Capital Region

Businesses adapt to survive in an altered landscape

Meet four Capital Region entrepreneurs who pivoted out of practical or financial need amid COVID-19 shutdown
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Categories: Business, News, Saratoga County, Schenectady County, Your Niskayuna

In photos: Tech Valley Shuttle owner Trent Griffin-Braaf stands in one of his shuttle buses in Cohoes last week. Inset: A Time Four Paws owner Yvette Giovanni poses in front of her Route 9 business in Clifton Park.


Few businesses escaped the first half of 2019 unscathed and even fewer can guess what lies ahead in the second half.

Inventory shortages, employee layoffs, skittish customers, months-long shutdowns and — most of all — the need to keep healthy and safe have all increased stress during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Hundreds of thousands of business owners across New York received federal assistance while an unknown number gave up and closed for good.

Others adapted to survive and in some cases thrive.

Meet four Capital Region business owners who pivoted their business models to keep going through the pandemic and don’t plan to pivot back when normalcy returns.

DOG DAYS

Yvette Giovanni of Clifton Park, owner of A Time Four Paws, already had been moving toward expanding and redirecting her business model when the pandemic forced her hand.

“I had a small business out of my home where I was doing petsitting and dog walking,” she said. With everybody suddenly staying home and most travel restricted, few people needed her services after mid-March.

“Dog walking and petsitting is just not happening right now.”

At the same time, day care and training for dogs was getting harder to find, as some of those businesses closed their doors at least temporarily. Giovanni had the skills to meet the demand.

One of those businesses that closed its doors permanently was CaNine to Five in Halfmoon. Giovanni spoke to the owner of the Route 9 property and they agreed on terms for her to take over the lease. “He needed a tenant, I needed a place,” she recalls.

Giovanni started with one employee and doubted she’d grow during the pandemic. But she found her market, and the market found her.

“People pulled into the parking lot and said, ‘Are you open?’ ” she said.

“It grew faster than I thought and now I hired three more girls.”

Her furry charges range from a Yorkie to a mastiff, and she offers them training and socialization as well as exercise. One of the ways she distinguishes her business is pickup and drop-off service. She’ll also take in dogs that haven’t learned to function in the day care setting.

“Most day cares will not take a dog that has self-esteem issues or confidence issues,” Giovanni said

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Everything came together at once for her: Her youngest child joined the Marine Corps, the pandemic choked off one business model and boosted another, the elusive right space became available at an affordable price, and the town of Halfmoon expedited her signage request as part of its effort to restart the local economy.

“Once the sign went up, we’ve been getting calls like crazy,” Giovanni said.

ON THE ROAD AGAIN

Tech Valley Shuttle was born and grew as a transport service serving the local hotel and hospitality sector, transporting groups to events and gatherings.

So you can see the immediate problem it faced during the pandemic, when groups, gatherings and events were all but banned.

“It became non-existent, literally,” said owner-founder Trent Griffin-Braaf. “We were on pace to double what we did last year in sales. Everything stopped with our contracted services. It was definitely scary.”

What he anticipated as two weeks at home while the virus played itself out stretched into months.

The Clifton Park resident enjoyed the extra time with his wife and children, but he also started brainstorming for a way to get back on the road. He couldn’t fall back on the career he had left to start the shuttle service because that was hotel management, and the hotel industry was hibernating as well.

Tech Valley began making meal deliveries for nonprofits and that morphed into a wider range of deliveries with Capital Curbside. That will evolve next month into a new venture — Griffin Braaf Logistics — that will deliver oversized packages for Amazon.

“To be able to partner with a company like Amazon, I’m excited, I know I’ll learn a lot more,” Griffin-Braaf said. He’ll need to buy a fleet of five to 10 Amazon-branded cargo vehicles to make the jump.

Griffin-Braaf also has a plan for his passenger fleet: Workforce transportation, in which he contracts with employers and agencies to get people to their jobs. There’s not as much competition in that space, and the unemployment rates seen during the pandemic make him want to be part of a solution getting people back to work.

He’s sufficiently committed that he changed the company name from Tech Valley Hospitality Shuttle to Tech Valley Shuttle.

Will he start doing group event trips again?

“Honestly, I don’t think I will,” Griffin-Braaf said. “I’m not saying never — for the foreseeable future.”

