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Leading through crisis

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — There is little question that COVID-19 has wreaked severe financial damage on employers across the country, but businesses that emerge on the other side of this economic maelstrom will be those that best cope with the idea that life – and business – has changed, perhaps irrevocably.

Honorees of the Journal’s 2020 Top CEOs program noted that being able to adjust to the fluid nature of the changing times is a key part in leading through the crises so many businesses are facing this year.

Joanie Griffin of Sunny505 said pandemic-related shifts in the way businesses operate will likely be here for the long haul, so companies should adapt. (Courtesy of Joanie Griffin)

“The world that we’re in, it’s a changing thing,” said Joanie Griffin, owner of Sunny505, an Albuquerque-based marketing, public relations and advertising firm and the top executive in that category. “COVID is as transformational for this generation as 9/11 was for us. That changed the travel industry forever. The way people do business is likely going to change.”

So look for that change and adapt to it, she said.

“One of the things you see is more people ordering things online,” Griffin said. “If you’re a retailer, figure out a way to do even more online.”

Sunny505 was in charge of promotions for the American Heart Association’s New Mexico Heart Walk. Scheduled for June, Griffin early on proposed making it a virtual event.

“The corporate entity had never done a virtual event, but we did the whole thing virtually,” she said. “We had an app. Did a half-hour virtual video and had survivors talk and the chairman kicking it off. We got (New Mexico singer) Hillary Smith to sing the national anthem. It was great.”

It worked so well, the organization actually made $10,000 more this year than last, Griffin said.

“They didn’t have all the expenses and burden of putting on the live event,” she said. “So they had that much more go to the bottom line for heart research. And New Mexico ended up being a case study for other chapters on how to do it.”

As a matter of fact, virtual reality may be the new route for many areas of business.

“In February, we didn’t even know what Zoom was,” Griffin said of the video teleconferencing app. “Now we’re all experts at it.”

Tony Zancanella of Opera Southwest said finding ways to keep its artistic teams going has helped it keep going during the pandemic. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

Opera Southwest has bought into the virtual reality – not exactly by choice but out of necessity, said executive director Anthony Zancanella, who also is executive director of Chatter, an outlet for ensemble chamber music. Zancanella was the runner-up CEO in arts and entertainment.

“Nonprofits, performing arts, they’re just about the worst industries right now because our core business is being impacted by COVID-19,” he said. “The basic business we’re in is mass gatherings so it’s been pretty challenging for us.”

Finding a way to keep its artistic companies busy, however, was an important part of survival, Zancanella said.

“We converted to livestream work,” he said. “It’s difficult to monetize that, but it has allowed us to keep our staff employed. And that’s critical in terms of the continuity of our artistic team, keeping it engaged and working.”

The show is the thing, however, and getting it in front of live, paying customers is the ultimate goal, Zancanella said.

Still, Opera Southwest has been able to generate a little bit of revenue by turning its wardrobe department into a mask-creating business.

“And we’re exploring other possibilities, maybe even working outdoors and doing extreme social distancing,” Zancanella said. “I’m extremely bullish on the future of the performing arts. … In this line of business, you look back at a 400-year-old tradition. We’ve overcome cholera and the plague and the Spanish flu.”

As a matter of fact, for Opera Southwest and other, similar entities, the future may be quite bright, he said.

“Live, performing arts really tap into a fundamental need, a community gathering and in-person gathering that people require,” Zancanella said. “I think there is going to be tremendous, pent-up demand unleashed on the other end of this. It’s just a matter of can you as a company last long enough to hit that other side? That is one of the reasons we’re finding alternate methods of producing work. It’s not just about serving the audience it’s about keeping that institutional cohesion alive.”

Ernie C’deBaca, executive director of the Albuquerque Hispano Chamber of Commerce, said it has been tough watching the lifeblood of the economy – small businesses – bleed away during this time.

“They have so many blood, sweat and tears that go into it,” he said. “They risk their finances, they risk their mortgages on their homes, they risk their retirement. It’s a risky business. And through no fault of their own they’re being run out of business. All of sudden it’s in jeopardy. I can’t feel bad enough for them.”

Ernie C’deBaca of the Albuquerque Hispano Chamber of Commerce said economic diversification is crucial today in NM. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

The chamber has been offering frequent webinars to give members tips to survive and it has actively been trying to create partnerships between compatible businesses to help the cash flow. The chamber has also partnered with several organizations, like the Duke City Gladiators and Twisters, to provide members with personal protection equipment for their workers.

One thing that is abundantly clear, C’deBaca said, is New Mexico cannot continue business as usual.

“We need to diversify our economy,” he said. “We’re so reliant on certain things. The federal government for jobs and oil and gas for revenue and hospitality – that’s an industry that is getting so beaten up it’s unbelievable. Hotels and restaurants have to find a way to survive. They don’t need to thrive, they just need to survive. It’s shrinking our small business base and what we need to do is increase our small business base.”

Innovation is one key moving forward, said Steven Walsh, distinguished professor and spokesperson for the Innovation group of the University of New Mexico’s Anderson School of Management.

“You have to look at this as an opportunity rather than a depression and there are companies in New Mexico embracing that idea,” he said. “Those people that use this as an opportunity versus those people that whine about it are the ones that succeed.”

For instance, Albuquerque-based Build With Robots has created a system to clean and disinfect large spaces safely and efficiently to destroy germs that can cause illness without human interaction.

“They’re going national,” Walsh said. “They’re cleaning everything where COVID was. They focus on factories, Walmarts and airports. And their first big job was to cleanup Albuquerque International Airport.”

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