Monday, February 23, 2009

Pay attention to the canaries

Earlier this month, when the time finally came to let go of his last worker, Gregg Fellmann wore sunglasses. He knew it would be difficult, maybe too difficult. He didn't want the man to see him crying. 

Fellman is a ceramic tile installer, a small business owner, one of dozens at the Charlotte Convention Center this past weekend for a builder and home remodeling expo. Landscapers and hardwood floor companies and cabinet makers, struggling but enduring, for now. 

They are the canaries of this recession - among the first to be struck by the withering economy, but perhaps the first who will know when people are buying, and we can exhale, again. 

They also are the quiet engine of commerce, men and women who took a chance, put their name on some letterhead, and for years found success in this growing city. But by autumn 2007, builders had stopped building in Charlotte. Homeowners were cutting back on non-essentials. Business fell off as dramatically as many here had ever seen. 

Soon, the owners had no choice but to let go of workers. Adam Simpson, who had grown his stone landscape business to 30 employees since moving to Charlotte from Florida nine years ago, was forced to lay off half of them. "It was hard," he says. "Most of my guys have been with me for years."

But in this recession, some who are surviving are finding a reminder of why they had started on their own. Gregg Fellman started laying ceramic tile 26 years ago, in high school. He apprenticed with a master craftsman, got his own home improvement license in New York state, then started his own business in 1986.

He moved to Charlotte 10 years ago, opened a small showroom, saw his business grow to 10 employees. Now there are just two - he and his wife, Christine - and he is digging in, hustling for work, plowing through his anxiety the same way he did two decades ago. "I'm getting back to my roots," he says. It is, for some, oddly invigorating.

Now, throughout the Expo hall, they are wondering if things might be improving. Customer traffic has picked up just a little in the past two weeks, many say. Could be that it's the business that comes with warming weather. Could be that something bigger is beginning to stir. They're not sure. 

Pay attention to them, the canaries. Lawn companies and cleaning services and remodelers. They are not laying off workers to please stockholders or make huge debt payments. They are simply profit and loss - and when they begin to get busy, and make money, and hire workers to make more, we will know we are moving toward something better.

"I think I'm seeing that light," said Gregg Fellmann, and he looked at his wife, who was nodding.

"We're optimistic," he said. "We have to be." 


Anonymous said...

Being self employed is not as profitable as most people think, imagine working without benefits of any kind ( health, life, unemployement ect ) and having to depend on just you ablities to keep you going. We do it because we love it and it gives us the freedom to be our own boss. Not every contactor is out to rip people off, those are the exceptions, almost all are their to do the best job for a customer and to be ale to feed their families after the job is finished.

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately, those hard-working people won't qualify for any bailout and stimulus/porkulus bill. They are left on their own and fleeced of every dime they might have.

Anonymous said...

Kudos for all the small business folks. I was one for years and had a great time. The 70's saw the gas lines and 80's their problems, But during it all, it was so satisfying to be able to be my own boss responsible for any and all decisions. Several employees are still my closest friends ever.
But the greed of the last 10 years now brings America to it's knees. Greed destroys more than just those that perpetrated it.
What I cannot understand is why the lending practices are allowed to continue even today. No credit, low credit is still fine!