Reflecting on 2020 and the Interiorscaping Industry

This time last year I was celebrating the success of 2019—Planterra’s best year—and rewarding myself with a Maldives beach vacation. Even the ordinarily dull January was record setting in 2019. Little did I know, our successful 2019 would prove critical in helping us get through one of the most challenging years in our company’s 47 years. A year that would test resilience both professionally and personally.  

It felt like we entered 2020 propelled by a rocket that began to sputter when lockdowns began that fateful Friday the 13th in March. Here in Michigan, workers did not return to their offices the following Monday to comply with a mandatory 14-day stay at home order.  Schools remained closed.  My gut sank with the economic nosedive into the unknown.  Symptoms of post-traumatic stress from the last recession became apparent.  I felt the impending doom and was expecting the worst—a horrific public health crisis and a financial meltdown.

I was mentally preparing myself for a cascade of account cancellations, as I knew every CFO’s recession playbook included a series of automatic cost cuts. My prediction was clients would be overzealous on cancelling contracts and layoffs  If the stock market drops like an elevator and climbs back up in steps, the same is true for corporate spending.  Once a contract is terminated or an employee is laid off, the process to build back what was cancelled can take months or even years.  

I instructed my team not to accept cancellations and instead offer account suspensions, temporary discounts, anything to avoid complete termination—not an easy task with perishable plants across town.  Each account had its own unique circumstances, and my team worked tirelessly to preserve the client while keeping the plants alive too.  

To add to the challenge, we had the ongoing responsibility to enact our own COVID-19 protocols to keep our employees and clients safe, paired with the changing and unique protocols of our clients. We implemented work from home policies and split shift schedules, so smaller groups could be quarantined if someone got sick.  We rushed to purchase masks, hand sanitizer and PPE for our employees.  We even issued every non-seasonal employee an additional 40 hours for PTO time to be used if they got sick, quarantined, or needed to care for a member of their household.  

Planterra’s wedding business also required immediate attention.  Our event staff transitioned from planning weddings to becoming experts on postponements, refunds and the—never used before—force majeure clause.  Those conversations were emotional and mentally exhausting, but we got through it. In all, we managed 17 wedding cancellations and 83 postponements! Good thing that weddings are optimistic events, as we now have re-bookings staggered throughout this year and 2022.  

Overall, our recurring revenue remained stable throughout 2020, retaining a higher percentage than the 2008 financial crisis with—understandably—clients in hospitality being the biggest loss category.

Reflecting on 2020, the year reinforced some important business lessons. 

Prioritize the health of your employees 

A company does not exist without its people. Our departments consist of tight-knit teams, and it was possible that one outbreak could extinguish an entire operation.  As statistics would have it, about 4 employees (out of our staff of 50) contracted COVID-19 and thankfully recovered. We were lucky that the infections were isolated. No one who is feeling sick should come to work. In response to this crisis, we issued everyone an additional 40 hours of PTO to be used for sick time.

Maintain a cash reserve

Keeping cash on-hand was my biggest takeaway from the 2008 financial crisis. A cushion of savings and credit resources are what set apart those who endure, from those who struggle. We were prepared for a recession; we just didn’t see it coming in the form of a global pandemic.  Nevertheless, the preparations we made anticipating a recession helped prevent a cash crunch when 2020 revenues declined.       

Keep clean books, taxes current

The adage that you should “run your business like you’re going to sell it,” also holds true in surviving a crisis. While watching TV coverage of pick-ups and contractor trucks decorated with flags and rifles circling the Michigan state capitol, I wondered how many of these guys could not access unemployment benefits or PPP funds simply because their books and records were a mess.     

Bank locally  

In the April round of PPP funding, the local banks were much quicker than the big banks at making those loans. Small businesses with existing banking relationships were some of the first to receive PPP funds.  Your business bank matters when there is a crisis, so during the good times be conscious of who writes your loans and lines of credit.    

Get digital  

If cash was my biggest lesson from 2008, digital infrastructure is my biggest takeaway from 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic revealed that we were underinvested in IT and digital infrastructure.  We were still reliant on physical files, in-boxes, and boards to run our operations. There was no dress rehearsal for our office to work from home, and in hindsight, I wish I made digital processes a priority years ago.     

Even today, when I look back at the year and I count the number of urgent mini-crises that were triggered by COVID-19, it makes me feel a little dizzy.  I do not feel accomplished as much as I feel relieved to have survived 2020 with the health of my family and employees, and with the company intact. Big goals were put on hold, but we’re working to refine those goals in anticipation of the next decade of interiorscaping.

Shane Pliska is the President of Planterra Corporation in West Bloomfield, Michigan.  He oversees the company’s three business of interior landscaping, display services and events.  Planterra’s interiorscape division serves Detroit, Grand Rapids and Northeastern Ohio, and also maintains a portfolio of national accounts.  Shane is a graduate of Emerson College and serves on the board of the West Bloomfield Chamber of Commerce.  Follow Shane on Twitter @ShanePliska

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