand Morse code, a tap dancer would drive you crazy.” (Comedian) Mitch Hedberg

Frustration Abounds

People are stressed. Covid has us wondering, frustrated, concerned, and for some, scared. And it boils over into passive-aggressive, snotty, and even mean behavior. And I’m not referring to those making it political.

How else to explain an email I received last week that said, “…if you were a real business you would have answered your phone.”

Okay, I get it. But just think, what if I was someone who could help this person? Or, someone who could buy something from their company?

I preach relationship, relationship, relationship to my clients. Don’t blow it before you have a chance.

Isolated Information May Equal Trouble

Some recent events have reinforced my belief that singular information can easily lead to the wrong conclusion. We see this in the news. A police officer makes a mistake, and some assume all cops are bad. A protestor (or protest hijacker) throws something, and some assume the whole group is bad.

Singular information in other parts of life can also get us off track.

I was looking at some of a client’s financial reports. Revenue and production efficiency should move together. If efficiency goes up so should revenue, and vice versa. But they didn’t; Efficiency was solid, but revenue went down. I found out the reason for this, it made sense but at the same time didn’t make sense. In other words, I now understand why it happened, but production efficiency shouldn’t be calculated the way it is/was. If all I did was look at one or the other, I’d get an incomplete picture.

The same goes for COVID cases. We are constantly barraged with the numbers of new cases. Just paying attention to the top line number can get you worried (it sure has with Washington’s governor). But if you look at the positive cases in relationship to the number of tests, you’ll see the numbers are up because testing is up. As per the Washington Department of Health’s website last week, the percentage of positive tests is (was then) at about half of what it was in April. Want to see the positive numbers go down, test less (that’s a joke).

Take this into account when you look at any business whether it’s to buy it, work there, or offer advice. It’s like peeling an onion. You peel until you get the right answer, whether it’s the one you want or the opposite. When it comes to buy-sell deals, you’re going to see a lot peeling. If sellers thought there used to be a lot of questions, they’ll now find their “onion” just got a got larger.

“Not all those who wander are lost.” J.R.R. Tolkien

Time for Thinking

Recent weeks and months have been traumatic. In business June was the quietest for us in three months. As quiet to the first couple weeks of the virus shutdown. The disgusting murder of George Floyd on top of the virus sure has changed our lives. I’ve put a lot of thought in all that’s going on, done a lot of reading, and listening. About those disenfranchised by society and those whose businesses and lives have been ravaged by a virus and then by looting.

Bottom line: I can put up with our business being slow for a while (repeat, for a while) if it leads to the societal change we need. Because if change truly occurs it will benefit all of us in many different ways (not just economically).

For perspective, we have a son-in-law who’s a police officer. I had three or four high school friends become police officers, two very good friends; guys with whom I played rec softball and touch football. One of those friends was murdered at age 29 when he served a (rather insignificant) warrant, the recipient pulled out a gun, and put a bullet in his head. His partner would have also been murdered but the killer’s gun jammed.

At the same time, some of my best friends are Black. I’ve known people who have been “targeted” based on their race. It happens and I know because I’ve been on the periphery of it. While not nearly the same, a number of years ago we were in Scottsdale over New Year’s, I went out for an early morning walk around the resort grounds, and because it was about 40o I had on a sweatshirt with the hood up. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a security guard on a Segway, and he was following me. Once he saw I was a white, middle-aged guy he left me alone. Hmmm, if I wasn’t would he have acted different?

I’m a believer in the 80-20 rule (sometimes more, sometimes less). In my opinion:

  • 80% (or more) of police are good.
  • 80% (or more) of protesters are well meaning.
  • 80% (maybe 98%) of politicians are in it for themselves not you or me.

So we know this stuff happens and it’s not from the good 80%. When I hear the president make comments encouraging violence against peaceful protestors it nauseates me. Just as it does when criminals hijack peaceful protests in order to steal and destroy. A destroyed small business will devastate the owner (see the front page of the June 4 Wall Street Journal about looting in small, minority owned businesses), his or her family, and the employees, who may have a hard time getting another job or getting unemployment given the ineptitude of the Unemployment Department, at least in Washington. 

