Business Unusual

Business Unusual: Hardship Breeds Resilience, Says the CEO of This 82-Year-Old Company

How a fourth-generation business born during the Great Depression — and navigated its way through 4 recessions, September 11, and Hurricane Sandy — is handling COVID-19.

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This story is part of our Business Unusual series. Each week, we share real stories from small business owners and how they are adapting to a new world of work.

J.W. Goodliffe, Jr. (the “son” in J.W. Goodliffe & Son), left, and Jim Miller, right, stand at the Allentown, Pa., Farm Show, in 1955.

Bob Goodliffe is no stranger to disastrous circumstances that threaten to close business.

In fact, due to his frequent kinship with hardship, Goodliffe has transformed his business into a resilient team with firmly-rooted principles.

“I’ve seen crazy things happen. Each one is different, and each one you could never imagine,” Goodliffe said in a recent interview with Workest. “But we’ve managed to get through each one.”

Goodliffe is a fourth generation owner of an 82-year-old welding supply company that was literally born out of distress.

CyberWeld — or as it was originally called, J.W. Goodliffe and Son — was founded in 1938 when Goodliffe’s great-grandfather’s trucking company lost its only account to the Great Depression. Desperate for work, Goodliffe (Sr.) turned to what he knew best, hauling gas cylinders, and so J.W. Goodliffe Truckman became J.W. Goodliffe & Son Welding Supply.

“I’ve seen crazy things happen. Each one is different, and each one you could never imagine. But we’ve managed to get through each one.”

“It’s not too unlike what we’re going through now,” Goodliffe said. “There were financial woes, businesses closing, and families coming together to help one another out.”

But while hardship may be unavoidable for any business that spans nearly a century of operations, what’s important is not the scale of the catastrophe, but the business’ ability to see change and commit to adapting.

This, Goodliffe says, is one of the most important pieces of wisdom he’s learned as a business owner.

Take Goodliffe personally:

“I went from being a really arrogant, insensitive, stereotypical son of a boss to a person who really thinks to care about the people more than the business,” Goodliffe said.

CyberWeld would get plenty of opportunity to find lessons the hard way. The company pivoted its way through the recession of ‘87, the recession of ‘91, the Dot Com Bubble, the September 11 attacks, a near-bankrupting business decision, the recession of ‘08, an on-site accident that killed a dedicated employee of 30 years, and Hurricane Sandy, which left the company revenue-less for 11 days.

In some ways the COVID-19 crisis is just another notch in the belt.

“Lessons from hardships must be acted on immediately,” Goodliffe said.

Hurricane Sandy left CyberWeld with no power, no ability to connect with each other, and tens of thousands of dollars lost in daily revenue in 2012.

Afterwards, Goodliffe decided to invest in a decentralized phone system and opened a second location in Arizona — far from any nor’easters or hurricanes.

“Lessons from hardships must be acted on immediately.”

The goal was to prevent a future lack of communication among staff in case of another natural disaster, or other unimaginable situation.

Cue the COVID-19 spread. This viral incision has forced 60% of CyberWeld’s staff into full-time remote operations. But this time, Goodliffe was ready. With their decentralized phone system already in place, CyberWeld employees could stay connected to each other, to vendors, and to customers with no break in productivity.

In other words, the blow of COVID-19 didn’t hurt as bad as it could have, and Goodliffe’s investment panned out.

While in some ways CyberWeld has it easier than some — they are an “essential business” that even got a surge in sales from its N95 respirator mask supply — Goodliffe isn’t pretending he’s pardoned from needing to make shifts and adjustments to today’s viral epoch.

For instance:

  • CyberWeld staff who are required to show up in person for work are doing so with new hours, including solo night hours, to maintain complete social distancing.
  • Goodliffe, the CEO, who’s typically based in New Jersey, is now “stuck” at his company’s second location in Arizona as travel bans across the country are advised.
  • The company, unsure that the worst has passed, is bracing for a 20% reduction in revenue in coming days.

As COVID-19 continues to chew its way through the small business economy, many businesses will close. But many others will be afforded the opportunity to innovate; to become more resilient; or to transform.

51% of small businesses said they won’t be able to last more than 3 months in today’s circumstances, according to a Goldman Sachs study of 1,500 businesses. But that leaves 49% who maybe can, and 51% who will be forced to change their circumstance to succeed.

A business’s resilience is born through hardship and recovery, and some of the longest standing brands endure many iterations of crippling disaster.

The key is to learn from the hardship, immediately implement warranted changes, and commit to seeing growth opportunities when presented when dire straits. Those changes lead to lasting, positive change both for the business and personally.

Oh and cash. Cash is king, Goodliffe says.

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