One thing we’ve learned from the pandemic is that healthy businesses depend on healthy entrepreneurs. Here’s one business owner’s story.

It’s now been more than a year since the pandemic began. As the situation evolved, new issues emerged and society had to be resilient and adapt. Unfortunately, this led to a rise in anxiety, distress and fatigue.

Entrepreneurs worked hard to protect their employees’ physical and mental health, sometimes at the expense of their own needs. They also contended with changing realities, new priorities and evolving client needs.

Business owners have born the brunt

Did you know that people in leadership positions are less likely to ask for help? But that doesn’t mean they’re immune to psychological distress, whether or not they recognize the signs or admit to it.

All this rings true for Annik Lachance-Gravel, President and CEO of Lachance et Gravel, a Chicoutimi-based company that specializes in cleaning solutions for the industrial and commercial sectors. And she wanted to do something about it.

Annik Lachance-Gravel aka Robin Hood!

Like many entrepreneurs, Annik’s story breaks from the norm. Even in her youth, she thought of herself as being like Robin Hood—not because she aspired to be a bandit, but because she had a big heart.

In 2014, she took over her father’s janitorial business and suddenly everything changed. She’d found her calling.

Lachance et Gravel before the pandemic

Six years after Annik took the helm of the company, her father had doubled his salary and the business had grown from 0 employees to 70. During those years, Annik applied a rigorous management approach and helped keep the company out of the red, year after year. She also made sure profits were reinvested to help grow the business.

She worked hard to elevate the image of janitorial services. This is a point of pride for Annik, along with the knowledge that she’s helped provide an income for many families while helping her own family prosper.

The pandemic and its collateral damage

“A total free fall.” That’s how Annik describes the early days of the pandemic and how it affected her business.

Since most of her customers are businesses that were forced to close, demand for janitorial services plummeted. Although many of these customers were bound by contracts, Annik decided not to bill them. This courageous decision, which reflected the entrepreneur’s personal values, made sense for the business’ long-term interests, but it could have been devastating over the short term.

When revenues fall off a cliff, you have no choice but to cut costs. Annik was forced to lay off 60 of her 70 employees. Each worker received a personal call, a visit from a company representative, a gift and a special request: to trust Annik and her ability to turn things around. Despite the crisis, she hasn’t lost a single employee to date.

But on a more personal level, this phase was really tough for Annik. During the first wave, there were virtually no confirmed cases in her region. To avoid hemorrhaging money, she had to lay off the vast majority of her employees—and not even her husband was spared! This meant Annik had to assume almost all of the company’s administrative positions.

Then came the second wave

When the virus took hold in the Saguenay–Lac-Saint-Jean region, the phone rang. The area’s integrated university health and social services centres (CIUSSS) needed 22 custodians for the next morning. Annik said yes on the spot. She put together a crisis unit to respond to the urgent needs in facilities that were now in over their heads.

Within two weeks, everyone who had been laid off during the first wave was recalled and another 85 new employees were hired and given express training. Her business was now the region’s most trusted cleaning and sanitation service provider.

This sharp upturn was very demanding for Annik, who had a lot to juggle and numerous sources of stress. There was a risk that her workers wouldn’t have sufficient training, the company’s reputation would be affected, and that cash flow wouldn’t cover the financial obligations related to hiring new staff and adjusting for the turbulent past few months.

When Robin Hood runs out of steam

Annik would do anything to prevent her business from failing. Her top priority is to protect its long-term viability. Even though current and potential customers recognized everything the company has achieved, the fact that office buildings remained closed or with just a handful of occupants meant that customers were still wary of paying for cleaning services. New players also entered the market.

But what about Annik? Has she recovered from the year of unprecedented work-related stress? Are the sleepless nights, constant worries and countless hours to save the company well behind her? Not quite. Tough periods can take a bigger toll than you might think. Your resilience starts to erode. Your body feels the effects of accumulated stress and fatigue. And your support system starts to run out of steam.

Then there are the impacts on your family. That heartbreaking moment when your kids say they don’t love you anymore because you’re never around. The time you realize just how powerless your partner feels in the crisis management whirlwind. Our whole family felt turned upside down and reacted to the changes. Then, little by little, guilt set in. I struggled to balance my responsibilities as a mother, business owner and wife. But failure wasn’t an option, so I put a smile on my face as I went into the office and kept it there all day, trying to convince everyone that “everything’s going to be okay.”

The impact on my social life? What social life? Socializing got put on the backburner because when you’re in survival mode, having fun is the least of your worries.

