Infotech TRIBUNE. “I lived a year of science fiction”: diary of an SME boss facing the Covid

TRIBUNE. “I lived a year of science fiction”: diary of an SME boss facing the Covid

A year ago, the words “containment” and “curfew” were not part of our vocabulary. They were science fiction. Since then, these terms have entered our everyday language like many others that we never could have imagined. Before starting this review of our eventful year, let’s first set the context: my partner and I manage Secoprev, a service company with 7 employees on permanent contracts. Our main activity: regulatory verification of installations or equipment, training and occupational exposure measurement. And like all bosses in France, we have gone through ups and downs over the months. I tried to report it in this journal.

Containment act I

The confinement from March to May 2020 first had a strong impact on our activity: a large part of our customers no longer accepting to receive external companies or being outright closed. Over this first period, we recorded a significant drop in our turnover of around 60%. Our employees then find themselves partly on short-time work, but we do not consider ourselves to be pitied because some of our customers are completely at a standstill. The big concern was maintaining our cash flow because in addition to a drop in activity, we feared that some customers would not honor their invoices. In fact, it was almost the opposite. Thanks to the solidarity between companies forced to stick together? There must have been some of that.

On the advice of our accountant, we nevertheless decided to take out a PGE – the loan guaranteed by the State, normally granted by the usual bank of the company – more for security than for need and we quickly noticed, regret, that the banks, ours in any case, did not necessarily play the game: the favorable opinion to obtain the EMP was obtained within 48 hours but … the bank demanded high administrative fees, plus insurance to be taken out at exorbitant prices while the EMP, as its name suggests, is largely guaranteed by the State. The bank even refuses us for a time the delegation of insurance and we will have to go through credit mediation to obtain the right to insure this loan with an outside insurer with acceptable rates.

During this period, several other things also greatly complicated the situation. Our job is itinerant and although we were authorized to travel by presenting this privilege that the certificate had become, with hotels and restaurants closed, it had become very difficult, if not impossible, to organize interventions outside from our neighboring departments even if the customers were requesting. Like everyone else, we have also been faced with the problem of staffing and organization: childcare, stop for testing following a contact case, appointment canceled by the client following a suspicion. of Covid cases. So many things that day to day make things difficult to organize.

Me, Julien, boss of a small business, who do not know what to do in the face of this crisis …

During this first shock, many people heard that all companies received public aid, that the crisis did not cost them anything. From our point of view and in reality, things are very different: the only real help we have received has been the partial activity scheme for 85% of our employees’ salaries. Our collective agreement providing for 100% salary maintenance, each day spent in childcare or partial unemployment therefore costs our company. In addition, any company must generate a margin and it does not only have wages to pay: there are also loans, rents, vehicle receivables and other miscellaneous charges, not forgetting now “PPE” (protective equipment). individual) such as masks or hydroalcoholic gel. And all of this has to be sorted out no matter what. Over this period, we will therefore try to honor all our charges, including social and fiscal charges, without postponing too many deadlines as long as we could. However, we will often hear our policies associate the EMP or the deferral of charges with aid. However, a loan is not aid but debt; and a load transfer, it’s just backing up to jump better.

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The return to normality

In mid-May, it is deconfinement, like a kind of rebirth. This recovery is done in the first weeks in a difficult and disorganized way. Very quickly, it is euphoria and everything that has not been done becomes urgent.

For some employees, the return to activity will be smooth, but for others, it will be necessary to re-motivate the troops because after several months spent at home without loss of salary for our employees, the return to a full-time activity will not will not be done without difficulty. After a few weeks, everyone will be re-mobilized. For us, it’s a breath of fresh air: this return to an almost normal activity sounds like a rebirth. I remember, moreover, settling down with my partner at lunchtime in our usual restaurant and saying to ourselves: “Today, everyone is working! “. It hadn’t happened for several months!

Quickly, the activity seems to have returned almost to normal and if the barrier measures and the rules of social distancing were not there to remind us, this health crisis would almost be forgotten. This period, beyond the economic recovery that it brings, also does a lot of good for morale and makes it possible to renew contact with customers and suppliers. Employees playing the game and accepting the overload of work, these happy months will allow us to catch up on the activity stopped in previous months.

But after the summer holidays, the situation becomes tense again and we realize that this freedom of movement will not last and that stricter rules of movement are likely to fall. All the media are talking about a new confinement and everyone is asking the same questions: what will be the new restrictions put in place and what will be the impact on the economic activity of our companies?

