Local business owners press on even as a virus upends their usual routines
By Carol Britton Meyer
Despite the coronavirus pandemic, four Hull business owners – an attorney, a human resources coach/consultant, an insurance broker, and a certified management accountant – appear to be coping with the dislocation and uncertainty and embarking on 2021 with a sense of hope.
Attorney Michael Fleming, who has an office on Nantasket Avenue, specializes in estate planning, including trusts, wills, health care proxies, powers of attorney, and estate tax returns and administration.
“I actually had a better year in 2020 than I did in 2019,” he reports. “Many people who contacted me were current clients, who were home due to the pandemic and had plenty of time to think about, review, and make changes to their planning [documents], and some new clients, who now realized the importance of planning ahead and that we can’t take anything for granted or assume things will carry on in a certain direction.”
When COVID-19 hit, Fleming followed all the state guidance and stopped meeting in person with clients. Once the state loosened the rules, Fleming was able to meet with eight clients in one week alone in the parking lot outside his office or on their front porches or in their driveways to sign documents, with face masks and social distancing in place, after discussing the details by telephone or other remote means ahead of time. The required witnesses at document signings were able to observe as required.
“One client signed while in her car, another on my tailgate, and others at a table set up outside that was long enough to allow social distancing,” Fleming says. “Everyone cooperated for the most part.
Once he was able to meet with clients in his office, he followed all the health and safety protocols, sanitizing the surfaces and requiring clients to wear face masks during appointments.
One of the changes Fleming has experienced is the shortening of in-person meetings because clients get tired of wearing face masks and thus are less inclined to talk as long as they might have otherwise.
Shorter, virtual meetings usually benefit clients because they are more convenient and require less time, resulting in lower fees, Fleming notes, adding, “I believe virtual meetings are here to stay.”
He went on to say he thinks most attorneys he knows are faring fairly well. “We fall into that middle category; it’s clear that restaurants, movie theaters, and other venues have been hit hard. I think attorneys have actually benefitted a little, depending on what type of law they practice, but the uncertainty is always there.”
Fleming is unsure how the pandemic will affect his practice during 2021. “It might go down a bit, but that said, I already have meetings set up for the month of January,” he says. “Things seem to be getting off to a very good start.”
Dennis Zaia, principal of Focus Associates Human Resources Coaching & Consulting, lost his three primary longtime clients within one week in March when the impact of the virus hit full force.
It was then that he decided to redirect his efforts from the work he had been doing for the past 32 years to volunteerism and went on to start the Stretch Your Food Budget program, which helps struggling Hull residents find ways to make their food dollars go further.
The program will run from January to June, in cooperation with the senior center, The Parrot’s Brian Houlihan, Hull’s volunteer emergency response coordinator Craig Wolfe, The Village Market, The Hull Times, and other concerned citizens.
“The reality is that the [COVID-19] situation isn’t going to change for a while, so I decided to put my energy into other productive and gratifying efforts to help citizens during these challenging times,” Zaia says. “Doing this made good sense for my brain and my heart.”
Despite the challenges posed by the virus, Zaia points to “a number of silver linings that none of us expected as a result of the horror of this pandemic.” For him, they include accomplishing things one never thought could be done; improving one’s ability to work remotely and master or improve on technology skills; and remaining connected through remote meetings during a time of social distancing.
“We know that the challenge in the future will be for organizations to find ways to maintain their culture without physical interaction” at least temporarily, he says. “No matter how effective Zoom and other remote meetings are, it’s not the same as having a laugh, conversation, disagreement or agreement, or strategizing face to face with a co-worker.”
Heading into 2021, Zaia hopes that those who are employed “will realize they are fortunate to have a job and to be able to feed their family and pay the bills” and will turn toward what they can do to help neighbors, friends, family members, and local businesspeople who may be struggling.
Penny Dickerson, owner of McGunnigle Insurance Co. at West Corner, was an accountant “in my former life” before joining Bruce McGunnigle, learning the business, obtaining her broker’s license, and accepting the keys from him when he retired.
COVID-19 has changed the way the office, which offers auto, home, and flood insurance, does business. “Our customers don’t come inside unless briefly to sign a document, and cash and checks for insurance premiums are accepted through the mail slot,” Dickerson explains. “We encourage telephone conversations, and 98 percent of the insurance companies we deal with accept payments over the phone.”
While there has not been much of a drop in business, one of the biggest challenges is trying to help customers who have gotten behind in paying their premiums. “I try to help as much as I can,” she says. “I’m the agent and have to make everyone happy – our customers and the insurance companies with which we do business.”
One way she has adapted, she says, is “to keep moving. There are sad days and happy days, as there are in normal life. I get up every day, put on a smile, and try to be happy as much of the time as possible.”
In this new year, Dickerson plans to rebuild her business model, with a focus on using social media more to communicate with those who rely on it for most of their information. “My job,” she says, “is to get my customers the best policy that fits their needs, provides adequate coverage, and is affordable for them.”
A bright spot for Dickerson would be a shot of the vaccine. “I won’t feel safe until then,” she says.
Abby Diamond-Kissiday, a certified management accountant, has noticed some changes in how her business, Abby Diamond, CMA, has been running during COVID-19.
“All my meetings related to preparing taxes have gone virtual, while some people prefer to meet in person, which has become something of an issue,” she says. “My office is in my home, and for the safety of my family, I’m limiting the number of people who come here.”
Most of her work involves business accounting, and Diamond-Kissiday now engages with her clients remotely as much as possible, doing their bookkeeping online.
With others, she finds it necessary to work “in their physical space, when they are not there, especially now with the 25 percent office occupancy limitation,” she says. “It took me quite a while to adapt to these changes, and it’s taking some of my clients time to do the same. I’m not working with them all at full speed as I was before, and some of my clients have closed due to COVID-19.”
Diamond-Kissiday expects things to remain “pretty similar to the way they are now” until at least the summer. “So many people were saying they can’t wait for 2021, but the situation didn’t change the moment we hit the new year.”
While her workload has decreased somewhat, Diamond-Kissiday is happy she still has a job “while some others, who I feel badly for, don’t.”