by Tim Mages
October 14, 2019
It’s easy to forget that the Great Recession was just a decade ago. Today, the national unemployment in the United States sits at just 3.7%—a far cry from the record high 10% in 2009. Although there is no stock-buying mania on Main Street like there was in 1999, and no economic promise that "this time is different"—we cannot forget that millions of Americans learned their lessons the hard way.
First and foremost, lessening the impact of a future recession on your company comes down to planning. It’s often said, “Don’t ride the highs too high or the lows too low.” A team’s ability to prepare in advance by taking steps that lessen the recessionary impact is key for small businesses everywhere.
Wall Street and financial mavericks and mavens can argue all day about when the next recession will hit, but the reality is, economies fluctuate and another recession is not an if, but a when. Here are some thoughts to help small business owners plan early and to manage or navigate through the next recession.
Like anything in life, it is easier to fix your problems here and now, alongside a strong economic tailwind, versus being reactive during the next downturn. While not exhaustive, each thought provides steps to consider. The following is a checklist for preparing for a recession.
1. Cash Is KingPart of the challenge with a recession is we never know in advance how it will impact the business. It is easy to think about direct impacts to your revenue from a slowing economy, but how will your business hold up if a customer goes bankrupt and can’t pay for work already completed by your business? Or a supplier is unable to meet your needs and immediate short-term alternatives double your initial cost estimates? Your cash reserve, whether it is cash on hand or availability through your lenders, is first and foremost in managing any challenges.
2. Measure Productivity Balance declining top-line trends by identifying as many variable costs in your business as possible, including underperformers. During the last economic downturn, many businesses planned for a 15% decrease in revenue to equate to a 15% reduction in payroll. In reality, this turned deadly.
As downward trends continued and sales dropped 30% to 40%, it was a challenge for businesses to catch up. Prepare for the long term by identifying ways for the entire team to do more with less from the start.
3. Assess Your Meaningful SuppliersIf you have not recently assessed your meaningful suppliers, now may be a good time to review their market position. Research what other customers are saying about your supplier, have discussions with them and their preparations for a downturn, and pull data or review industry sources to assess their business performance and risk.
This is good business practice even in growth years, but becomes even more critical ahead of a recession. Nothing can disrupt your business and your reputation more than a supplier you rely on suddenly having a major “hiccup.” Don’t allow the success or failure of your suppliers to define the fate of yours.
4. Manage Customer Concentration Diversifying your customer base could be the difference between exiting a recession strong or “limping” into the next growth cycle. A multibillion dollar customer that is 30% of your business is a liability, not a safety net. While your high-performing customers will likely survive a recession, financial strain could pressure them to take actions that put your contract at risk. Consider any one customer comprising over 10% of your total revenue a liability and work now to diversify.
5. Reduce LeverageNow is a difficult time to take on additional debt or leverage to acquire equity interests of other owners, execute on an acquisition, or to enter into a risky project with a long-term payback. Many companies took on large amounts of debt during 2007, only to encounter many challenges over the next 4 to 7 years dealing with reduced revenue and the impact on meeting obligations to debt holders. Our company is constantly examining financial projection stress tests to assess our overhead feasibility at various leverage levels should revenue decrease.
6. Shop for Options Ahead of TimeBetween 2008 and 2012, 465 banks failed. If your company relies only on lines of credit from your bank, consider the impact of your bank closing or shutting off lending to your industry segment. Make the time to talk to alternative financing sources.
Should an immediate need emerge that requires additional capital, be sure to have your options identified and understood beforehand, rather than when you’re in a pinch.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Tim Mages is the chief financial officer of Expansion Capital Group (ECG), a business dedicated to serving American small businesses by providing access to capital and other resources so they can grow and achieve their definition of success. Since its inception, ECG has provided approximately $350 million in capital to over 12,000 small businesses nationwide.
