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Pivoting to support community during a pandemic

By ATB Financial 15 May 2020 4 min read

A lot can be said about business and the art of the pivot. Under usual circumstances, it’s about being able to change direction and still profit. But to the entrepreneurs featured here, “pivot” goes beyond profit, to a new model... one that balances community support and the bottom line, and uses their strengths as a business to help communities in crisis while continuing to build for the future.

The decision to pivot during a health crisis

“If you go with it, definitely go with both feet. Because no pivot happens half-heartedly,” says Manjit Minhas, chief executive officer of Minhas Brewery and Distillery. “You have to do it fully, and quickly; if you research too much or take too long to make a decision, others will make the decision for you.”

When a regional health authority called looking for hand sanitizer in mid-March 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic started unfolding, it took the executive team of the Calgary-based beer, wine and spirits producer less than 48 hours to make the call, avoiding the analysis paralysis trap that befalls many entrepreneurs. The reality is you’ll never have every piece of data to make the call, so you make the call with the information you have about the opportunity, the impact to your business, an understanding of the risk tolerance you have and a little bit of gut instinct.

The company paused its distilling operations in its Canadian and US facilities to focus on hand sanitizer. Within three weeks, the company had produced a million bottles.

In partnership with ATB, the company was able to donate their first batch to 20 non-profit organizations across Alberta that were in desperate need. By the end of April, Minhas Brewery was supplying hand sanitizer to major grocery chains, hospitals, front-line operations and non-profits in Canada and the US⁠—while still brewing beer.

You have to go into a pivot with your eyes wide open, Manjit says, and keep a balance.

“Like anything else, I take a hard look at the numbers and think⁠, ‘okay, now where do I need to be to continue to pay my bills and make sure my staff gets paid and the lights are on.’”

“You don’t want to go bankrupt while helping out. But you want to be able to help out because there are very few times as an entrepreneur when you can contribute like we have had the opportunity to do right now,” she says.

Entrepreneur emergency response cues business iteration

Hannah Cree uses “iteration” to describe CMNGD’s (COMMONGOOD) change in business model. The social enterprise laundry service company she had founded with her husband Dave in an effort to employ and empower the homeless, was almost forced to shut down within days of the pandemic being declared, as restaurants, hotels, fitness centres and other clients closed their doors.

“This was not a pivot: it was an emergency response. We had lost all our revenue overnight,” says Hannah. With the help of her board, she evaluated the organization’s assets and how they could be deployed differently. The answer was in their trucks. With the help of a SheEO Venture to cover payroll for the first month, CMNGD began delivering food surplus to social service agencies.

The new business iteration doesn’t change the business vision, as the core of CMNGD is to employ people facing trauma, not be a linen service, Hannah notes. And balance was never a question or an issue for the couple—managing an enterprise and doing good is baked into their business model.

Hannah’s advice on changing your business direction is straightforward:

  • Take stock of what skills you have on your team.
  • Evaluate what your assets are.
  • Figure out what you do well and move that forward.

She also adds a cautionary note to keep an eye out for challenges that can pop up as you adopt a new direction.

Being agile to move your business forward

Rocky Mountain Soap Company already had a hand sanitizer formula in their product library when the pandemic was announced. The Canmore based manufacturer, which uses 100 percent natural ingredients in all its products, worked with Health Canada to expedite production of Nomad Hand Sanitizer in mid-March 2020.

Within two weeks, they were able to launch⁠—a process that usually takes six months to a year. The company had closed its 13 retail outlets overnight and moved to 100 percent online sales in response to COVID-19.

“This also cut 80 percent of the company's annual revenue, which came from retail locations,” says CEO Karina Birch. “We knew immediately we needed to quickly build a model that will sustain us as an e-commerce retailer.”

The company reallocated employees to ramp up shipping, production and customer service to reflect the transition, and increased shifts to adhere to a 15-person limit. Rocky Mountain Soap Company was able to be agile because of the team’s commitment to the values and culture of the company, she says.

Karina highlights the following for a successful pivot.

  • Take a moment to do your own research on where the real needs are and seeing what value you, specifically, bring.
  • Pick your top three priorities and focus on them. This is not the time to try and do it all.
  • Look ahead to how you want to remember this time and your part in helping the community.

Pivoting your business to balance profitability and helping the community during a crisis takes teamwork, vision and resources. For more insights and tips on getting your business through COVID-19, see our Good Advice stories.

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