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Economic forecast: Businesses brace for multiple unknowns

Preparation — of the unknown — might be the biggest challenge businesses face in 2021.

  • By Mark Gordon
  • | 6:00 a.m. January 1, 2021
  • | 2 Free Articles Remaining!
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The word pivot was thrown around so much in 2020 it’s enough to make an entrepreneur puke.

Then again, shifting, changing and all-around adapting, whether it’s to chase new markets or capitalize on unexpected customer needs, is the hallmark of a good business owner and executive. Lucy Costa, president of Fort Myers-based Promotional Incentives, likes to say she’s been staying on the move like that for 30 years. Between multiple recessions, global fuel price hikes, tariff wars, and now, of course, the pandemic, Costa, selling logoed promotional products to businesses since founding the firm in 1990, says flexibility is essential.

'Everything from how do you staff the bar to how much equipment to buy — everything is unpredictable. It’s a very odd and difficult time for businesses. What 2020 has really shown us is how little is really in our control.' Jen Whyte, Fort Myers Brewing

Promotional Incentives, Costa says, has been “substantially challenged” because trade shows are a primary source of business and leads. Her shift? Work with companies that now have large home-based workforces, providing new products. That, and continue to maintain low overhead, rebuild internal systems and be ready for the eventual comeback — whenever that is. “We hope to come out of this in much better shape,” Costa says, echoing a sentiment many entrepreneurs say when looking at 2021.  

The be-in-better-shape philosophy might be 2021’s version of the 2020 pivot. At least half of 12 executives interviewed for this economic forecast issue have taken, or are about to take, steps to be better prepared in 2021, for whatever direction the economy goes in. Phoenix-based specialty grocery chain Sprouts Farmers Market, for example, to meet the surging demand grocers are experiencing, plans to go from 23 Florida stores to 34 in 2021 — a 47.8% increase.

At State College of Florida, Manatee-Sarasota, meanwhile, preparation involves figuring out how to make virtual higher education a regular, revenue-producing part of the college’s model. It’s Go Live program, where students and instructors gather virtually in real time, is one of the most significant upgrades to how the school connects with students in years,  say school officials. “I think for us the biggest opportunity is taking advantage of this creativity and innovation,” SCF President Carol Probstfeld says.

Sarasota-area insurance executives Keith Mercier and Patrick Wright, with Cbiz West Florida, are preparing for 2021 not with a technology innovation but with an old-school approach: They are sending out handwritten notes, blanketing clients and business leaders they hope become clients with personal gestures. “We’ve gone retro,” Mercier says. “We have a whole new way of looking at prospecting.”

The preparation theme only goes so far — in that the uncertainty of the pandemic has made preparing data-driven economic forecasts a considerable challenge for many businesses. Brian Rist, founder of Fort Myers-based hurricane protection products installer and manufacturer Storm Smart, says that issue hit him hard this year. He and his leadership team normally do the next year’s forecasting in September and October. In 2020 they didn’t do forecasting until late November. “We are taking a little bit longer with our planning,” Rist says, “and thinking about what could possibly go wrong.”

Ditto for Jen Whyte, co-founder of Fort Myers Brewing, who says the preparation challenge has been especially acute. In recognizing that, Whyte also offers valuable words for any business owner or executive stuck in the mire of navigating the pandemic: hyper-focusing on how you react to any challenge goes a long way toward determining the outcome.

“Everything from how do you staff the bar to how much equipment to buy — everything is unpredictable,” Whyte says. “It’s a very odd and difficult time for businesses. What 2020 has really shown us is how little is really in our control.”


Click the links below to hear from businesses in various industries on their opportunities in 2021.


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