A post-stimulus survival guide

March 9, 2009
Big money is coming to Indiana. Billions.

Our children will have to pay it all back, so this large-scale generational theft must be spent wisely. Indiana, a state that doesn't need federal aid — thank you very much — will nonetheless make efficient use of the manna.

Lt. Gov. Becky Skillman, working in conjunction with the Indiana Economic Development Corp., led by new Secretary of Commerce Mitch Roob, will prioritize projects. Gov. Daniels will approve only those expenditures that provide affirmative answers to these questions: Will it lead to jobs? Will it leave some positive asset behind? Can it happen fast?

Certain of us will see immediate assistance, including the unemployed, the uninsured and first-time home buyers, but the federal government is not pumping enough money in enough pockets to ease our concerns.

A successful restaurateur bemoaned the fact that, although his customer census remained high, his average ticket had gone down. He said, "Consumers are buying sandwiches but instead of soft drinks they are ordering water" and added, "at $2 per table, it amounts to a lot of money." I replied, "Your customers are going to be ordering water for quite some time."

Some businesses are especially positioned to take advantage of the new initiatives and will prosper, but for most of us — don't wait around for the state to save your business. You have already received the only stimulus package you are going to get — the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition that came in last month's mail.

In my Nov. 17 column, I offered an answer to the question of the day: How do we survive? I stated that, inasmuch as straying from the three R's — the basics — got many institutions into trouble, it was fitting to suggest five R's for survival. Now, three months later, let's revisit that advice.

1. Rig your ship for the long haul. The latest iteration of government intervention will not solve anything right away. Economists surveyed by The Wall Street Journal are giving up on that "2009 second-half recovery." Brian Fabbri, chief economist at BNP Paribas, was quoted as follows in the Feb. 13 Wall Street Journal: "We're in trouble. We don't have sufficient economic plans at present to resolve the banking system or the financial crisis, and the stimulus package seems loaded for 2010." More recently, the Federal Reserve cut its economic outlook for 2009 and warned that the United States economy would face an "unusually gradual and prolonged" period of recovery as the country struggles to climb out of a deep global downturn. The stock market agrees with this assessment.

2. Reduce exposure. Do not crawl into a shell, but be conservative. Take home less in order to protect your business. Moderate. Green-light only the projects that generate sales or save expenses.

3. React quickly. Situations are changing day by day. The bailout money lends credence to this advice. We now have something to react to. The state of Indiana is going to spend the government dole in a hurry. Find out where it's going and get in line. Think roads, schools and green energy. Adapt.

4. Ramp up customer service and public relations. Tell your customers, "Hey, we're still here and we mean to survive and do business. You are important to us." I opined that advertising is as essential today as almost any expense. Not many are listening. Ad dollars are disappearing and newspaper and broadcast properties are feeling the pain. As your competitors are hunkering down, this is an excellent time to win the scramble for customers.

5. Remain calm. The Wall Street Journal says that in the fourth quarter of 2008 we spent 5 percent less on pet food than we did in the third quarter. The only dogs you can blame for this economic morass are the greedy and incompetent guys on Wall Street. Please! Feed the poodle.


Maurer is a shareholder in IBJ Media Corp., which owns Indianapolis Business Journal. His column appears every other week. To comment on this column, send e-mail to mmaurer@ibj.com.
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