Unfortunately, there’s no easy solution to all of this other than to do our part and have more acceptance. On one of our Rotary projects in Antigua we were having a discussion and one of my (Seattle) friends said, “People are people. Some are fat, some skinny; some tall, some short; some smart, some not so smart, some black, some white, but people are people.” And that really sums it up.

Education is one of the foundational pieces and we can’t keep having such educational disparity. More education, less dependency on government assistance, and a better life for all as life in general and the economy are not zero-sum games. It takes all of us doing a little bit. Business is business and there are more important things in life.

“Hell is boiling over/And heaving is full/We’re chained to the world/And we all gotta pull.” Tom Waits

What Will People Hoard Next?

We must be in the minority because we eat a lot of fresh fruit and vegetables. Now we’re eating more than before the virus crisis and I’m reading that farmers are not able to sell their crops because so many people are buying primarily meat and shelf stable food (cans, dried, frozen). Just look at the (low) price of strawberries over the last couple of weeks.

More proof, Costco posts a list of items they are out of and last week it included milk and eggs (they had some but what they had would be gone by early afternoon the day we were there), and fresh chicken. The produce section was overflowing. 

On April 27 the Wall Street Journal had an article titled, “Farmers Forced to Destroy Their Crops.” This after an article the week before about farmers dumping milk and eggs. It’s not that there’s not enough food, it’s what people are buying and how it’s packaged. If it’s packaged for food service distributors the packaging won’t work in the grocery stores.

On April 28 the WSJ had a headline, “Overcrowded Barns Hamper Pork Industry.” There’s a surplus of hogs as well as cows and chickens given the virus outbreak in meat packing plants. Tyson releases a notice about upcoming poultry shortages, stores can’t get their usual supply, and people hoard what is in the store.

I’m guessing they don’t teach about this in supply chain classes. Of course, they don’t teach about common sense and the lack of it is what’s fueling the fire (hoarding). So, will the produce aisles be hit hard next when there’s limited meat? We’ll have to wait and see.

“The secret to be successful with a child is to not be its parent.” Mell Lazarus

Need Versus Free (Money)

One of the most famous lines in literature is Charles Dickens opening of A Tale of Two Cities, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” One could apply that line to what’s going on these days with the pandemic. 

It’s the best of (business) times for grocery stores, streaming services, cleaning supplies manufacturers and distributors, etc. It’s the worst of days for those getting sick, having knee replacements or rotator cuff surgeries postponed, and owners and employees of a devastated small business. Given this is a business newsletter let’s talk about the last point.

Let’s start with two examples that represent quite a few situations I’ve discussed with people over the last couple of weeks.

A client with a distribution business was worried about making her payroll a week later, even at its current 50% of normal level. She didn’t know if her PPP application would be approved by then. The big problem is her customer base has been forced to close and she estimates 20% are closed for good. The same goes for companies supplying restaurants, hair salons, coffee shops, really any personal service, etc.

The owner of a service business told me his normal service is down, but their backlog of project work will keep them busy for three to four months. He also applied for the PPP and I’m sure he’ll get it. Given it will cover costs, the revenue will fall straight to the bottom line so at least the government will get a percentage of it back in taxes. And I know of businesses applying for the PPP even though their sales will be strong.

I’m sure the government officials were in a quandary. How to get money out ASAP versus qualifying who will get it. They chose giving it to all business meeting the topline criteria, which was mainly size of company and keeping people working (or calling them back to work). There were no “need” qualifiers like how much have your sales declined? Or, what will your Q2 sales be compared to 2019? (Yes, I know there’s a question asking the applicant to state they’ve been affected by the virus.) Given the business owner has to hire back their people to get loan forgiveness, what will those people do if there are no customers?

Not an easy decision and I wonder if there will be qualifiers in the future phases of the relief programs. There should be.

“I am not the kind of person women fall in love with. I sort of grow on them, like a fungus. Jeff Bezos

Random Thoughts Part 3 on the Virus Crisis

I get more feedback on my random thoughts memos than any four to six weeks combined, so here are some more.

Politicians look very well groomed, hair salons and barber shops are closed, I really need a haircut, so does anybody know where the governor is getting his hair cut?

