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Business Observer Wednesday, Jun. 3, 2020 2 months ago

College creates program to help businesses reenter the marketplace

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Florida Gulf Coast University takes the lead on a big project: helping businesses prove they are ready to reopen.
by: Mark Gordon Managing Editor

Out of all the coronavirus business-related data points, one stings Chris Westley the most when he considers the challenges companies face in a post-pandemic world. The statistic: At least 40% of businesses forced to close because of a disaster never reopen, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The dean of Florida Gulf Coast University’s Lutgert College of Business in Fort Myers, Westley doesn’t plan to sit idly by while that ominous nugget comes to fruition. Instead, he’s part of a group of FGCU leaders behind Restart SWFL, an initiative dedicated to helping businesses respond to the impact of COVID-19 on their operations, workforce, vendors and customers. “We want to give consumers a sense of confidence they can enter the marketplace again,” Westley says. “A lot of businesses are doing triage right now: ‘What can I do first? What do I need to do next?”

“There’s a sense in the business community things are opening up, but there’s also a sense things are very precarious,” Westley adds. “Once pent-up demand is spent, what kind of business environment are we looking at?

The restart program officially launched in late May. Westley’s colleague, Ann Cary, dean of FGCU’s Marieb College of Health & Human Services, joined the business school dean at a press conference kickoff at Lutgert Hall. But the initiative actually dates back to a soft-launch in March with the creation of the Coronavirus Economic Impact Survey. The ongoing surveys, of some 1,000 Southwest Florida business executives, give FGCU a look at how the region is recovering over time, trends in consumer demand and business concerns moving forward.

The linchpin of Restart SWFL is a pledge for business owners to adhere to a set of four standards involving health, business and ethical practices. After the pledge, companies participate in two business- or health-related discussions then answer a short questionnaire for each. Upon completing both steps, the business qualifies for the Restart SWFL Seal of Confidence, which they may display in their establishments and on their websites. The company’s name will also be listed on the FGCU.edu/restart website, which also offers links to resources, best practices and more. (See sidebar story for pledge commitments.)

The discussions are web-based sessions led by Lutgert and Marieb experts, along with community leaders. Some classes will assist businesses in complying with new standards in hygiene. Others will go over best practices for businesses, so consumers are assured establishments have sound practices in place to ensure their well-being, according to a statement. “We know businesses are more likely to open safely by instituting health measures that can protect customers and employees,” Cary says in the statement.

‘There’s a sense in the business community things are opening up, but there’s also a sense things are very precarious. Once pent-up demand is spent, what kind of business environment are we looking at?’ Chris Westley, FGCU Lutgert College of Business

To some, those points might seem obvious. But Westley points out many small businesses in the region are in dire need of this kind of assistance and are already cash-strapped, so hiring consultants is a nonstarter. “A lot of big companies can afford something like this,” Westley says, “but Southwest Florida is dominated by smaller companies that can’t absorb this kind of cost. These are hands-on classes to help people get through the crisis.”

A third element of the restart program is expanded features at the Small Business Development Center, including recovery plan assistance, cybersecurity training and risk assessment. The SBDC recently added staff members in anticipation of greater need.

Westley is confident the Restart SWFL seal will be both a symbolic and tangible example of businesses in the region getting back to doing business. In layman’s terms, he thinks of the seal as a COVID-19 handshake. “If they see the symbol,” he says, “then [a consumer] knows it’s safe to go into the business.”

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