The ABC Independent Contractor Test
Recently, the California Legislature codified much of a previous California Supreme Court ruling relating to independent contractor classifications. For a worker to be properly classified as an independent contractor (sometimes called a “1099 contractor” or “1099 employee” ), they must pass certain tests under federal and state law. California employers have been subject to the “ABC test” since April of 2018 because of a California Supreme Court ruling. Effective January 1, 2020, the ABC test will become part of California’s statutes as well.
The fact that the law is now written into the Labor Code is drawing significant attention, much of which is focused on the gig economy and its workers. But the test applies to all employers. The primary difference between the law now and the law as of January 1 is that the new statute includes certain types of workers that will not be subject to the ABC test, but instead a less strict test (Borello) .
The ABC Test
A worker may be classified as an independent contractor only if:
A. The worker is free from the control and direction of the hirer in connection with the performance of the work, both under the contract for the performance of such work and in fact;
B. The worker performs work that is outside the usual course of the hiring entity’s business; and
C. The worker is customarily engaged in an independently established trade, occupation, or business of the same nature as the work performed for the hiring entity.
Unless all three elements are true, the worker will be considered an employee. A more in-depth look at each of these three factors can be found on the HR Support Center by searching for ABC test with the search bar.
Be aware that the right to be treated as an employee cannot be waived, so even if a worker begs to be paid as an independent contractor and signs something to that effect, they must be treated as an employee unless they pass the applicable test.
The workers listed below will not be subject to the ABC test, but instead the Borello test. The factors evaluated in Borello still create a fairly high bar for classifying a worker as an independent contractor, which is explained below.
Workers exempt from the ABC test but subject to Borello include the following:
The Borello test is a multi-factor test, similar to the DOL’s Economic Realities test for independent contractors. The primary factor is whether the employer has control or the right to control the work done as well as the manner and means in which the work is performed. Borello provides eleven more factors or questions that will help you determine the appropriate classification for a worker. An employer must evaluate the answers as a whole and determine whether the working relationship and conditions point toward an employee or independent contractor relationship. You can find this test by searching for Borello using the search bar on the HR Support Center.
Legal Disclaimer: The HR Support Center is not engaged in the practice of law. The content in this email should not be construed as legal advice, and does not create an attorney-client relationship. If you have legal questions concerning your situation or the information you have obtained, you should consult with a licensed attorney. The HR Support center cannot be held legally accountable for actions related to its receipt.
Factors to consider before placing your bid on a federal project
by Deborah R. Huso and Ryan MacArthur
September 19, 2019
William Goad pats the pockets on his faded jeans looking for his cellphone. He checks the time (it’s 5 a.m.) and nods. “I like getting on the base early,” he says. “That way, I can get to the job before anyone is even on the road.” Goad is off to Joint Base Langley-Eustis in Hampton, Virginia, to drop off supplies.
The 70-year-old master electrician at Abbott General Construction Inc. in Hampton, Virginia, slides behind the wheel of his white work van. The back is full of electrical wires, conduits and decades’ worth of bits and bobs from countless government contracting jobs.
Over the course of his career, Goad estimates he’s been involved with dozens of government construction contracts. “There have been so many I’ve lost count,” he says.
Whether it’s estimating materials costs or installing electrical wiring and control equipment, he sums up his decades of experience with government contracts in one sentence: “They’re competitive and hard to get, but there’s good money in them.”
Government Construction ContractsEvery year, the federal government and state governments award billions in construction contracts. According to the Federal Procurement Data System (FPDS), in 2018, the 20 federal agencies that spent the most on construction awarded $27 billion in contracts. And the fiscal year (FY) 2019 appropriation bill provides over $10 billion for military construction projects alone, while also funding the United States Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) Civil Works program with an additional $7 billion to build new roads and restore existing highways.
It may seem daunting for a small contracting firm to approach the government for work, but plenty of opportunities exist. In fact, the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) reports that the federal government met its goal of awarding at least 23% of federal contract dollars to small businesses for the last 5 years.
The federal government also aims to award 5% of contracts to women-owned small businesses; 5% to small, disadvantaged businesses; 5% to HUBZone small businesses; and 5% to service-disabled, veteran-owned small businesses. In total, $120.8 billion dollars went to small businesses in 2018.