Anik shook off social expectations and made the decision to focus solely on her business and her kids. She knew it was impossible to be Superwoman indefinitely. She accepted that others could help her with grocery shopping, meal preparation and housekeeping. And she had faith that her friends would understand and would wait for her to resurface.

Surrounding yourself with the right people

Like many other entrepreneurs, Annik slipped into survival mode in all aspects of her life. Looking back, she realizes just how lonely she felt and how reluctant she was to open up about her vulnerabilities. She now realizes that people need to talk about mental health prevention for entrepreneurs and the importance of getting support from a neutral person when the pressure becomes too great. She knows she ignored some of the warning signs, which are clearer to her today. More than ever, she believes that a healthy leader is more likely to have a healthy business.

Just as companies rely on good accountants, HR advisors and salespeople, she believes that business owners should set themselves up for success by having a good psychologist as an ally. It’s about breaking down barriers, opening doors and allowing others to act as your Robin Hood. Today, Annik’s company is thriving, but she realizes that she needs to take care of herself if she wants to be able to take care of others, including her customers.

What about overall health?

If a company is unhealthy, it’s sure to impact the wellbeing of its owner, and vice-versa. That’s why our firm is focused on promoting good overall business health. How? By working on:

  • The business’s overall health (based on seven factors used to determine challenges and potential sources of stress for business owners)
  • Entrepreneur mental health and wellness
  • Strategies for transforming the reciprocal relationship between the company and business owner, where negative experiences for one have positive repercussions for the other
  • Action plans that put people first

If you’re a business owner, take care of yourself and don’t hesitate to contact our experts. Our goal is to help you stay balanced as you safeguard the health of your company, employees, yourself and all facets of your business.

This article was written in collaboration with Nancy Boisvert, psychologist.

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Ghyslain Cadieux
Partner | B.B.A., CPA, CMA | Management consulting

Inflation is rising at a troubling rate in some industries. Does your business management reflect this?

In order to safeguard against the impacts of inflation, you need to ensure better control over your costs to protect your company’s profit margins.

What causes inflation?
How does inflation impact businesses?
How can you protect your profit margins in an inflationary market?

 

What causes inflation?

The Consumer Price Index (CPI) increased by 3.4% in Canada between April 2020 and April 2021. The increase in inflation is primarily related to the decline in the first spring of the pandemic.

However, it should be noted that 70% of the components of the CPI show an annual price variation that is greater than three months ago—a proportion that has not been seen in the last ten years. The surge is significant in some industries: wood prices have doubled in one year and steel prices have doubled since last fall.

Supply chain disruptions

Much of the inflation is attributable to disruptions in the supply chain. The pandemic has interrupted production or reduced the available workforce, and the transportation of goods has also been affected in various ways over the past year. As a result, there is less product available in some sectors at a time when demand is booming.

Higher demand in some industries

Household spending has shifted. Because they are unable to travel, many people have decided to renovate, decorate, garden or equip themselves for various outdoor activities. Suddenly, demand in these sectors has outpaced the available supply, which causes prices to rise.

Moreover, savings are relatively high and deconfinement may stimulate spending. Any significant increase in demand is likely to drive prices up.

Workforce shortage

Other factors contribute to inflation: the workforce shortage is pushing up wages. The restaurant industry, for example, is strongly affected by this situation.

Cost of health measures

In some areas, the health measures resulted in extra costs. Staff had to be added to enforce these measures and businesses needed additional supplies (medical masks, disinfectants). Mandatory distancing reduced production capacity, while demand remained stable or increased.

How does inflation impact businesses?

Inflation erodes profit margins by increasing the cost of purchasing inputs.

In the construction sector, for example, contractors sold houses at prices set long before the materials were purchased and now have honour their commitment, even if the project is no longer profitable.

The erosion, or even disappearance, of margins, puts the financial health of these businesses at risk.

How can you protect your profit margins in an inflationary market?

Have a clear view of your cost

Only a minority of SMEs have a good knowledge of their costs. Many set prices according to market prices, without checking whether this makes sense in their own business. At a minimum, businesses should know their contribution margin, which is total revenue minus variable costs.

You have to make sure you cover variable costs when you sell your products or services. In today’s market, many variables are changing simultaneously (wages, inputs, cost of health measures) and it is important to have a clear view of the costs.

Secure your supplies

It is important to do everything possible to secure supplies. Can you sign longer-term supply contracts to guarantee your purchases at predictable prices?

You should also cultivate your relationships with your suppliers, because in the current context of shortages, some of them may choose to stop serving you in order to prioritize more profitable clients. A good relationship can potentially avoid this type of setback.

Optimize processes

Before passing on price increases to consumers, it might be better to consider your operational performance. So far, few companies in Quebec have invested in a digital transformation. Optimizing processes generally increases productivity by 15% to 25%.