Containment act II

In October, the decision falls: France will be reconfined from October 30. On paper, one might think that nothing will be different from spring because bars, restaurants, cafes, non-essential shops are closed again, but one factor changes the situation enormously: keeping schools open. And the government discourse this time is clearly focused both on the need for health protection and on the maintenance of the economic activity of our country.

Reinforced aid for sectors of activity which are at a standstill will be put in place with a maintenance of the partial unemployment scheme and aid of up to 10,000 euros depending on the case, but each situation being different, it is necessary to difficult to compare. When some of our restaurant clients tell us to save the furniture with a bit of take-out, for others, this second episode of inactivity will be very hard to go through. It depends in particular on their previous situation: do they already own their premises and business, or are they still in debt by the launch of their activity? This makes the difference between an SME that will get away with it, and one that may disappear.

Despite a confinement that will last until December 15, the impact of these two months on the activity of our company has been very limited. The vast majority of our customers having remained in activity and the companies having learned to live with the Covid, our interventions will be well accepted and will take place as planned. We will maintain roughly the same turnover as in previous years over this period. Finally, the economic impact of the second lockdown was much easier to bear.

The time of controversy

The weeks go by, and on the moral side, on the other hand, things remain tough, the debates ignite. After this fall under a semi-bell, are we going to set off again for a new wave? We hear scientists who make contrasting predictions, everyone is doing their little science. Some now advocate “tight confinement” (yet another new term) which adds anguish and anxiety to the ambient atmosphere. My partner and I still find that few business managers or self-employed people want a “re-containment”. The point of view on the matter varies terribly according to personal situations. Even if this crisis inevitably impacts everyone in terms of health and in terms of freedom of movement, the differences are very important between those for whom “re-containment” means maintenance of salary without any financial impact and those for whom it means loss. income and / or loss of employment or even risk of business liquidation.

Finally the government will not give in to the panic and the often alarmist analyzes of certain mediatized doctors and will decide, from January 16, a simple national curfew, while the so dreaded second wave does not arrive. Faced with these new measures, companies like ours are not the most impacted, but traders who reduce their opening times lose a large part of their customers who are used to consuming after work.

An endless and blind crisis

Some sectors are emerging as winners from the crisis: they have managed to get out of the game such as services to individuals (maintenance of parks and gardens, craftsmen, swimming pool specialists, etc.): people staying at home, they have invested in the beautification of their homes . Large-scale distribution gained sales and the big names in fast distribution and home delivery took the place of small local restaurateurs. But unfortunately the losers are more numerous (restaurateurs, cafetiers, hoteliers, nightlife, entertainment, cinema, tourism, non-essential shops, events and I forget). In our case, with around 1,000 clients, mainly SMEs and VSEs, we are necessarily attentive to the overall economic situation and the current lack of visibility is unfortunately not good. Many companies, which would normally have invested or hired, have chosen to slow down their progress, not out of desire but out of security in the face of an economic situation that is difficult to predict. Even if the horizon is clearing up thanks to vaccination, the announced deadlines seem so far away to achieve this famous collective immunity, that the situation is too uncertain, seems to us to presage a very disturbed year 2021.

In addition, this economic situation will inevitably leave traces and it is difficult to predict the short, medium and long term effects on the economy as post-Covid behavior will be so different. I will take just one example: it was impossible for us to imagine one day going without the presence of our secretary. But after a year of telecommuting, it is now clear that it works. It will therefore be difficult to envisage a 100% face-to-face return. How many companies will follow this model? What will be the impact for the small restaurateur who welcomed all these new teleworkers at noon? What will be the impact for the garage responsible for maintaining vehicles that will run less and will be replaced regularly? All our consumption patterns are going to be disrupted and it is impossible to predict the extent of the change. For business leaders, this will therefore inevitably also have consequences on their investment choices. And it will be urgent to wait before acting.

EXCLUSIVE. Telecommuting was almost too good for employees

So what will happen now? I don’t know, but I will notice one thing all the same: in the history of our country, this is the first time that health has come before the economy. Is this a new economic model? Certainly, and it is also a new model of thought. And in this new world, we must not forget that it is through taxes and the creation of wealth that we finance our social model and therefore this health system which has been so essential for a year.

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