‘The world has changed a lot:’ The business community looks back on the past 4 years | Local News

LACONIA — Given the strong and variable headwinds that have plagued local businesses over the past four years, it wouldn’t have been surprising to learn that many establishments had to close. In fact, what might be the most surprising result of all is the one that actually happened. When the Lake District Chamber of Commerce gathered for its first in-person annual meeting since 2019 on Wednesday, it did so with its largest membership in recent history.

Businesses that have had to close, perhaps forced to do so due to the COVID-19 pandemic, followed by supply chain disruptions, unpredictable cost volatility and general concern about what which was to follow, were few. However, said Karmen Gifford, president of the chamber, the companies that survived did so through adaptation. The company that is operating exactly the same as it did four years ago is the rare exception.

“We are more in our membership than we have ever been in my tenure,” Gifford said. Chamber membership has grown by approximately 4% over the past two years, with growth driven by new businesses. There are three new restaurants currently building their spaces, Gifford said, and pointed to new entrepreneurial activity in downtown Franklin, Tilton, Laconia and Meredith.

This new business is building on a base of businesses that have largely survived the pandemic – although they may not be using the same playbook as in 2019.

“Those we thought we might lose have gotten smarter in their operations,” Gifford said. “They are not the same as before, but they are better than before.”

“I see this whole central part of New Hampshire growing,” she added.

Why has the Lake District performed so well during such a difficult time? Gifford said local businesses benefit from having good local school systems and duty-free shopping, as well as location advantages. Central New Hampshire is within usable distance of Manchester-Logan Airport and a few hours drive from Boston, while offering a rural lifestyle and a variety of outdoor recreation.

“It’s a combination of things,” she said, which was a compelling proposition to entice city dwellers to move during the pandemic. People who had vacation homes in the Lake District started spending a lot more time there, and people who could suddenly work remotely decided to make their lake their primary residence.

These new residents brought their spending abilities with them, and local businesses were happy to provide anything they needed to set up their home office or outfit them for weekend adventures.

Remote work, focus on service and efficiency

Moulton Farm grows fruit and vegetables and sells baked goods, but during the pandemic, chief executive Jeff Mills said, they’ve learned the value of the service they provide.

Farming is an act of optimism – seeds are planted in the faith that, months later, a clientele will be willing to pay for them. The farm was able to sell all of its produce, even during the scariest times of the pandemic, because their customers trusted them to provide curbside pickup, even if they didn’t feel as comfortable doing so. go to other food retailers.

Now, Mills said, service quality is “top of the list” at every staff meeting.

Sandi Grace, mortgage loan officer at Bank of New Hampshire, said her work was largely done in face-to-face meetings with clients and other mortgage professionals, but that has changed since the pandemic. . Now, she says, the majority of the mortgage process is done entirely or partially remotely, and that’s the exception that a client requests in-person service. The result is a much more efficient operation, she said.

Remote operations were something that made managers uncomfortable before the pandemic, but something they had to accept during mandatory stay-at-home measures in 2020. Bill Bald, president of Melcher & Prescott Insurance, said he was one of those managers. , who had to admit they “didn’t miss a beat” when his staff had to switch to remote working.

“It opened my eyes,” Bald said, to see that his employees were just as productive at home as they were when working in the company’s Laconia office.

Melcher & Prescott, which dates back to 1862, is one of the oldest companies in town. With many local businesses among his client portfolio, Bald said he’s seen remote work go from something supervisors feared to something they embraced.

“We still prefer the office, it’s hard for remote employees to be indoctrinated into your corporate cultures and values,” Bald said. However, he said the manager’s preference is often outweighed by his need to hire someone – and the labor market currently empowers the potential employee during negotiations.

“It’s sort of a given, if the work is [done by] computer and phone, they want to do it from where they want to do it, not where you want them to do it,” Bald said.

He heard this from many clients, some of whom had to look far to find the services needed to grow their business.

“I’ve spoken to a lot of people who have had to outsource certain positions because they weren’t able to find them” locally, Bald said. One local office has hired administrative support in Argentina, another is considering similar services outside the Philippines. “Employers had to get more creative,” Bald said. “The recurring theme is that we would rather hire locally, but if you can’t recruit the people, you still have to do the job.”

In today’s market, Bald said, hiring managers can’t be too demanding. If the right candidate insists on working remotely, that’s often up for negotiation, he said. The same goes for some of the other accompaniments of a job description.

Bald said hiring negotiations start and end with salary. Now, that’s just the starting point.

“Employers that didn’t traditionally offer benefits, health care plans, they had to add that because it became an expectation,” Bald said. As the costs of these plans have risen, many employers have decided to absorb these cost increases on their own, rather than passing them on to employees, which Bald called “an investment in employee longevity.”

Other benefits on the table include retirement savings plans and vacations.

“There’s a lot more negotiation around benefits now than before it was a take-it-or-leave-it situation,” Bald said.

Once the employee comes on board, the way they conduct business is now much more likely to be virtual, Bald added. In the insurance industry, it was common for policy renewals, especially for large commercial customers, to be done in person, usually with a visit to their place of business.

“Now our customers are enjoying a virtual meeting,” Bald said. With this change came an increase in efficiency. An employee could previously perform up to three renewals a day, with a lot of driving, or what Bald called “windshield time,” in between. Now he said the same employee could go through seven renewals in one workday.

“I like in-person meetings,” Bald said. Earlier in the week, he had given an in-person class at the Taylor Community, which was attended by 20 people. But – another sign of the times – there was also a virtual option, and another 60 people watched the presentation wherever they were at the time.

“It’s nice to be in person, but since people’s time is limited, if you can avoid two hours in the car, it really increases your productivity,” Bald said. “The world has changed a lot. The majority is for the best, but it is certainly different.

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