Exclusive chat with Lori Darlington, Vice President, Small Business and Strategic Partnerships, RBC
Lori is responsible for leading RBC’s Small Business segment and teams. In her role, she provides strategic oversight in delivering market-leading client experiences through innovative partnerships and differentiated, beyond banking solutions to help aspiring entrepreneurs and Canadian business owners start, manage, and grow their ventures. She also leads the strategy development for RBC’s Business Financial Services portfolio, including its client experience, CRM (client relationship management), and data analytics strategies. Lori has more than 20 years of experience within the financial services and technology sectors. In her previous roles, Lori has had a strong focus on sales, client acquisitions, and national employee engagement across various product groups, branch networks, large operation centres, and corporate head office environments. Lori earned her Bachelor of Arts in Psychology from the University of Western Ontario and an MBA from the Richard Ivey School of Business.
It’s hard to believe, but we’re more than 6 months into this new norm created by COVID-19. What are some trends you’re seeing with businesses as they adapt?
Firstly, I don’t think it’s any surprise that health and safety is now the number one priority for businesses and consumers alike. In RBC’s 2020 Small Business poll, 9 in 10 Canadians felt COVID-19 would create a permanent shift among consumers toward new standards of hygiene and cleanliness. And a similar survey revealed that more than 80% of Canadians consider this to be the most important factor when thinking about visiting a physical business location.
In line with that trend, we’re seeing an increase in the number of digital service offerings and solutions businesses are adopting – both to make it easier to manage their business and to connect with their customers in this new socially distanced world. Nearly 8 in 10 Canadians agreed that many local small businesses offered some kind of online alternative to engage with their customers during COVID-19 and 88% of Canadians we surveyed said having a robust digital presence is no longer a nice-to-do, but a business imperative.
What about small business formations? Has that stagnated or declined given the current environment?
In our survey, we saw a 4% point decline in the number of Canadians who have started or purchased a business (to 14% in 2020 from 18% last year), which was expected given the current climate. What’s interesting is that while there’s still some hesitation about starting a business during this time, more than half of Canadians have still thought about owning their own business. Among aspiring entrepreneurs (i.e. those who have thought of starting their own business but have yet owned one), more than 70% said that the challenges of COVID-19 have had a relatively neutral or even positive impact on their considerations. This is a promising sign that despite the current economic conditions, the entrepreneurial spirit remains alive and well in Canada, and we have a lot of potential business owners waiting in the wings to make their move when the time is right.
You mentioned the RBC Small Business Survey. Did that reveal anything about how business owners are feeling about the pandemic and recovery efforts during this time?
Yes, we had some very interesting findings around the resilience of Canadian entrepreneurs – specifically as it relates to their attitude and outlook in the midst of challenging times.
In this year’s survey, we found that resilience, optimism and ingenuity in the face of challenges have, and continues to be hallmark characteristics of Canadian entrepreneurs. Despite the challenges they’ve faced over the past 6 months, nearly 9 out of 10 business owners polled said they felt confident about bouncing back when faced with setbacks compared to 72% of the general population surveyed. Not only that, but 82% of surveyed owners expected their business to ride out the pandemic and 22% of owners even expected to prosper in the six months ahead.
This kind of positive outlook and confidence among our country’s small business owners is an important factor in our economic recovery.
That said, it’s important to acknowledge that resilience is defined by more than the positive emotional fortitude we see in our survey. Entrepreneurial resilience is also dependent on other practical factors and business decisions related to financial and operational preparedness, competitive products and services, and a strong workforce. So the success of Canadian business owners through these challenging times will really depend on how they ultimately turn their optimism into adaptive business actions, and how well we, as governments, businesses and Canadians, can rally to support them. Because we’re all in this together.
So what are some of the more practical business considerations businesses should be focused on for a strong recovery?
My first piece of advice is around financial preparedness because that’s really on everyone’s mind right now. There’s a dangerous misconception that in uncertain times, it’s impossible or pointless to plan ahead and that’s inaction that could potentially cost you your business. It’s critical that business owners map out some scenario plans – both from a financial and operational perspective. While the hope is you never have to experience your worst-case scenario, having a scenario plan will help you be more objective and agile in making decisions if those situations play out.
Begin by taking stock of your current cash flow, including any emergency business funds, credit facilities and government funding. Then, run some scenarios. For example:
- What if you can only collect 25%, 50% or 75% of outstanding receivables?
- What if you add 0%, 25%, 50% or 75% in new revenues in the next 4 months?
- How will operational expenses like wages and overhead costs impact your cash flow if you’re operating at less-than-full capacity given physical distancing measures?
As you plan, make some assumptions as to the number of months your business may feel the impact of particular crisis and the effect it will have on sales. Look for opportunities to improve operational efficiencies and preserve as much cash as possible during the re-emergence phase by identifying critical vs. nice-to-do activities, and streamlining your inventory.
On that note, my second tip would be to consider supplementing your current business model with digital offerings. In light of new health and safety priorities and customer expectations, an eCommerce strategy can provide a new revenue stream and channel to engage with your loyal customers. In the event of another large-scale disruption to your physical operations, a digital channel also allows you to quickly pivot and maintain business continuity. eCommerce solutions aside, entrepreneurs should also look at digital and data-driven tools and processes to simplify your operations and administrative tasks. Time is money, and there are lots of digital solutions out there to help you better integrate, streamline and digital things like payroll, employee communications, cash flow management, reporting and other administrative tasks. Many of those are available through RBC today, including solutions with ADP, Moneris, League, Wello and Magnet. We also offer powerful, data-driven solutions designed for small business owners. These include NOMI Insights for business to help manage cash flow and financial snapshots, and RBC Insight Edge™ for Small Business to provide aggregated local market insights to help determine things like optimal store locations, hours of operation, local competitive performance and target customer demographics.
Finally, book a call with a business advisor at your bank and don’t wait until you need something. Share your scenario plans with them, talk to them about your operational needs and share your questions and concerns before you need to act on them. Beyond financial solutions, our Business Advisors at RBC proactively work with business owners to support contingency plans and guide you to tools and resources that go beyond traditional banking to support the day-to-day needs of your business. There’s lots of information out there, and it can feel overwhelming for business owners right now, but they don’t have to do this alone.
On our end, we’ve tried to centralize all of that information into one easy, one-stop hub online. So if you’re looking for tips, resources, COVID-related information and solutions that go beyond banking, visit www.rbc.com/smallbusinessnavigator.