Hospitality transport, if any, would be limited to the local hotels with which he’s built a relationship, he said.

VIRTUAL MUSCLE

Gym and health club owners have watched and waited as the state allowed most other types of businesses to reopen, one by one, but left gyms in hibernation as too risky for transmission of the virus.

At Chris Abbott’s gym in Saratoga Springs, the circumstances if anything were worse: He had committed to expanding into new space next door when the pandemic took hold. So he’s paying more for something he can’t use.

But there was no way out of the contract, so he ran with it.

He rebranded the business previously known as Evolution Strength & Performance into KettlebellWorks and kicked off a remote training program for clients.

The name change was easy: The gym founded in in 2017 was all about kettlebells, the bulbous weights shaped like a top-handle tea kettle.

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The new name gives the gym a specific identity, unlike the nice-sounding but quite-generic “Evolution.” There can be risk in such close identification if the namesake is a fad, but kettlebells have been around for a long time and Abbott doesn’t worry about them losing favor.

“The things that we will hang our hat on are consistency and simplicity,” he said.

The bigger change was going virtual, giving each member a personal coach and a custom program designed around strength or nutrition or both.

“We’ve also turned ourselves, myself included, into one-on-one coaches,” Abbott said.

Evolution previously had an online nutrition program that was a sideline to the main business, which was in-person training. The new incarnation, called “Hybrid,” goes far beyond.

“COVID forced us to get creative,” Abbott said.

The new gym space, he said, has become essentially a beautiful film studio, but the changes are having their intended effect — KettlebellWorks is generating revenue again, with a modified fee structure.

“We’ve started to see growth for the first time in a while these last few weeks,” Abbott said. “Our team is … seeing through the fog to the other side.”

When the restrictions are finally lifted and gyms can legally reopen, KettlebellWorks will open its doors again, but Abbott anticipates that Hybrid will remain the focus.

“We have a gym, we will have in-person training classes available, but it will be a la carte,” he said.

STAY AT HOME RENOVATION

Precision Upstate designs, fabricates and installs closet shelving and glass for home showers, countertops and backsplashes out of its Glenville headquarters and provides similar services for commercial customers out of a Rotterdam shop.

What it couldn’t do for a long time was have people in the showroom for the design consultation.

This brought to a head something Peter Klein had wanted to do since buying the company in 2017: create three-dimensional virtual tours and design.

“We had a very convoluted process,” Klein said: Attract the customer, set a time for a sitdown, interview the client, figure out what they wanted and how to provide it, create a design, show them the design, make tweaks, gain approval.

“The whole process was eight weeks’ turnaround time,” Klein said.

“Today what we do is a 3-D design in a webinar and we walk them through the showroom. Believe it or not, 50% of the time the customer will place a down payment and we’ll close the deal in one session.”

This arrangement became necessary during the pandemic shutdown, when customers couldn’t come into the design center.

The commercial side was ruled “essential” and kept going with restrictions, but the residential side wasn’t operating for several weeks.

So not only is the virtual tool a faster way through the process, it’s the only way during a public health crisis.

Total cost for Precision Update to make the transition: three weeks’ effort and about $3,000.

It might seem a stretch that the owner of an interior design/improvement company would attempt to create such a system in-house, but in Klein’s case it makes perfect sense: He has extensive experience and knowledge in 3-D computer imaging from TomTec, which he founded and which designed the module that lets ultrasound machines create 3-dimensional scans.

While he was considering purchasing Precision Upstate, one of its designers told him that the process should be digitized, he recalled. “I actually had the idea before I even bought the company but I never had the time to do it.”

With commercial work running 20% to 30% below normal and residential work shut down altogether, the pandemic gave Klein time — and impetus — to make the transition.

Business picked right up again after launch, and left Precision with a large backlog as the economy began to restart, plus a shortage of labor, as some installers opted to sit at home and make more money with combined state and federal unemployment benefits.

“We had sort of an emergency recruitment process,” Klein said. “The first four weeks were very, very taxing because every customer wanted to have their closet, their shower done. That was kind of a stressful time.

“We’re just about through the backlog, 15 closets a day for a few weeks.”

The new way of doing business is here to stay, Klein said.

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