Shoppers found holiday gifts at the Mall in Columbia while social distancing. TBM photo by Emily Calkins.

If you tried to make a fortune in cruise ship stocks, 2020 really wasn’t your year, economically speaking.

In fact, in every way – economically, politically, socially, physically – many people are simply wishing 2020 away. “A terrible year,” they say…

But was it? All of it?

There were bright spots – call them “COVID-silver linings.” Some businesses turned a profit and some economic sectors flourished. Some bosses and employees became kinder, better people when they had a chance to help each other and their neighbors.

A terrific year?!

“Many industries performed very well,” pointed out Karyl Leggio, professor of finance at Loyola University Maryland’s Sellinger School of Business and Management. In fact, she noted that several sectors had – and are still having – a terrific 2020 including, “IT, healthcare, communication services and consumer discretionary spending – because people spent a great deal of time online shopping.”

To be sure, COVID-19 and its side effects overwhelmed many events that impacted the market, Leggio said, such as the presidential election. “Clearly, the election will have impact going forward but when a once-in-a-generation event such as a pandemic occurs, its impact outpaces such routine events as elections.”

In other words, COVID was so bad that the election can be referred to as “routine,” in an  economic sense.

Leggio also shared good news – relatively speaking – about the employment rate in 2020: It’s actually lower than expected, given that services industry companies aren’t fully operational and are still facing ever-changing restrictions.

“The pandemic did not send the global economies into a major recession, so that is a positive; and the pandemic forced America to conduct business meetings virtually, to spend more time at home, to learn to order online, consider telemedicine, and don masks,” said Leggio. “And we survived all of these items, and for many, we thrived even with the challenges of the year that was 2020.”

Introspection, anyone?

In 2020, the most effective business leaders seized the opportunity to be introspective about their business and the type of work culture they have – or didn’t have.

Kimberly Prescott, president of Prescott HR, places high value on that investment in introspection.

“I found that my clients took the time to focus on some things that they otherwise would not have,” she said. “For example, remote work is something that a lot of organizations had maybe thought about – but now they had to do it in a meaningful way.”

Business owners were able to look at themselves and ask: “Who do we want to be?”

And employees were able to ask: “Is this where I want to be?”

“This has been a real opportunity for people to focus,” said Prescott.

What does collaboration really mean?

In a spirit of survival, businesses collaborated with each other and, internally, leadership teams drew closer together in what became, for many, the most stressful time of their entire careers.

Chip Sheehan, president of Ellicott City-based Street Smarts Driving Academy, said he’s always been grateful for his business partners, but his gratitude reached a new level during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Sheehan, who has been teaching driving since 1989, has never had a business challenge like 2020. “It was terrifying and rewarding all at the same time,” said Sheehan.

Street Smarts is well-known locally for its driver’s ed classes offered at high schools, though the driving academy offers many other types of driving instruction as well. As schools shut down, teenagers ready to earn their driver’s licenses were put on hold.

The Maryland Department of Motor Vehicles began testing young drivers by leaving them alone in the car and observing them from outside the vehicle –  yet the state still required six hours of in-person driving instruction before a young person could test for a license.

After pausing in-person driving instruction for a few months, Street Smarts began to explore how to safely put young drivers back into cars with the company’s driving instructors. Sheehan, who is also a driving instructor for the U.S. Secret Service, examined carefully the recommendations coming from the Centers for Disease Control.

Street Smarts managed to keep all its employees. By the end of 2020, the driving school had caught back up on its roster, running only a couple weeks behind.

With temperature checks, masks, cracked car windows, deep cleaning, a COVID safety questionnaire and the cooperation of parents and young drivers, he was able to resume in-person driving instruction.

He also shared what he was doing with others in the business.

“I actually briefed another driving school about what we were doing,” he said. “So, we were all collaborating.”

Flying through 2021

Collectively, people spent more time outside during 2020, with creative settings around fire pits, in dining tents with the flaps open, in “pop-up” shops set up street-side on temperate days, running virtual races, going on bike rides and hiking with our families.

We also started flying again, with air travel still a fraction of what it once was but nonetheless increasing. Southwest Airlines added new routes across the country and four flights a day between BWI and Miami beginning Nov. 15.

By the end of 2020, Southwest Airlines  reported an uptick in flights from BWI to beaches and other large outdoor recreational areas.

“We’re working around the clock to win the confidence of travelers with our robust cleaning efforts, face mask and face covering policies, and use of HEPA filters onboard to improve air filtration,” said Southwest spokesperson Dan Landson.

Courageous startups …

There were startups during 2020: new restaurants, new entrepreneurial endeavors and new ways of working that defied the odds.

The new nonprofit “This Point Forward” exemplifies the entrepreneurial spirit.

Born during 2020 with the mission of helping people 50 and older make the next chapter of life the best it can be, This Point Forward is offering programs, services and connections to help people explore their “next act.”

As co-founder Mary Thompson, owner of Reframe Financial Planning, helped her clients plan for retirement, she noted that most people considered only the financial aspects and didn’t think a lot about how they would spend their time.

“I watched clients struggle to find opportunities to stay meaningfully engaged, post-retirement,” Thompson said. “I thought an organization that helps people discover opportunities to leverage their time, talent and treasure – but on their own terms – was needed to help residents transition into and through the second half of their lives.”

To build the nonprofit, she reached out to Pat Sasse for advice, as Sasse had just retired as executive director position of the Howard County Public School System’s educational foundation, Bright Minds.

“This seemed like a great next step for me,” Sasse said, “as it reflects where I am in life and what skills I can bring to the mission.”

By Susan Kim | Staff Writer | The Business Monthly | December 2020 Issue