You can generate more services or products with less waste using the same work force, thereby reducing your costs. You are not responsible for inflation, but you have the power to adapt by taking action on this aspect of your activities.

Rethink the business model

Sometimes this is the only option remaining. In more vulnerable industries, rethinking the approach and being open to new business opportunities in a fluctuating market can be beneficial to keep margins at an adequate level.

In order to avoid taking the wrong approach, let our experts assist you. They can provide guidance and save you time and money. Moreover, many subsidy programs are available to allow entrepreneurs to benefit from such expertise.

16 Jun 2021  |  Written by :

Ghyslain Cadieux is expert in management consulting at Raymond Chabot Grant Thornton. Contact him...

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The president of our firm and the cybersecurity expert Guillaume Caron discussed issues for SMEs. What should businesses do to protect themselves?

In recent months, the world has witnessed numerous massive supply chain attacks, including some affecting tech giants like SolarWinds, Microsoft and FireEye.

“It’s definitely concerning. These attacks are unprecedented and they’ve had serious consequences for thousands of businesses,” explained Guillaume Caron, president of VARS, our firm’s cybersecurity division. Quebec SMEs and institutions are becoming collateral victims of these massive attacks.

Supply chain attacks

A supply chain attack is a cyberattack that aims to damage a company by exploiting vulnerabilities in its supply chain. The process involves persistent rounds of hacking or infiltration to gain access to an organization’s network.

The hacked company isn’t necessarily the attacker’s ultimate target. In many cases, the supply chain element is simply a gateway. The cybercriminals capitalize on the target’s vulnerabilities to reach a larger network of companies to attack.

“We’re talking about a malicious, orchestrated effort that could affect our clients here in Quebec and across Canada,” said Emilio B. Imbriglio, president and chief executive officer of Raymond Chabot Grant Thornton.

For instance, millions of small businesses rely on SolarWinds and Microsoft products and systems. These businesses were targeted by the same criminal organizations that successfully exploited the vulnerabilities exposed by the massive attacks on the tech giants.

“In Microsoft’s case, there were vulnerabilities in their Exchange email servers. In the last few months, we’ve intervened in a number of large-scale attacks, involving ransomware or other issues, that targeted SMEs around the world and even here in Quebec,” explained Guillaume Caron.

Cyberattacks can have grave repercussions on major corporations and small organizations alike. In addition to financial consequences, there can be damage to the company’s reputation with customers, investors and suppliers. Businesses can also face serious litigation.

The importance of protecting yourself during your digital transformation

The digital transformation process often involves capitalizing on the Internet of Things, with IoT devices used to connect different systems, networks and companies in order to accelerate business processes. This increases the attack surface considerably and makes it harder to protect all vectors. That’s why performing ongoing risk analyses is so important. You want to identify entry points and implement checks and balances like technological tools, business processes, policies, etc.

A Leger study found that the proportion of SMEs that plan on investing in cybersecurity solutions over the next two years fell from 42% in 2019 to just 25% in 2020. However, as Guillaume Caron pointed out, “In 2021, there’s simply no excuse for leaving your company exposed to serious cybersecurity problems.”

Today, there are easily deployable and affordable tools that SMEs can use to protect their business. No matter what industry you operate in, criminals can gain access to your company and then take control, download sensitive data, steal information and more. If your machines stop working, you can’t produce anything. If your workstations are blocked, your employees can’t work. Scenarios like this can have a major impact on the survival prospects of small- or medium-sized businesses.

What can SMEs do to equip themselves?

In today’s reality, it isn’t a matter of if a cyberattack will occur, but when. Companies need to protect themselves and have a concrete action plan outlining what to do when an attack occurs.

Third-party risk has become a pressing issue. Governments, major corporations and SMEs that do business with other organizations can’t afford to put blind faith in their business partners. After all, your company may be entrusting these third parties with critical, sensitive, strategic or secret information, even if they don’t have the same security practices and safeguards in place.

Large institutions often require their suppliers to comply with certain information security standards. That way, if a supply chain attack happens, there aren’t any vulnerabilities between the company and its partners and suppliers.

“SMEs should do the same and require their partners and suppliers to have cybersecurity measures in place. This type of vigilance shouldn’t just be for large institutions and governments,” emphasized Guillaume Caron.

Today, it’s critical for companies to be able to prove that they have proper controls in place. There are established standards that businesses should abide by. You need to be able to demonstrate, with facts, that you’ve developed a strong security culture. Doing so can even become a competitive advantage.