Before the BidAccording to Nicole Ingram, founder and principal designer of Stacy Nicole Inc. in Cary, North Carolina, the keys to winning a government contract are understanding the bidding process, paying attention to the details, and having a strong strategy. Ingram knows all about government contracts.
Prior to developing a successful construction business in Atlanta, Georgia, and before becoming one of the most sought-after interior designers in North Carolina, she first learned about government contracts by helping a friend. “Before I started my construction business, I was hired to do bidding for a friend’s janitorial company,” Ingram said. “It was a long process that took a lot of time. The first step is registering with all the websites.”
Any company interested in doing business with the federal government has to first register on the System for Award Management (SAM), the official website of the General Services Administration (GSA). At a minimum, you’ll need to provide your firm’s legal business name, physical address, and Dun & Bradstreet Universal Numbering System (D-U-N-S) number, along with your Tax Identification Number (TIN), taxpayer name and banking information. Business owners have to update their profile every year, or it becomes inactive.
After registering, contractors can search for bids on the Federal Business Opportunities (FBO) website, fbo.gov. The site serves as a virtual classified section or community corkboard of sorts on which the government posts “help wanted” ads for any contract valued
The registration and contract-hunting processes, though time-consuming, are fairly straightforward. But developing a winning strategy to secure an award is a whole different game.
Getting StartedIn 2018, Clark Construction Group LLC won a government contract to build a new Air Force One hangar in Prince George County, Virginia. According to Bloomberg, the contract is potentially worth $315.5 million. It’s difficult for any contractor not to get dollar signs in their eyes when they see numbers like those, but Ingram says a solid strategy starts with first getting a foot in the door.
“Subcontracting is a great way to start if you want to get into government contracts,” said Ingram. “When I was primarily in construction, we worked with an architectural firm on a contract to pour concrete for them. That gave us the opportunity to get to know the people in charge of bidding and create those relationships.”
Like any business, government contracts are built on trust and a solid return on investment. According to Goad, the contract often goes to a firm with which the awarding agency has already worked.
“Oftentimes, it’s about who you know or whether they’ve worked with you before,” said Goad. “It’s a lot cheaper to work with a company that already knows how things work.”
For business owners who do not have a professional network that allows them to directly contact a bidding officer or primary contractor, the government offers resources to connect small businesses with subcontracting opportunities. According to the SBA, some government contracts stipulate the prime contractor must subcontract with a small business. Websites like The SBA Subcontracting Network (SubNet) and Department of Defense’s subcontracting opportunity directory both display available contracts and the primary’s goals for the project.
Bid StrategiesWhen it comes to bidding on a government contract as the primary, Ingram says it’s all about research, patience and attention to detail. “If you make one mistake, you could get eliminated,” she said.
Ingram advises researching the project thoroughly once you have found an attractive contracting opportunity. “Find out who the contracting officer is,” she said, “and see if he or she is someone you’ve worked with as a subcontractor.”
It’s also critical to ensure your business aligns its skill set with the contract. “Having a niche is very helpful,” Ingram said.
The next step is to review the requirements for the bid proposal: what it needs to include, how to assemble it, and the method for submission (electronic or mail). The contract’s processor will weed out non-compliant proposals at the start of the evaluation process.
While having an airtight, perfect bid proposal is a plus, Ingram and Goad both agree establishing and strengthening the relationship between your business and the government is vital. Each contract that a business completes contributes to its past performance rating. The government appraises the work and rates the contractor—similar to assigning a report card. Higher ratings equal better opportunities. Smaller contractors who take on big jobs risk underperforming and receiving a poor rating.
Making Bidding EasierTo help find the right bids and get a leg up on the competition, contractors have a variety of tools at their disposal, such as BidSync and eBacon. BidSync is a software application that helps businesses quickly find relevant and winnable bids. Using an AI-powered relevance engine, BidSync grants users real-time access to an extensive number of agencies and available bids. The software also weeds out irrelevant bids and can cut down the amount of time contractors spend looking for the right contract.
