Five months into COVID-19: Are you surviving or thriving?

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I recognize everyone is sick of the words coronavirus and COVID-19. Most of us wish we never learned them. But since crashing into our worlds in March, those two words have foundationally altered our businesses and our lives.

Now five months into a national emergency that doesn’t seem to be going away — but doesn’t seem to be getting worse either — most Americans have adapted their lives to cope with a virus we still don’t fully understand but recognize will define our actions until a vaccine is developed.

Here in trucking’s essential but often overlooked parts and service channels, managing COVID-19 has been a challenge since day one.

I’ve been impressed by how fast and how comprehensively many of you altered your operations to ensure employee and customer safety while still maintaining productivity. I’ve been encouraged by the conversations I’ve had with aftermarket and dealer professionals, alike, about how your teams have accepted their new reality and adapted their work to thrive in an unusual setting. I’ve loved the responses from our supplier partners who, despite taking a beating across the board in the second quarter, continue to look for ways to engage with their distribution channel and provide valuable training resources and guidance to generate sales.

But I also know good vibes and a positive attitude only goes so far. Sales in the aftermarket and dealer channels have bounced back well from the depths of late-March and April but for most of the industry we’re still below pre-pandemic levels. And all those new processes and safety procedures everyone developed on the fly in March? Those were investments. They were costly.

This year has been a constant kick to the pocketbook, a stress on everyone’s P&L statement. And with the latest reports from Washington D.C., indicating a second stimulus package shouldn’t be counted on, I hope everyone in the channel also has leveraged the unfortunate extra free time you’ve had these last five months to fortify your rainy day fund.

Bill wrote about rainy day (or reserve) funds back in May when everyone needed one. He touched on how the funds are created and how they can be slowly grown over time to eventually become a useful and substantial bounty to fall back on in hard times. I haven’t talked to many distributors or dealers who haven’t dipped into their rainy day funds since COVID-19 hit, though most have done as much as possible to limit their reliance on banked capital due to the uncertainty of what’s ahead.

I think that’s the part that scares me the most about what’s happening right now.

A natural disaster destroying your business is devastating. Catastrophic. But 99 times out of 100, it’s a single event. It happens, then it’s over. You come out of your storm shelter, start assessing the damage and slowly get back to work again.

I don’t mean to minimize the impact hurricanes, tornadoes and other disasters can have on a small business. I’ve seen utter devastation firsthand in my professional and personal life and know it can take years to fully recover what was lost. But at least after a storm, there’s a clear path forward. You know when it ends and you know when you can begin picking up the pieces.

I don’t know if we’ll have that with COVID-19.

Here in Illinois, we reached Phase 4 (of 5) of Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s reopening plan in late June. He says we can’t get to Phase 5 without a readily available vaccine. That could be months. Maybe even a year. Meanwhile, we float dangerously close to infection rates that would push our economy back to Phase 3.

That terrifies me. I don’t want to get sick, but I also don’t want to know what Phase 3 would do to an already struggling economy that’s about to lose its federal relief support and can’t count on the state to pick up the slack. How long can our businesses manage this?

I ask you the same question: How much longer can you do this? How does one build an emergency fund for an emergency that never really ends?

I don’t have the answer. I wish this was more positive. But, like you, I’m sick of COVID-19 and lockdowns and a year that just gets worse every day. I hope for your sake and your employees and your business that sales have returned in your market. I hope you’ve learned to cope. I hope you didn’t have to break the glass on your reserve fund. Or, if you did, that it hasn’t run empty.

If your business is still hobbling, I feel for you. Keep the faith. Keep working hard. Hopefully tomorrow the sun will shine a little brighter. In the meantime, TPS will continue doing what we can to keep you educated and informed about your market. We’re all in this together, and we’ll try to do our part to make things a little bit easier.

Thanks for listening to me vent. Feel free to do the same in the comments. Sometimes it can help you feel better.

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