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Small Business Chat with Dan Kelly

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Dan Kelly serves as President, Chief Executive Officer and Chair of the Board of Governors of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB). In this capacity, Dan is the lead spokesperson and advocate for the views of the Federation’s 110,000 small and medium-sized member businesses.

Dan joined CFIB in 1994 as Policy Analyst for the Prairies and, soon after, became Director of Provincial Affairs for Manitoba. Dan led many files, including the call for balanced budget laws and workers’ compensation reform. In 1999, Dan moved to Calgary to become CFIB’s Western Vice-President and was named one of Alberta’s 50 most influential people while in that role. In Western Canada, Dan led the Federation’s work on the growing shortage of labor, training, and immigration, publishing many influential studies on these files. In 2009, Dan took on the role of Senior Vice-President, Legislative Affairs, where he led CFIB’s successful campaign to establish a Code of Conduct for the credit and debit card industry. CFIB’s Board of Governors appointed Dan as President and CEO as of June 2012, and Chair in June 2014. In 2015, Dan was named one of the “Top 100 Most Powerful and Influential People in Government and Politics”, by Power & Influence magazine.

Dan has served on dozens of provincial and federal committees and task forces and has represented Canada’s small businesses at the International Labour Organisation in Geneva. He currently serves on Finance Canada Payments Consultative Committee (FINPAY) and the Canadian International Trade Tribunal Advisory Committee. Dan is a regular speaker in Canada and around the world on topics like international trade, the payments industry, and skills and labor shortages.


1. What initiatives has CFIB put in place to help small business owners during these challenging times?

The situation facing small businesses in Canada has been incredibly challenging and for us as a business association, we’ve been challenged tremendously as well. We’ve been doing a reasonably good job at serving small and medium-sized companies – our members, across Canada. The first big thing that we’re doing is advocating for small firms so that means advocating for the Federal and Provincial governments including some municipalities to provide small business relief programs to advocate for our members through the re-opening so that they can safely re-open their businesses and all sorts of issues from HR to other matters – those are at the top of our agenda.

The CFIB has played a really big role in helping to deliver the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy (CEWS) program. We’ve also been a big force behind the continued expansion of the CEBA loan program Canada Emergency Business Account, and we’ve also been working hard to try to fix the commercial rent (CECRA) program. Those are the efforts we’ve been making on the advocacy side, the other big service we’ve provided to small business across Canada is a direct one on one business counseling. Now, we always do this at CFIB – we typically take 50-100 calls a week but that has risen in many weeks to 1000 calls from business owners. Most of them of course are CFIB members, but many of them non-members to CFIB and these are companies that were contacting primarily by telephone and asking their questions. Most of those questions have been on some of the government support programs because there’s a confusing mess of rules that often need to be changed and business owners have not been able to figure them out to save their lives, so we’ve been working hard to provide good quality information.

 CFIB has provided a few other services to our members, we’ve created a get back to a business kit that helps guide small firms through their re-opening face. We created a Facebook page called PPEs for SMEs; this is to help connect those small companies that are starting to create personal protective equipment with those companies that need to buy it. Finally, CFIB is now part of an initiative, together with a few other business associations that have created the POST-Promise and this is a commitment that small businesses make that they can then advertise to their consumers of the steps that they have taken to allow them to safely re-open. What we’re hoping is that it’ll give consumers the confidence to return to small companies. So those are five things that CFIB has been doing throughout the pandemic.


 

2. Given the current situation, what was the biggest thing that has changed in the way you’ve operated your business that will stay post-COVID?

More and more businesses are being allowed to open every week. Being allowed to open is of course step one. We’ve gone from about 20% of our members allowed that were open during the tightest part of the pandemic to now just over 50% of small firms that are open. We’ve created a get back to the business kit to give small firms guidance to what they need to do, it includes posters and guidance for HR issues like “how to recall your workers back”. We’re also advocating for changes for some of the government support programs. The CERB program for example, that provides $2000-month benefits to individuals that have lost their jobs are serving in some cases to be a disincentive to get back to work. We are advocating changes for that program to allow a business owner to recall their workers and the CERB benefits would otherwise end unless they have a pressing reason to stay away from work. We’ve been working on all of that to make sure we can in an orderly way, allow workers to come back to small businesses with whom they were previously employed and continue to serve clients in new ways.


 

3. What has the government done that has been beneficial to businesses and consumers and what areas would you say needs some improvement?