“Government suppliers consistently voice frustration with the amount of work they have to put into finding new, relevant government opportunities,” said Brian Utley, chief executive officer (CEO) at Periscope Holdings, BidSync’s parent company. “Suppliers are tired of wasting time sifting through pages of search results that will never generate a single sale.”
BidSync’s true value comes from mitigating guesswork and manual labor, and leveraging machine-learning technology. The more contractors use the application, the more the system learns about and improves the relevance of the bids it finds.
Beyond the effort involved in identifying them, government contracts require absolute commitment to compliance, as well as substantial administrative work, both of which cost time and money. Software products like eBacon help contractors make their bids more competitive by reducing fringe costs and taxes, as well as administrative burdens.
“Our platform was built specifically for contractors,” said Jack Biltis, president and co-founder of eBacon. “We reduce the administrative burden on prevailing-wage and union projects, and make sure every minute worked is paid at the correct rate and fringe amount.” The platform combines time and attendance, payroll and fringe-benefits management to automate payroll calculation and certify report/upload generation.
eBacon also automates complex processes like restitution calculation, daily job reporting, union reporting, job budgeting, new-hire paperwork and apprentice tracking. “A typical 20-man company will usually save $67,000 a year in fringe savings and 35 hours a week in administrative time,” said Biltis.
Federal contracts offer a wealth of opportunity for small businesses. Whether it’s taking advantage of professional connections, getting your foot in the door via subcontracting or bidding on contracts the old-fashioned way, a contractor must know their company’s unique advantage and how to communicate it to start winning government contracts.
The Department of Labor has announced the new minimum salary for certain exempt white collar employees. The final rule is very close to the proposed rule we reported on in March. The new minimums will take effect January 1, 2020.
Exempt Executive, Administrative, Professional and Computer Employees (EAP)
Salaried exempt EAP employees must be paid at least $684 per week on a salary basis (an increase from the current minimum of $455 per week). This is the equivalent of $35,568 per year.
Up to 10% of this minimum may come from non-discretionary bonuses, incentive payments, and commissions (collectively, “incentive pay”), so long as these payments are received on at least an annual basis. If an employee does not earn enough incentive pay to meet the minimum by the end of the year, the employer has two options: pay the difference with a “catch-up” payment within one pay period after the end of the 52-week year or retroactively remove the exemption and pay the employee for any overtime worked during that same year.
Teachers, practicing lawyers, practicing doctors, and outside salespeople are exempt from these minimums under federal law, though may be subject to state minimums.
Exempt Highly Compensated Employees (HCE)
The HCE exemption is intended for employees who don’t quite qualify for the EAP exemptions due to their job duties, but who happen to be paid extremely well. This exemption is used much less commonly than the others and most exempt employees will fall under the EAP exemptions.
Employees classified as exempt under the HCE exemption must make at least $107,432 per year. Of that amount, at least $684 per week must be paid on a salary or fee basis, with no reduction for future incentive pay. The remainder of their income, however—nearly 67% if they make $107,432—may come from incentive pay. If the employee does not earn enough in incentive pay to meet the minimum by the end of the year, the employer has the same two options as with EAP employees. They can make a catch-up payment (in this case within one month) or retroactively remove the exemption and pay the employee for any overtime worked during the previous year.
California, New York, and soon Washington have laws in place that make the minimum salary for exempt employees higher than the new federal thresholds. Since employers must follow the law that is most beneficial to employees, the new federal minimums would not affect employers in these states.
Employers will need to evaluate anyone who they currently classify as exempt from overtime and pay less than $684 per week or $35,568 per year. Once these employees are identified, employers will need to choose between giving them a raise to meet the new minimum to maintain the exemption or reclassifying them as a non-exempt and paying overtime.
We have created numerous resources to help employers navigate this decision-making process and implement changes—just search FLSA Changes in the HR Support Center.