Carroll Thomas, director of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP), knows something about the effect of disasters on small businesses. “When I was a small business owner, there was a major fire in Center City Philadelphia. Getting through that was really, really tough.” Because of her past experience, she knew something had to be done last fall when multiple hurricanes hit the U.S. and small and medium-sized manufacturers were struggling to recover.
Carroll spoke to grant experts at NIST, and they showed her how NIST MEP could use NIST’s authority to provide funds to get resources out to the local MEP Centers in the areas affected by the hurricanes. Her colleagues also recognized the need to get experts on the ground to talk to the business owners, and because of Thomas’s quick thinking, NIST was one of the first government organizations to get funds out for relief.
In the fall of 2017, NIST, in the form of the MEP Manufacturing Disaster Assessment Program (MDAP), directly provided $3 million for relief from Hurricane Harvey to two of the MEP National NetworkTM Centers—TMAC (the MEP Center in Texas) and the Manufacturing Extension Partnership of Louisiana (MEPOL). An additional $3 million for relief from Hurricanes Irma and Maria went to the MEP Centers whose areas were most affected by those weather disasters—FloridaMakes and PRiMEX, in Florida and Puerto Rico respectively.
The goals of the resources were specific: to allow the MEP Centers extra staff and extra hours to assess the situations of manufacturers in FEMA-designated disaster areas. “It was very important for us to reach out to them. Even if you just think in terms of numbers, the 41,000 small and medium-sized manufacturers in those identified disaster zones in Georgia, Louisiana, Florida, Texas, and Puerto Rico account for a quarter of a trillion dollars in manufacturing GDP,” says Thomas. “For owners, their blood, sweat, and tears go into their business. We go out and help assess what they need. For them, that initial contact is really important and means everything to them to get back on their feet.”
Here’s a story from Texas. “Some MEP folks were riding by and saw lights on in a 250-person factory. They went in and saw the owner, sitting by himself, just looking at the flooded factory, the destroyed inventory, the damaged equipment. They were there to talk to him, to say ‘go home, get a good night’s sleep, we’ll come back and talk to you about it tomorrow.’ Our being there helps these manufacturers prioritize, initiates the sequential thinking that can get a business reopened — ‘what do you need to do first, whom do you need to contact?’”
Jose Colucci, the NIST MEP southeast regional manager, whose territory includes Florida, Georgia, and Puerto Rico, agrees. “That human interaction is very important,” he says. “We can allow the manufacturers to vent, to let their frustrations out, and to give them a gleam of hope. And when we talk to them, they know they’re talking to experts. We look at those five pillars of immediate need. Do they have an energy source, and is it working? Are they able to communicate with their employees, vendors, suppliers, customers? Was there any disruption to their workforce? Is their supply chain intact? Is there infrastructure damage?”
Colucci says that at the assessment phase, the MEP Centers can direct the owners to resources they may need. “If someone needs a backup generator, we can tell them where they can find one. We can offer recommendations based on what we see, and assist the manufacturers in identifying and accessing the federal, state, and local resources to aid in business recovery efforts. Because we’re local, our people understand the situation and can make the right connections. We can also see what’s missing, and how to prepare for the next time. For example, in Florida, when people needed assistance, some of the senior service providers had already gone to Texas to help out. We can figure out how to allocate human resources.”
Sanju Patro, the director of the Gulf Coast office of TMAC, gives a local perspective. “This funding is just to do assessments: what has the financial impact been, the loss of sales, the loss of employees, whether the business has recovered or not, depending on the timing of the assessment. However, we can also help assessed clients connect with other clients. Some clients need premises and air cleaning services; we have a client who manufactures air scrubbers and can link them together.
“There are existing clients who knew to call us right away,” Patro continues. “One of our manufacturers is a very small, high-end fabric manufacturer. He was out of town when the hurricane hit and couldn’t get back. When he finally got into town, he was distraught. His entire facility was under water. We had TMAC people in there rolling up their sleeves to assist in the cleanup and provide the strategic direction to resume business quickly.”
That’s exactly why, says Michael O’Donnell, the program director at the Iowa Center for Industrial Research and Service (CIRAS), manufacturers need to have business continuity plans. “Ten years ago, Cedar Rapids experienced, in one summer, a 500-year flood and massive tornadoes. We’ve developed ways to respond to manufacturers, but also make sure that manufacturers can help themselves.”
“Now more than ever before, customers are either requesting or requiring a manufacturer to have a business continuity plan. But even if they don’t yet,” he says, “you have to have one. We know it’s rough. You’re a small business, you don’t have the time or resources to develop a “what if” plan when you have to get a product out the door.”
“At the MEP, there are specialists who can help you,” O’Donnell goes on. “You need to know that a plan will never be perfect, but if you put effort into the big things and make the plan useful, that’s better than one that tries to account for every detail and therefore never gets written. There are even free business continuity plan templates you can use.”
The disaster relief work of the MEP Centers continues, Colucci says, and it’s a long process. “We have monthly reports on our MDAP efforts coming in from the MEPs. For example, just in the Gulf Coast region of Texas, TMAC has been providing services to companies in 43 counties, and has completed 68 assessments for companies whose manufacturing profiles include coating, electronic welding, plastics, food, and textiles, among others. Their goal is to provide 296 assessments, and they are continuing their site visits. In Puerto Rico, 435 assessments have been done, and it was noted in that report that many businesses are still having problems with electricity, depending on their own generators to operate. That, too, is going to have an impact on a company’s bottom line, because the cost structure is different.”
A major advantage these assessments provide to local businesses is that initial contact. Manufacturers become more aware of the resources that MEPs can provide down the road, and they know they have partners to turn to when they are past recovery and looking for business services and growth.
The MEP National Network is a unique public-private partnership that helps small and medium-sized manufacturers generate business results and thrive in today’s technology-driven economy. The MEP National Network comprises the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s Manufacturing Extension Partnership (NIST MEP), the 51 MEP Centers located in all 50 states and Puerto Rico.