March 8, 2021

You’re the Boss Blog: Thinking About a Double Dip

Staying Alive

The struggles of a business trying to survive.

Watching the debt-ceiling talks and the stock market’s gyrations the last few weeks, along with the resulting fears that we may be entering another recession, has reminded me of something that happened many years ago.

Christmas Eve, 1986. I was driving from Philadelphia to Boston with my wife in a 1977 Ford Fairmont to spend the holiday with family. We left Philadelphia around 2 o’clock in the afternoon and drove in heavy rain the whole way. As we crossed the border from Connecticut into Massachusetts that evening, the rain turned to sleet and then snow. The road wasn’t covered, but it started to feel slippery. The Fairmont didn’t have anti-lock brakes, or airbags, and it was terrible in snow, so I was careful to leave plenty of room between me and the cars ahead. And then we crested a hill just outside Worcester.

I could see about half a mile ahead of me — a long, straight line of tail lights, vanishing into the gloom. Suddenly, the lights weren’t in a line any more. Twenty or so cars ahead of me, they started sliding from left to right, some winking on and off (a car was spinning) and all the rest flashing as drivers started pumping their brakes frantically, trying to keep from skidding. A clump of battered vehicles formed ahead of me — a big chain-reaction crash. I hit the brakes as I saw the beginning of the accident, and the Fairmont immediately started to slide. So I started pumping, too. The extra space I’d left in front of me saved us. I was able to get the car stopped about 15 feet from the last car in the pileup, which was turned sideways across the left lane. I turned to see if my wife was O.K., and she was looking back at me, wide eyed.

There was a person standing just in front of my car, someone who had climbed out of one of the stopped cars. He was waving his arms frantically. I was looking at him and thinking, “No problem, buddy, I stopped.” And then a semitrailer hit our left rear quarter panel. The left side of the trunk was crushed. All of the glass in the car shattered instantly. My head was jerked and slammed into the door pillar to my left, which nearly severed my ear. We were pushed into the car in front of us. I have no idea what happened to the guy waving his arms — I never saw him again. I don’t remember much of the next few minutes, but I was able to get out of the car (which I also never saw again). My wife was unhurt.

We spent some time by the side of the road, and were taken by ambulance to a nearby hospital. I spent the rest of the evening waiting for stitches, surrounded by the casualties of an icy holiday evening. I was bloody and had a headache, but 15 stitches re-attached my ear. Many of my fellow patients weren’t so lucky — ambulances arrived in a steady stream and I shared a room with a drunk whose face had had a close encounter with his windshield.

What does this have to do with gyrations in the stock market? Nothing at all, I hope. But I have a suspicion that, once again, I may end up paying for someone else’s misjudgment of dangerous conditions. My business isn’t tied directly to the price of stocks. So if consumers pull back on spending in reaction to changes in the stock market and their net worth, we shouldn’t see immediate effects. Last week, we got 13 calls from new clients, which is a decent number for August. (New inquiries per week have ranged from a low of eight to a high of 17 this year.) Even with the market going crazy, we sold two jobs worth almost $50,000, and sales for both the year and the month are where I wanted them to be.

One thing I learned from the last recession: there’s always work out there. And if we do enter another recession, I’ll have time to prepare. People order conference tables as the finishing touch on construction projects. Those projects usually take a year or more from planning to completion. So I’ll be watching for a general slowdown of commercial construction and then a slowdown of the rate of inquiries. That could happen if other businesses are affected by a stock market dive.

Even if the economy does enter another recession, I may see little impact. If I can take market share from my competitors, for example, my sales might not go down at all. I spent a half hour on Friday looking at all of my competitor’s Web sites, and I saw nothing new. I am still in the process of upgrading and improving my own site, and our Google rankings in free search continue to improve. Let someone else suffer: I’m going to keep spending money on the Web site and AdWords.

So am I worried? Not about the things I can control. My business is in far, far better shape than it was at the beginning of the last recession. On the other hand, there could be a semi sliding at me right now that I’m not seeing. There certainly are a lot of people waving their hands and shouting a warning. What’s going to hit us next? European debt default? Washington’s collective I.Q. dipping into negative numbers? Terrorist attack? The next plague? I can’t do anything about any of those things, so I’ll keep running my business the way I am now and just deal with the next thing when it happens.

Paul Downs founded Paul Downs Cabinetmakers in 1986. It is based outside of Philadelphia.

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