“Non-essential” businesses are essential to the business owner and employees, aren’t they?

Did Joe Biden paint himself into a corner by saying he would pick a female running mate just before Andrew Cuomo became a star? 

What happens if government opens up the economy and workers are too scared to go back to their jobs? And/or the customers are too scared to go and buy?

We need a middle ground between Trump not caring if people get sick and (WA) Governor Inslee not caring about business owners and their employees.

And speaking of politicians, one of the best lines I’ve seen or heard came from a State rep in Wisconsin who said, why can we go to Walmart and buy flowers, but we can’t get flowers at the local florist?

There are almost no autoresponder replies to emails these days, other than from bankers telling us how busy they are with the paycheck protection program (and it’s true).

It’s easier to stay at home, especially on sunny days, if you’re an allergy sufferer and the pollen counts are at the top of the charts.

And speaking of allergies, what is the point of an allergy eyedrop coming in a .085 fluid ounce bottle (that’s about 1/7 of a teaspoon). The plastic must cost more than the solution.

I get a kick out of people who cross the street when they see you walking towards them. The mist we create when breathing doesn’t carry nearly that far (I’m guessing less than the six feet we’re told to be separated).

There’s a lot of well-deserved praise for health care workers, grocery store employees, and the same praise should be given to those in the supply chains that provide the products to the stores and medical facilities.

There’s a lot of creative comedy out there. A friend sent me a picture of an enraged Al Bundy with the caption, “Just to be clear, we’ve all agreed that liquor stores are “essential” and schools are not!”

There’s a huge and growing need for social/people interaction and Zoom Happy Hours are here to save the day. I think they’ll continue although not as frequently. 

Realize the officials in charge of the virus and economy in Washington State are the same genre of people who built the West Seattle bridge that is in danger of collapsing (on its own) about halfway through its expected life.

“If you make up your mind not to be happy, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t have a fairly good time.” Edith Wharton

More Random Thoughts on Our Crisis

I’ve had a lot of positive comments about my random thoughts format during the crisis, so here are some more.

Every day I get closer to having my wife get the clippers out and give me a buzz cut. I needed a haircut three weeks ago, was debating if it was safe to be in a shop, and then the lockdown.

I’ve seen more than enough emails with links to all the disaster relief programs. I’ll bet I got 20 or more.

I find it really beneficial to not have news radio on during the day because all they talk about is virus related, and not much is new. I can get enough in short bursts in a lot less time.

We walk our dogs almost every day and boy are there a lot of people out walking we’ve never seen walking before. And, on a walking meeting with my friend Pete McDowell we ran into a couple who saw us coming, moved about 25 feet away, and gave us a dirty look for being on the same path they were on.

A lot of helping going on. Just in our family, my wife went to the store for our 85-year-old neighbor. Jessica and she are sewing masks for Evergreen Hospital. Tomorrow I’ll be helping deliver 300 meals the Bellevue Breakfast Rotary Club is buying from Tutta Bella for Overlake Hospital (when we’re done, I’m guessing we’ll provide at least 3,000 meals for health care workers). My younger daughter gave an elderly man at the store two extra masks she has (the store was out of them). I know this is happening in many families.

There’s sure a lot of creativity going into funny videos about the virus. A friend even sent me a YouTube link for a German one titled, “Scheiss Corona” sung to the tune of My Sharona. 

On a serious note, I wrote my State legislator and asked why politics crept into the shutdown policies (I know the answers and I’m not making judgments here). Why was Sound Transit allowed to work for a few weeks, but home remodelers can’t? Rotator cuff and joint replacements for people in pain are out but abortions are essential? Why are pot shops open but gun ranges aren’t? I think it healthier to shoot off a few rounds to relieve stress than get high.

A lot more of us are getting better at Zoom, GoToMeeting, Teams, and other video conferencing services.

People are going to get sick of working from home a lot faster than many “experts” think they will.

Finally, I get asked all the time about when I think the economy will bounce back. Most people are optimistic because we’ve bounced back fast before. Then I see Tom Douglas, Bill Gates, and others writing about how they think it will be a long road to full recovery. I’m guessing it will be somewhere in the middle of the timeline, but really have no idea. I hope the optimistic crowd is correct.