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Jean-François Djoufak
Senior Manager | Tax

AI is a key component of a business’s digital transformation. Do you know what support is available to bring your projects to fruition?

There are various measures and assistance programs available to finance your organization’s artificial intelligence project.

Regardless of its size or activity sector, financing is available for projects that involve the development, integration and commercialization of artificial intelligence (AI) technologies.

AI is a powerful tool to help organizations increase their productivity, efficiency and competitiveness, particularly through the automation of business processes. This is why our governments have established significant initiatives to accelerate the adoption of AI in business.

Quebec government call for projects

At the end of 2020, the Quebec government introduced a call for AI innovation projects with a $25M envelope. While the program is intended for Quebec businesses in all sectors, it prioritizes SMEs and start-ups and finances projects to develop, commercialize or integrate AI technology.

This year, businesses have until October 15, 2021 to apply.

The program comprises three components:

  • 1. Startup innovation projects, for AI companies less than three years old that receive coaching from a business incubator or accelerator. Maximum assistance of $50,000.
  • 2. SME innovation projects, for SMEs that intend to produce goods and services or carry out in-house research and development (R&D). Maximum assistance of $150,000.
  • 3. Large-scale innovation projects, for business groups that include at least two Quebec companies. This component finances projects that have the potential to generate significant short-term economic benefits. Maximum assistance of $1.5 million per project.

Partenar-IA

The Quebec government supports another call for AI innovation projects, the Partenar-IA Program, that is managed by the nine sectoral industrial research clusters (RSRI). This program comprises two components and focusses on collaboration:

  • 1. Partenar-IA | Enterprise, for groups of businesses that want to carry out an innovation and collaborative R&D project, while being accompanied by a public research centre for part of the project. The businesses must share the costs, benefits and intellectual property of the innovation project. Maximum subsidy equivalent to $150,000 per partner company, and $600,000 per project.
  • 2. Partenar-IA | Academic, for all public research centres and Quebec businesses that want to carry out a project to develop, commercialize or integrate AI technology. Eligible projects must be carried out by public research centres in partnership with at least on Quebec SME or start up. Maximum subsidy of $500,000 per project.

The application must be submitted to your industry segment’s RSRI. The next filing deadline is October 15, 2021.

Scale AI

Scale AI is an artificial intelligence supercluster in Canada. This non-profit consortium of companies, research centres and universities is supported by the governments of Quebec and Canada.

In addition to helping fund training initiatives and business incubators, Scale AI funds industrial projects. The organization reimburses up to 50% of eligible expenses for business projects that target the adoption or commercialization of AI for supply chains.

Projects must have more than one participant, and at least one SME must be a partner. There is no minimum or maximum funding amount.

INVEST-AI

INVEST-AI manages a $35M co-investment program that reimburses up to 50% of the eligible costs of an AI project. The non-refundable contributions are provided once the expenses have been paid.

INVEST-AI financing ranges from $50,000 to $1M based on the project size. At least 30% (preferably 50%) of the required investment must be from the private sector. The business must generate minimum annual sales of $1M.

Other assistance programs

Your business can also take advantage of other financial assistance programs for its AI project. Here are the main ones:

  • Investissement Québec’s Innovation Program, which offers non-refundable contributions for innovation projects and commercialization. The maximum assistance ranges between 30% and 50% of eligible expenses, depending on the type of project.
  • Investissement Québec’s PME en action – SME Productivity Support, which provides support for certain projects to implement business practices that generate productivity gains. The maximum subsidy is 40% of eligible project expenses, to a maximum of $50,000.
  • ESSOR – Investment Project Support, from Investissement Québec and the Ministère de l’Économie et de l’Innovation, which offers various types of assistance. Eligible expenses must be at least $100,000 or $250,000, depending on the type of project.
  • National Research Council of Canada’s Financial support for technology innovation through NRC IRAP, which subsidizes innovation projects to develop new or improved products, services or processes.
  • Programme NovaScience, from the Ministère de l’Économie et de l’Innovation, with various support measures to promote a scientific and innovation culture, in particular with SMEs, and train and integrate a qualified workforce. The various programs are expected to be extended in 2021-2022.

When planning your artificial intelligence project and anticipating its costs and financing, remember to consider SR&ED credits and government tax incentives. Read our article on this topic.

You could also qualify for other types of financing for SMEs or all of your digital transformation projects.

Call on our team to help you set up your artificial intelligence project and benefit from the advice of our experts. They are committed to the success of our local businesses and will be happy to help you achieve your goals.

09 Jun 2021  |  Written by :

Jean-François Djoufak is a tax expert at Raymond Chabot Grant Thornton. Contact him today.

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