How Dayton region small businesses adapted to survive

After seven years in business Joe and Carol Jones saw their Washington Twp. company’s revenue dry up after Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine in March announced the stay-at-home order for all but essential businesses.

“My wife and I had to make a decision: do we die on the vine or do we pivot and do something different to bring in revenue?” said Jones, co-owner of Incenta Rewards.“We came off three extremely banner years and COVID-19 hit and it was like being smacked in the face by a board.”

Demand collapsed for the company’s employee recognition, loyalty and incentive programs. They had to cancel eight major gift events where corporate employees gather to redeem points for things like Apple electronics, Bose speakers and Keurig coffee makers. Incenta also had to close its showroom, where Prada, Louis Vuitton and Gucci items are on display.

“Who in the heck is buying a Louis bag now?” said Joe Jones. “Louis Vuitton switched over to making masks!”

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Prior to forming the company Jones had spent decades working in the employee rewards industry. So once COVID hit, he decided he would use his vast supply chain to start a new division: Incenta Health.

The couple invested $1 million of their own money and began buying face masks, hand sanitizer, face shields, gloves, shoe covers and infrared thermometers to sell to businesses that are reopening and need personal protective equipment to keep their employees and customers safe.

Jones knew companies were having a terrible time finding protective equipment, as well as facing scammers trying to take advantage of the situation. Jones’ suppliers wanted the money up front, but he’d worked with them for years so he wasn’t too worried that he would not get the items he ordered. Pallets of supplies, including 500,000 face masks, started arriving in May and now his showroom has displays of protective equipment mixed in with those high-end purses, Jones said.

Before the pandemic Incenta had six full time and three part time employees, along with about 50 temporary workers for gift events. In late April he furloughed his workers but was able to obtain a Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan and bring them back when he launched Incenta Health this month.

“(The economy is) going to come back. But you can’t sit around,” said Jones. “I think the best thing to know about being an entrepreneur is knowing when to shift, when to pivot to survive.”

Battle Sight Technologies makes a switch

Nicholas Ripplinger, co-founder and president of Battle Sight Technologies in Dayton, faced a similar moment.

The company makes CrayTac, a writing tool he markets to the military and other customers for communication in low-light or no-light situations.

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“Once we realized we might have to shut down we asked: how could we deliver value to our community, our core customer base and keep our employees on the payroll?” Ripplinger said.

The production line was converted to bottle hand sanitizer, which Ripplinger obtained from one of his chemical suppliers that had 55 gallon drums of the increasingly hard to find substance. He put his employees on paid furlough for 8 weeks while he and this two other founders, Chris Vogt and Bennett Tanton, bottled the hand sanitizer. Half was donated to first responders across the region and the other half sold to the public.

“The goal was to break even and keep everyone on the payroll,” Ripplinger said.

The CrayTac line is now being rebuilt, with social distancing standards in place, and three furloughed workers are back.

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Ripplinger said closing down his normal operations also gave him more time to work on a new product, NightFall, which is a night-time search and rescue tool, and a prototype technology called ColdFIRE, which is embedded in troop flag patches, enabling them to be seen through night vision goggles.

“Initially it’s just shock. The unknown is the incredibly stressful part as a business owner,” Ripplinger said of his reaction when DeWine’s order was issued. “You kind of think: ‘Do you fold up shop and quit or do you find a way to invest significantly less than you would have, innovate and take this time to come up with new ideas and validate them when your customers are sitting home on the couch with their kid and are glad to take a phone call?’”

Some Key-Ads’ customers had to cancel

The business Stephen Keyes’ grandfather founded in Dayton in 1955 is a billboard company, so when performing events started being canceled as a result of the COVID-19 crisis, Key-Ads felt it.

“The rug was just pulled out from under them,” said Keyes, who is Key-Ads’ vice president and a partner with his dad and two brothers.

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Key-Ads remained open with all employees except installation crews working from home. A PPP loan helped the company keep employees on staff and the company began installing uplifting public service announcement billboards in partnership with hospital networks, casinos and grocery stores.

With companies pausing or canceling advertising campaigns, Keyes said its important to remember that things will reopen.

“When people go to spend a dollar you want to make sure that your name is out there and the dollar is spent with you,” Keyes said. “That dollar is going to drive your business organization to the front of everyone’s mind.”

Centerville CrossFit lends out gear

Mitch Lyons, owner of Centerville CrossFit, said closing his doors in March “was terrifying.”

“We didn’t know what was going to happen with all of our members,” said Lyons, who founded the Centerville business in 2008. “We really just started throwing stuff against the wall to see what stuck. There was really nothing we didn’t try.”

The company had about 300 members, but lost 50, mostly people who had lost their jobs, said Lyons. He lent out all of his fitness equipment to remaining members and initially offered online classes, but found that interest in that waned.

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Then Lyons hit upon the idea of giving written fitness plans to every member, an idea that was so popular he will continue doing it even as he reopens. Lyons said he also will continue lending equipment to members who don’t yet feel comfortable coming to a gym.

He said it also helped for his company to get a PPP loan.

“Our profit had gone to zero and I wasn’t taking any money,” Lyons said. “But getting the PPP loan let us take a breath and let us sit back and say what is the smartest thing we can do for our business?”

Mile Two kept working

Jeff Graley, president of Mile Two in Dayton, said the company had a steady flow of work from its military and private sector customers during the shutdown.

Founded in 2015, the company’s work involves human machine teaming and artificial intelligence. Graley said Mile Two is now working on ways to apply that technology to communicating COVID-19 information to decision makers.

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He said employees worked from home and will return to the downtown Dayton office at some point. To help out other businesses Mile Two bought gift cards and continued paying for donut deliveries that they used to get when they were in the office, Graley said.

“We try really hard to engage with the small businesses that are in our ecosystem so that they will be there when we come back,” he said.

Brixilated group events hurt by COVID-19

Founded two years ago, Brixilated holds group build events where people construct LEGO mosaics at places like Oktoberfest or the Dayton Development Coalition’s annual meeting.

With 80 percent of its revenue coming from those events, the shutdown has had a major negative impact on the company, said founder and chief executive Adam Mullins.

Mullins said he has switched to selling specialty LEGO building kits of the Dayton skyline, Rudy Flyer and other college mascots, donating part of the proceeds to community partners and the U.D. Institute of Applied Creativity.

“When marketing and events get canceled so does our revenue stream,” Mullins said. “From a selling perspective we are hoping that the world is going to right itself and we will get into some semblance of new normal, whatever that is.”

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