CANFIELD, Ohio – A quick spin down Starr Centre Drive in Canfield Township finds a professional services community packed with office space and seemingly little vacancy.
Wealth managers, accountants, law offices, health care providers and restaurants comprise the so-called Wall Street of Canfield, with a few real estate agents, corporate headquarters, banks and hairdressers thrown in for good measure. Although the road is typically quiet on any given weekday, vehicles packed in parking lots indicate business is going strong.
The Business Journal surveyed companies along Starr Centre Drive to provide a barometer of the “new normal” for providers of professional services.
What was learned? Businesses deemed essential during the pandemic saw little to no business disruption. In some companies, business got busier.
L. Calvin Jones, 3744 Starr Centre, “never really missed a beat,” says CEO Brian Battaglia.
“I think it caused a lot of people to really start paying attention to things that maybe they didn’t in the past,” Battaglia says. “Whether it was from a financial standpoint or a coverage standpoint, a lot of questions arose. So I would say the phones were busier than ever.”
J. Arnold Wealth Management Co., 3869 Starr Centre, enjoyed a record year in 2020, with a 43% year-over-year increase in clientele assets, reports Jon Arnold, president. The firm’s performance-based services helped, Arnold says, because individuals paying for wealth management services “are looking for that strategy.”
Certified public accountants were busy with “a really bizarre year” in 2020, and things haven’t let up much so far this year, says Michael Humphries, CPA and partner at Colella & Humphries CPAs LLC, 3770 Starr Centre. Filing deadline extensions disrupted the traditional tax season, although the extra time was welcome when factoring in stimulus payments and payroll protection loans.
“That’s been a challenge for us,” Humphries says. “We definitely needed that to happen because we just had too much stuff going on.”
And with the second round of PPP there’s even more going on. Bodine Perry, 3711 Starr Centre, was well into assisting clients with Round 1 forgiveness applications when Round 2 dropped, creating a bottleneck at the federal level, says Bruce Flyak, CPA and partner at the firm.
Add to that the challenge of incorporating new relief opportunities, such as the Restaurant Revitalization Fund and the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant, the latter of which stalled out of the gate when the SBA’s website crashed in early April.
“Right now, we have some clients that are excited about it. But it’s on hold until they work out the kinks on the website,” Flyak says.
Cloud-based business solutions helped CPAs serve their clients. More phone calls and video conferencing were trending up before the pandemic, Humphries says, and virtual solutions became even more important during tax filing season.
“We have a lot of clients who are on the online version of Quickbooks and we can assist those people remotely,” Humphries says. “I can almost remote right into their computer.”
While some professionals opted for virtual contacts during the pandemic, Arnold says the past year “reinforced my commitment to face-to-face service” while taking the necessary mitigation precautions.
“It’s all about what the client wants,” he says. “When it comes to money, they want to talk face-to-face. And I don’t blame them.”
Some of the customers who preferred virtual meetings over the last year are more inclined to meet in person again, L. Calvin Jones’ Battaglia says.
“More people now are wanting to get back together in person,” he says. “A lot of business functions are starting to pick back up. It’s nice to be out again and seeing some of the familiar faces.”
While face-to-face meetings are trending back up, Gem-Young Insurance, 3790 Starr Centre Drive, discourages walk-ins, opting instead for scheduled appointments, says Jay King, risk management adviser and director of marketing. Visitors must pass a temperature check and fill out a health questionnaire, he says.
“Being an insurance company, a lot of us really enjoy going out into the field, meeting with our clients and stopping into businesses to talk to everybody,” King says. “We’re starting to dip our toes in the water in regards to going out and meeting these clients.”
New digital solutions adopted during the pandemic will remain in use. Last year, Gem-Young introduced video proposals, which are beneficial as it focuses more on commercial insurance, King says.
“We actually fell in love with doing those video proposals. They’re real easy and give the client flexibility to look at it whenever they want,” he says. “A lot of those individuals are very busy.”
In addition to business connections, professionals are eager for in-person networking opportunities. Humphries has a group he meets with twice monthly, “but the numbers are down,” he says.
“As a society, it seems like we’re getting away from more face-to-face contact and personal meetings,” he says. “I don’t know if that’s necessarily a good thing. But I guess it’s the way things are going.”
Bodine Perry’s Flyak says the comfort level of all involved will dictate when that returns in full.
“It’s definitely made it more challenging,” he says. “Personally, I enjoy going to the networking events and doing a lot of the different nonprofit fundraising events and golf outings.”
A new website paired with emails and social media allowed Bodine Perry to maintain some networking connections during the pandemic, says Laura VanNess, director of marketing.
“We still found ways to connect and grow our client base through these other digital opportunities,” she says. “We relied heavily on LinkedIn.”
While offices seem to be fully staffed, many remain flexible and allow employees to work from home.
Bodine Perry had the infrastructure and remote work practices in place before the pandemic, Flyak says. In 2019, the company invested in cloud-based solutions and work-from-home policies. “The pandemic kind of expedited everything moving in that direction,” he says.
At the start of the pandemic, about half the Bodine staff worked from home. Since that time, most employees have returned to the office, although remote-work remains an option, he says.
“Many of our staff have children. They need that flexibility to be able to work at home for a day or two or a week, or go home for the afternoon,” he says.
Still offering that flexibility is a good recruiting tool, says Battaglia. L. Calvin Jones will keep its remote work option in place as it looks to recruit new talent.
The firm is in “heavy acquisition mode,” but he says finding skilled people who want to work long-term has been a problem.
As more companies adopted remote work solutions, Avrem Technologies added at least six new clients and a few “major new products,” increasing business by 30%, says owner Robert Merva. The company’s office is at 3837 Starr Centre.
Merva expects that trend to continue as more companies see employees can be just as productive at home, and as the workforce gets younger. However, he’s finding some people have become bored working from home. Some of his own employees have asked to come back after realizing “that level of isolation is not healthy,” he says.
“That isolation kind of creeps on them,” he says. “I know a lot of people who work from home and the line between work and homelife has been obliterated almost completely.”
While the remote work trend boosted Avrem’s business, it’s also had an impact on the supply chain for IT industry. In 2019, a processor shortage stunted the availability of electronics, like webcams and laptops. With the pandemic, “We’re in even worse shape,” Merva says.
“That is the single biggest issue that is killing us right now,” he says. “People need it and we can’t get it.”
Merva heard things may turn around by the end of summer. But he expects a surge in demand for hardware as more people return to the office, particularly schools and government buildings, and companies start hiring.
“We’ve got some clients who need maybe 20 or 30 laptops. It’s impossible to get two or five, much less replace a fleet of them,” he says.
Pictured at top: Starr’s, Starr or Starrs? The spelling depends on who you ask. Final answer per Canfield Township: Starr.