There’s been a host of programs that have been created by the government. Some of them very good ones and others that need further tweaking and others that are a really big mess. As I mentioned earlier, the biggest and most well-received program has been the wage subsidy, it allows businesses that have seen a 30% reduction in their gross revenues to get a 75% wage subsidy of their workers’ wages up to $847 a month per worker. That is a really good program that has helped a ton of businesses stay around, we’ve estimated somewhere between 50% and two-thirds of small firms will end up using the wage subsidy and we’ve been advocating for further expansion of that program as we go and we’re pleased to report that the government announced that the program will be extended for June, July, and August. We’re pushing hard to make sure the rules for July and August will allow more small businesses to participate.

The second big program that has been well received by many small businesses is the Canada Emergency Business Account (CEBA) loan program. This provides a 40-thousand-dollar loan to small businesses, its interest-free and delivered through their bank and up to 10-thousand dollars or 25% of that loan is forgivable. That’s important because many businesses have told us that their fixed cost has not gone away and they of course have little or no revenue to pay that so the 10-thousand dollar forgivable portion serves as a bit of a grant and that has helped a lot of small firms in the process. Unfortunately, it too has struggled because many businesses are excluded from the program. At first, it was tight payroll requirement of 50 thousand to a million and after some lobbying the federal government expanded that to 20 thousand to 1.5 million, but many businesses that pay themselves with dividends or that pay contact workers, don’t have a business bank account or are brand new firms have been excluded from the program. After weeks and weeks of lobbying, the government finally announced that they would be expanding the program to allow those groups to participate as well with certain conditions. And the first big stage of that expansion is expected in the next couple of days, with a further expansion that those newer businesses and those without a business bank account expected in the weeks ahead.

The final program that isn’t working well is the rent support program – CECRA as its known. This program provides a potential 75% rent reduction to small firms for April, May, and June. A really good program on the surface – unfortunately for the small business that is affected, they have to be entirely dependent on their landlord to participate. So, the small firm can’t get the subsidy directly. They have to depend on their landlord to apply to use the program and if the landlord chooses not to, there’s nothing they can do. We’ve been actively lobbying the federal and provincial governments that cost-share this, to allow small firms to get the subsidy directly and allow them to sort out the business with their landlord – unfortunately, that hasn’t happened, but we continue to push hard for that.


 

4. What is your key advice to small and medium-sized business owners during these challenging times?

First of all, business owners need to know that this isn’t their fault. Many are taking this hard – seeing their lives, dreams just crumble in their hands and that’s sad. We’ve talked to at least a half dozen business owners who have contemplated suicide – that’s how dark this has become. It’s important to know that even with all the best business planning that a business owner can do, very few were fully prepared for the size and scope of the virtual shut down of the economy that was necessitated by COVID-19. So, recognizing this isn’t their fault is a big part of that and I worry deeply about the mental health impact that this is having on small business owners because they have such a huge responsibility to their families, to their workers, and of course to the communities that they serve.

As best you can, try to persevere. Try to keep the business intact until we see brighter days ahead and many of them are doing just that. Make sure that you educate yourself on all of the government support programs that are out there and  I do know that many of them need fixing because there are a lot of businesses that are unfortunately slipping through the cracks of the programs, but feel free – any business owner can lean on CFIB at this time. Our special COVID website is cfib.ca/covid19. We’re trying to answer all the questions that business owners have as quickly as we can. Call our business helpline as we have now a staff of up to 100 people to take calls from business owners to answer their questions and support them through that process. You don’t have to be a CFIB member to participate. Business owners can call us at 1-888-234-2232 and we’ll do our very best to try to help them through the pandemic. Also, talking to other business owners can be a really helpful thing – recognizing that you’re not alone. Those are a few things off the hop that small businesses can do to try to address the pandemic as we move from the emergency to the recovery phase of COVID-19.


 

5. Any final thoughts that you would like to share with our audience?

The one thing that I want to make sure is that consumers know how rough a time small business owners have had over the last number of months – they need your support. I know during a shutdown many consumers were forced to buy every one of their needs at Costco, Wal-Mart, or the big box stores that sell groceries, but now is the time to support local businesses in your backyard. We are trying as best we can to remind Canadians that if they don’t support these small companies that have been there to support them over the years that they just won’t exist. CFIB is soon to pilot a major buy local buy small initiative to try to encourage Canadians to support as many small companies as possible.

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