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Posted March 11, 2009 | Copyright © The Northern Virginia Daily
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Business leaders discover ways to survive economy

business symposium
Area business leaders participate in a small-group session, "Increasing Revenues/Cutting Costs: How to Grow Your Business in a Shrinking Economy," part of a business symposium held Tuesday at Shenandoah University. Dennis Grundman/Daily

By James Heffernan

jheffernan@nvdaily.com

WINCHESTER -- As business leaders, there may not be anything you can do to reverse the economic slide, but there are a number of strategies you can use to position yourself to come out on the other side.

That was the take-home message from a business symposium Tuesday at Shenandoah University titled "How to Survive and Prosper in the Current Economic Crisis."

The conference, hosted by the Harry F. Byrd Jr. School of Business, brought together area business owners, entrepreneurs, sole proprietors, leaders and managers from both for-profit and nonprofit organizations. Participants heard a series of presentations during the morning session before engaging in small-group discussions during the afternoon.

Guest speaker Hunter Hollar, chairman of Sandy Spring Bankcorp Inc. and immediate past director of the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond, stressed that recessions like the one the U.S. and much of the world are experiencing now do eventually come to an end, and business leaders need to prepare for the upturn.

"You cannot change the economy or the environment, but neither can your competitors," he said.

Hollar presented a series of graphs showing key economic indicators that have been in free-fall over the past 12 to 18 months, including retail sales, new home sales, residential building permits and commercial investment.

But there are also some encouraging signs beginning to emerge, he said, such as an increase in the personal savings rate, an uptick in existing home sales and improvements in average hourly earnings and productivity.

Even the federal debt, which is approaching a staggering $10 trillion, is not as high today as it was during the Truman administration when viewed as a percentage of the nation's gross domestic product, he said.

The Federal Reserve is predicting a period of modest economic growth by the end of this year, he said, with unemployment topping out around 8.5 percent.

In the meantime, Hollar said, it is important for business leaders to maintain a positive attitude and stay on the offensive, and to use the downturn to capture additional market share and build on good customer relations.

Randy Jones, CEO of RYKNOWS, a local consulting firm, advised participants that their managerial skills should be constantly evolving, and they should strive to increase both their personal and organizational net worth -- defined as assets minus liabilities -- by gaining additional knowledge.

An effective leader should also cling to his or her organization's mission, insist that business discussions be fact-based, and remain dedicated to a set of core principles, according to Kent Guichard, president and CEO of American Woodmark Corp.

In 2005-06, when 2.2 million homes were built, it was "pretty easy" for a cabinet maker to look good, he said. These days it can be a lot tougher.

Business leaders tend to get into trouble during lean economic times because they either aren't prepared or simply lose their way, Guichard said.

It's important to focus on simple strategies, including being visible and accessible to your employees and communicating effectively with them, he said.

Stuart Myers, senior vice president of Project HOPE, emphasized that the same principles that can be used to sustain for-profit businesses can be applied to nonprofits.

Last fall, when the elements for the perfect economic storm began to coalesce, he said, corporate giving to the international health care organization declined, individual donations dried up and government procurement slowed to a crawl.

Over a period of three months beginning in October, Project HOPE's financial executives developed a projected economic impact that included a "foul-weather" fund, targets for "acceptable losses," strategies for reducing costs and increased use of the Internet for fundraising, communications and social networking.

Those efforts have helped Project HOPE remain "viable, sustainable and a valued organization," Myers said.

The symposium's afternoon sessions focused on financial options, human resources strategies, boosting revenues and creating a sustainability plan.

"We wanted not only to have people feel good about attending the symposium, but more importantly take things from it, apply it to their organizations and get significant benefits from it," said William Brandt, executive in residence at the Byrd business school and one of the organizers of the event. "We wanted it to be very results-oriented."

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