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CT Small Business Development Center steps up its game to help companies weather pandemic

How bad can it get?

Apparently pretty bad indeed, as COVID-19 continues to wreak havoc with the world’s fiscal as well as its physical health. Some 2.4 million Americans filed for first-time unemployment benefits on a seasonally adjusted basis last week, bringing that total to 38.6 million since the coronavirus pandemic was declared in March.

According to the latest report from the Connecticut Department of Labor, the state shed 266,300 jobs in April, bringing that seasonally adjusted total to 276,800.

And a new study by economists at the University of Illinois, Harvard Business School, Harvard University and the University of Chicago has projected that over 100,000 of the nation’s small businesses – roughly 2% – have permanently closed as a result of COVID-19.


Such figures have not been made public by the state of Connecticut, where Gov. Ned Lamont and members of his administration continue to try to put a positive spin on the situation. And according to Joe Ercolano, state director of the Connecticut Small Business Development Center (CTSBDC), that is the best attitude to have as everyone continues to try navigating the current terra incognita.

Part of the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA), the organization offers free advice to small businesses on a number of issues — and has been particularly busy of late, Ercolano said.

“We have been tracking COVID-related impacts on our thousands of clients since March 18,” he said. “No one has been recorded as saying they’ve closed their business for good — but they might not be answering if they’re out of business.”

The CTSBDC will probably launch a formal survey in the future, Ercolano added, “and that will certainly be one of the questions we ask.”

Instead, the organization is still focused on providing advice — although that has mostly shifted from how to construct a business plan to how to apply and receive government loans and grants — and the news has surprisingly been mostly good, he said.

“The SBA’s Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL) program was already in place before the pandemic,” Ercolano said. “But the (SBA’s) PPP (Paycheck Protection Program), where the loans are made by the banks, was certainly confusing at the beginning. We had a lot of people turning to us for help with the applications, what information and background they needed to provide.”

As have Lamont, Department of Economic and Community Development (DECD) Commissioner David Lehman, and others, the CTSBDC is encouraging businesses to apply for PPP aid, as it still has some $100 billion left. “They’ve scaled back on the size of each loan, and have a renewed emphasis on smaller and minority-owned companies,” Ercolano said, “but we are advising everyone they should apply.”

Further federal help could arrive in the form of the HEROES Act, which was passed by the House of Representatives on May 15 but faces an uphill climb in the Republican-led Senate. “It’s anybody’s guess when that will pass, what changes will be made before it is passed, or if it will pass at all,” Ercolano said.

Helping hands
The CTSBDC has expanded from 13 to 18 statewide advisers due to the CARES Act, and has been instrumental in helping some local small businesses evolve as well.

Curtis Packaging CEO and owner Don Droppo Jr. in a one-piece face shield designed and manufactured by his company.

Sandy Hook’s Curtis Packaging, which designs and manufactures customized packaging for luxury products, first worked with the organization a few years ago to receive a Manufacturing Assistance Act loan from DECD. That was a fairly easy process, according to president, CEO and owner Don Droppo Jr., but its value has since paled next to its success in landing a PPP loan.

Being a manufacturer, Curtis was deemed an essential employer in Connecticut, although many of its customers were not. With some customers closed completely and others facing declining sales, there hasn’t been enough demand to design and print packaging, Droppo said. But several of its sectors — biomedical, spirits, and soap — have kept the presses running, although Curtis’ plant continues to operate under 100% of capacity.

“We are at the mercy of our customers’ demand and ultimately consumer purchasing,” Droppo said. “We are thankful for the PPP as we don’t have everyone back yet.”

The company also pivoted about eight weeks ago to begin fashioning a unique one-piece face shield and shifted production from its primary raw material, cardboard, to plastic in just two weeks.

“We were the disruptor in a brand-new category for us,” Droppo said. “Health professionals are telling us the one-piece face shield is more comfortable than multipieced designs, we know it’s less expensive than others on the market and they can ship flat, something procurement buyers have appreciated.”

Curtis is now producing 150,000 shields a day, with the largest order received to date for almost 200,000.

CTSBDC advisers Christine Sullivan and Nelson Merchan have helped Curtis further expand by establishing a referral to the Massachusetts SBDC.

“Don has the tenacity, leadership and vision to build a team and a network to deal with the challenges and opportunities in business,” Merchan remarked.

Merchan has also helped Taco Loco. Located in the Black Rock neighborhood in Bridgeport, Taco Loco is a restaurant featuring indoor and outdoor dining, take-out, catering and food trucks. Owner Miguel Tomasio, who has been in the restaurant business for 38 years, first worked with Merchan about four years ago to build out his food truck and catering business, as well as modernizing his dining areas.

Now, Tomasio said, the COVID pandemic has forced him to alter his business plan.

“Our main concern was the health and safety of our employees and customers,” he explained. Completely closing his business for six weeks as the state began implementing social distancing measures, Tomasio reopened for curbside pickup at the end of April.

During that time he began working with Merchan to apply for the PPP loan, which has allowed him to rehire nine of his former staff of 20, and to invest in a new point of sale system to streamline orders and reduce customer wait time.

“You have to be so flexible, accommodating your customers and your employees,” Droppo said. “This is unprecedented for all of us, and you can either run from it or you can see it as an opportunity.”


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