5 questions with Tom Conway, CEO of Small Business BC

The executive talks about the challenges in confronting the pandemic.

Credit: Small Business BC

The executive talks about the challenges in confronting the pandemic

1. You were on the job not quite a year when the COVID-19 crisis hit. Did that help prepare you for what was to come?

I’m so grateful that this crisis, if it had to happen at all, occurred in my second year. The first year in any role requires a lot of learning about your team, your board, your funders, as well as a lot of community-building. Small Business BC helps B.C.’s entrepreneurs grow successful businesses through expert business advisers, educational resources and community events that are meant to benefit 98 percent of the businesses throughout the province.

2. How has the pandemic affected the small business sector?

There’s definitely disruption. I want to acknowledge that. The surveys that have been done by some of our partner organizations—the BC Chamber of Commerce, the Vancouver Board of Trade, the Business Council of B.C.—show that 50 percent of businesses in urban markets and 42 percent in rural markets have had to close at least temporarily.

One-third of respondents have had to lay off staff. [But] the pressure cooker that everybody’s been going through has also generated incredible resiliency and technological advances and community within the small business arena. People have been pivoting to increase their e-commerce presence, create new products, enter new markets and move forward.

3. How has Small Business BC responded?

We’re facing unprecedented times in supporting entrepreneurs as they manage the economic challenges brought on by the pandemic. Just as an example, our website is the premier resource centre for small business in B.C. Last year, over the course of the whole year, we had over 1.6 million page views, and we have already attained that number [in 2020] as of the end of May. With the support of our provincial and federal governments, we have really ramped up our resources through the B.C. Business COVID-19 Support Service and the Small Business Marketplace. We’ve assisted thousands of entrepreneurs, many of whom have closed their doors and are desperately looking for ways to generate revenue. We’ve hosted webinars and Digital Meetups. 

Our partnerships with government have allowed us to increase the number of business advisers and service hours. We are now building resources for small businesses on reopening, including recommendations on health and safety, restart strategy and communication advice, incorporating guidance from WorkSafeBC and the provincial health officer.

4. Any particular war stories?

We had our Small Business Awards at the end of February; I am so grateful we were able to get that in. One of our award winners—her company actually won two awards—was Nicole Burke of Emelle’s Catering. Emelle’s took home the awards for best employer and best marketer. And then in March, less than a month later, she had to lay off most of her staff. In spite of it all, Nicole remained remarkably upbeat. She stuck a note on her desktop monitor to be a constant reminder to CARE, which stands for compassionate, adaptable, resilient and, of course, the E is for Emelle’s.

5. Looking ahead to the rebound, what characteristics will the survivors have?

Those that are adaptable and able to seek new tools, such as an e-commerce platform, or new markets. But also, those that are able to access government support in a time frame that works will have a leg up on the rebound. [COVID] pushed many businesses to reassess and re-strategize to remain operating and keep their staff and pay their fixed expenses. In many cases, businesses pivoted to digital platforms. That was one of the big surprises for me in this instance: how many businesses weren’t part of the digital economy per se. Those that had been falling behind may find themselves closing for good.

Previously: Conway and his husband owned a meal preparation kitchen in Chicago. They later moved to California, where Conway became CEO of Easter Seals Central California. He then served as the Pacific U.S. regional director of YPO (Young Presidents’ Organization). Upon moving to Vancouver in 2016, he became executive director for the B.C. Schizophrenia Society.

Hobby: “Hiking and being outdoors is No. 1. Exploring, scuba diving. I also enjoy cooking, though my husband is a chef, so he usually does it”.

Favourite TV show: “I find some reality series fascinating: Deadliest CatchLife Below ZeroRuPaul’s Drag Race.

Last book I read: The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous. That’s my fun reading! I’m 20 years sober.”