You Own a Business and Duty Calls
Military reservists have a slew of details to mind when they get the call to duty, but small business owners face particularly tough challenges. Not only must these men and women make sure all is in order before they deploy, they also must decide how to keep operations going in their absence.
Fortunately, organizations such as the U.S. Small Business Administration, SCORE (Senior Corps of Retired Executives) and various business and industry analysts provide a wealth of helpful information to entrepreneurs heading for active duty - including detailed operational strategies to keep their companies thriving for the duration.
Holding Down the Fort
Advice for keeping a company afloat during the owner's absence abounds, with Internet sites, magazine articles and entire books devoted to the subject. From this bewildering welter of words, one clear message comes through: Make arrangements to protect the company BEFORE donning that uniform.
Legal, administrative, financial and staffing provisions properly and systematically addressed can insure a firm's viability throughout the owner's deployment. So if you're anticipating a military stint, consider these practical suggestions:
- Look at the long term. As a reservist, treat routine professional training and weekend drills as you would longer absences. The SBA recommends designing and maintaining a Small Business Mobilization Plan (https://www.sba.gov/sites/default/files/files/balancingbusiness.pdf) detailing critical business tasks, management responsibilities, fiscal authority and legal provisions.
- Plan in advance. Tightening business practices well before a call-up can greatly simplify the period prior to deployment. Fundamental strategies include: establishing an emergency fund for slow periods; obtaining personal insurance appropriate to the situation; updating business plans; devising marketing tactics to implement throughout the deployment period; scouting for key managers; contacting company legal staff; assigning power of attorney; notifying clients and vendors; and staying abreast of emerging technology and other developments. Putting together a complete, documented inventory of assets likewise makes good business sense.
- Seek assistance from support agencies. A range of organizations can help an entrepreneur with preparations for departure, some targeting specific branches of the Armed Services. Two excellent resources speaking to these issues are the SBA Office of Veterans Business Development (https://www.sba.gov/offices/headquarters/ovbd). Reservists should visit https://www.sba.gov/federal-contracting/contracting-assistance-programs/service-disabled-veteran-owned-small-businesses-program. In the public sector, professional or trade organizations can provide financial and logistic information specific to their fields.
- Prepare the staff. One of the biggest perks of employing good people is their willingness to help during tough times. Many human resource experts suggest asking staffers for suggestions on keeping operations humming. In addition, offering bonuses or rewards for continued excellent performance can do a lot to maintain productivity and high service standards in the owner's absence. The weeks prior to deployment are also a good time to train employees for additional responsibilities, as well as to establish a communication protocol around emails and conference calls, if applicable.
- Consider the customer. Customer loyalty does not happen overnight. Rather, it is a product of an entrepreneur's ongoing attention to service. When military deployment looms, savvy business owners will ensure that clients know well in advance about their impending absence. Short newspaper announcements or personal letters will keep clients in the loop, but a face-to-face conversation is warmer and friendlier. If possible, it's also a good idea to send an e-mail note to your contact list from the field, if the situation allows. Clients will be thrilled you thought of them.
- Refer with care. Referring clients to other businesses during deployment makes for good service, even though you may experience temporary loss of some customers. You can bring them back in the fold later on.
- Communicate with suppliers. Make sure to advise vendors regarding details of your upcoming deployment, and be certain they thoroughly understand changes in procedures or policies. Written documentation of new arrangements is critical.
- Face financial realities. How to make money and manage it properly in absentia presents a huge quandary for deployed business owners. While nothing can ease every worry, taking certain actions will lighten the load:
- Consult an accountant about controlling costs, reducing overhead and employing other techniques to keep the company viable.
- Look into the Military Reservist Economic Injury Disaster Loan program. Managed through the U.S. Small Business Administration, MREIDL's purpose is to provide funds to eligible small businesses to meet routine operating expenses in the absence of an "essential employee" on active duty. The maximum amount obtainable is $2 million, with individual amounts limited to the actual economic injury as calculated by SBA. Other limitations include the level of business interruption insurance and whether the company and/or its owners have sufficient operation fund. When a business is a major source of employment, SBA may waive the $2 million statutory limit.
These loans cover only necessary obligations until operations return to normal. They do not apply to lost income, lost profits, refinance of long-term debt or business expansion.
- Address all fiscal obligations. Strategies such as notifying the Internal Revenue Service of an upcoming deployment; contacting vendors, creditors and banks; deferring or restructuring loans; updating authorized signature cards; and reviewing credit ratings can prevent costly financial snarls once your military stint wraps up.
- Consider legal issues. No entrepreneur should leave for military duty without consulting his lawyer. Assigning power of attorney, reviewing insurance policies, updating company contracts and revising wills are among the many tasks a good attorney can make easier.
Finally, make sure you review all business measures you have taken with a trusted family member or friend – particularly if you have no partners to step in. Situations occur where decisions must be made, even if you are out of reach.