Economists are the uncomfortable bearers of bad news. In recent weeks, they have been unhappily explaining that these are dark days indeed for Arizona’s business community.
But don’t tell that to businesspeople who have uplifting stories to tell amid the downdraft of Arizona’s recession.
While it’s true that Arizona’s economy is out for the count, many businesses are hardly on the ropes. They are succeeding, each in their own way.
But first, a look at that pesky economy.
It’s surprising some businesses are doing well because the experts are hard pressed to find any corner of Arizona’s economy that is untouched by the recession.
“I wish I had something positive to say,” says Tim James, a professor of economics at the W.P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University. “It’s quite difficult to see any sector doing well … What could possibly happen to make things worse than they are? I can’t think of anything.”
James does point to one exception — discount stores such as Wal-Mart, Costco and Sam’s Club that sell the necessities of daily living. They are prospering, but “nobody will be immune to any of this at the end, as even the Wal-Marts will suffer,” James says.
Also apologetic is Marshall Vest, an economist at the University of Arizona’s Eller College of Management. Asked if there is any sector of the state’s business community that is well positioned and poised to take advantage of the recession, Vest responds, “The short answer is I don’t know. Most industries are feeling the effects of the recession.”
Yes, it’s tough out there. But there are success stories and those businesses offer lessons on how others can ride out this rough economy.
When Robert Meyer joined Phoenix Children’s Hospital in 2002 as president and CEO, the nonprofit medical center for acutely ill pediatric patients was juggling several urgent problems. Arizona was in a recession, a shrinking investment portfolio had eroded the hospital’s capital base, cash reserves were dangerously low and the organization was facing a $46 million loss for the year while incurring the cost of moving from its location within another Phoenix hospital to its own free-standing building at 19th Street and Thomas Road. Meyer, who had been through five prior recessions in health care, focused on two areas — internal operations and strategic planning — and took steps that got the hospital back on its feet.
The hospital had no internal billing-and-collection procedures, no budgeting system and a few outsourcing contracts that were axed because they offered little value in Meyer’s eyes.
“We developed our own patient accounting department, which yielded tremendous improvement in our ability to bill and collect money,” Meyer says. “We started a budgeting system. The hospital had done a lot of outsourcing with a lot of companies and some of them were terminated.”
Meyer wanted a short, simple strategic plan that covered 18 months to two years — as compared to hospitals’ standard five years — and looked outside the health care industry for a sound planning tool. He found it at The One Page Business Plan Company in Berkeley, Calif. Soon, each of the hospital’s major programs had a one-page plan within a relatively brief strategic plan, and progress was tracked online against milestones.
The payoff came as early as 2003, when the hospital generated $3 million in net income. With its books in the black, the hospital took steps in 2004 to cement future success by implementing several new clinical programs. Profits grew to $49 million in 2007.
In today’s recession, Phoenix Children’s Hospital’s primary business offers opportunities for new growth. Meyer says the number of children in the Valley is expected to increase from 900,000 in 2003 to between 1.5 million and 1.7 million in 2025. To meet the needs of its growing patient base, the hospital began rolling out a $588 million main campus expansion in 2008 — only six years after nearly succumbing to financial ruin.
Paragon Space Development Corporation, a small aerospace engineering and technology development firm in Tucson, is succeeding in tough times because most of its business comes from NASA.
“We’re a little bit out of the consumer economy’s ebb and flow,” says Taber MacCallum, CEO and chairman of the board. “What we are going to feel is the federal government’s response to the recession, not so much the recession itself.”
He expects his company’s work with NASA will continue. But things weren’t so rosy during the last downturn. Founded in 1993, Paragon initially booked more commercial than government work and was hit hard by the 2002 recession. It began playing out a variety of business what-ifs to help it prepare for bad times, and business has grown 30 percent to 50 percent annually the last three years.
“You’ve got to create your business model and then run good-and-bad scenarios and make sure you don’t cut so deep that you can’t respond to the recovery,” MacCallum says. “We call them down-and-out and milk-and-honey scenarios. You can do that with a small retail shop and you can do that with a large industry.”
Taber recommends taking advantage of opportunities that arise when other businesses downsize or close.
“This economy has presented a tremendous opportunity for us,” he says. “We’ve been able to pick up new employees and manufacturing equipment from other companies that have had to sell.”
There is also a beacon of hope in the rubble of Arizona’s mortgage industry. On Q Financial, a Scottsdale-based mortgage banking company, is growing as it serves buyers of condos and single-family homes and arranges residential property refinancing. In 2008, it opened new offices in Phoenix, San Diego and Seattle, and its Valley staff grew from 20 in 2007 to 50. In business since 2005, On Q zeroes in on what it can control, says John Bergman, president and owner.
“Every day, month and quarter, we focus on improving things internally that we can control,” Bergman says. “We can’t control the market.”
On Q strives to hire talented operations staff and constantly troubleshoots internal systems, processes and timelines. Business owners must have a firm grip on their financial performance, Bergman says.
“Every month, have financials reported to you in a manner you can use,” he says. “Look at them. You can always adapt and change according to what’s going on.”
On Q also pays close attention to customer service and market share. “We are really aggressive in offering great products to the consumer, and we negotiate for good pricing for our clients,” Bergman says. “No matter what the market does, there is always an opportunity to take a bigger piece of the pie.” Bergman says it’s critical to keep employees energized.
“Let them know that the tougher things get, the better things are when they turn around,” he says. “So you want to focus on the positives in your industry.”
Reeling financial markets commonly create a phenomenon known as the flight to quality — money moves from the stock market to the safety of bank accounts and certificates of deposit. Such is the case with the current recession, and Northern Trust Bank has seen a resulting increase in deposits and new banking relationships, which in turn has generated increased lending.
“We have, in many respects, been in a very nice situation when there has been a flight to quality in the banking business,” says David Highmark, chairman and CEO of Northern Trust’s Arizona bank. “The flip side during this liquidity crisis is that our loan volume is two to three times our normal amounts. Our earnings will be very strong, because today we are collecting so many new relationships that will materialize into new earnings down the road.”
Highmark emphasizes the importance of successful companies staying focused on their core business, a theme also repeated by Paragon and On Q Financial. Northern Trust’s primary business is lending to and managing assets for wealthy individuals and companies.
“We have never wavered from that core business,” Highmark says. “If there is a formula to survive in bad times, in our case — and I think in general in all industries — it is sticking to your knitting. Don’t vary from your core business.”