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Two years ago, husband and wife team Lauren Braddock and Ben Alcorn were entertaining cleaning and restoration service clients at The Players Championship when suddenly the PGA commissioner appeared on all video screens at the golf course to announce that the tournament was ending because of COVID.
The owners of Servpro of Jacksonville Beach-Ponte Vedra and Servpro of Mandarin didn’t know it then, but it was the beginning of a major shift in the way that their company would go about getting new business.
Like so many other small business owners, they were initially forced to sit at home to ponder what would come next, because after a few weeks the business phone lines still weren’t ringing.
“We finally realized that we had to be proactive if we wanted to stay in business,” said Lauren Braddock. Her parents started the business 40 years ago and had retired right before the pandemic hit. In the next months, the couple felt pressure to find ways to keep the business going.
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Longtime franchises offer brand trust for consumers and corporate support for franchisees. But with the most recent economic downturn, even support that comes with buying into a franchise is not always enough comfort.
Until two years ago, most of their business came from water damage in houses when people were not at home when such things as toilets started overflowing or supply lines in freezers broke. When people were home more during the pandemic, there weren’t as many major emergencies for Servpro to address. And commercial water damage tends to happen when there are a lot of people in a building, which wasn’t as often the case during the pandemic.
“When business dried up overnight, it was a really big shock to the system,” Alcorn said. “After a few weeks of the phone not ringing, we started calling people to offer disinfectant services to help navigate the pandemic for essential businesses that had to stay open.”
Though they had done biohazard cleanups before, it had been a small part of the business.
“But overnight, it became 25 percent of our business,” he said. “People tend to think about our company for water damage, hurricanes or storm damage. But we do a lot more, like mold and fire cleanups, biohazard cleanups, and trauma and crime scene cleanups.”
I’ve always been curious about people who run franchises, because a franchise is set up to mitigate risks because of a proven system and structure. And in hard times, it makes sense that consumers might turn to brands that have built up trust and loyalty. Still, it’s up to individual business owners to either build up a business or struggle.
While no business model was pandemic-proof, industries including restaurants, travel and hospitality providers were initially hurt more than others. And for the most part, businesses in the home services sector, including cleaning providers, telehealth and delivery services thrived.
But every small business owner has a different story, no matter what industry they’re in. Just because you’re equipped to do something different doesn’t mean that’s what you’re used to doing, or that you know how to go about securing new customers in a different sector. For instance, in 2019 water damage accounted for 62 percent of the company’s business, Alcorn said. Prior to COVID, disinfecting accounted for about one percent of the company’s business. Once the pandemic hit, water accounted for 49 percent of the business while viral disinfecting accounted for about 20 percent of the company’s sales. In the last two years, the company’s overall sales increased nearly 30 percent.
Intentional networking paid off
Braddock said the first thing she did was consider how she normally got business. And for the first time, making a lot of cold calls to strangers in charge of property management and other commercial businesses didn’t make sense.
“I started focusing on relationships that I’ve had for years. I met a lot of people throughout the years from groups like the Chamber of Commerce. I started asking people if they had developed a plan for their business, and if there was a way for our business to be part of their plan.”
“For the first time, I’m networking a lot more purposely. Before the pandemic started I always did a lot of cold calling. I used to cast a much wider net to companies in property management, healthcare, insurance and assisted living venues,” she said.
In the last two years, Braddock said that she realized that there were about 15 clients that primarily kept them afloat with decontamination work during the pandemic. Now work is slowly started to get back to a normal mix of services.
“We just did a large post construction cleanup for a hospital,” she said. “We only got that contract because they now trust us after providing decontamination services for a year and a half. Adding more services instead of running around chasing people that I don’t know made a big difference. Now we’re working more with people who already know and trust us.”
Ryan Lavallee, who owns three territories in South Georgia, said his father used to work for Braddock’s parents. Now he’s also part of a second-generation family who runs a Servpro franchise business. Sales at his business have increased about 50 percent since COVID started.
Being part of a franchise system can be beneficial, but talking to people including Braddock and Alcorn was helpful to share information about best practices, new equipment, ways to market the business and information about SBA backed loans that helped businesses keep their workforce employed,
Last summer when a local medical lab caught fire in Jacksonville, Braddock and Alcorn reached out to Lavallee’s company for help in cleaning up such a big project.
“COVID accelerated our circle of cooperation,” he said. “We’ve learned a lot in the last couple of years. One thing is certain. If you don’t adapt to change you will get left behind.”
Forced change is the reason Alcorn and Braddock are looking into other industries including reconstruction. They’re used to cleaning up and drying out structures. Now they see potential in offering a one-stop for clean-up and restoration services.
“Jacksonville is on the rise,” Alcorn said. “We see our business continuing to thrive as more people relocate to our great city.”