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Not Traveling Is Working for Now, But Can Virtual Business Sustain Test of Time?

While questions remain about when life in general will return to normal after nearly a year of pandemic, some of the more pressing questions surround the sustainability of businesses if they continue to operate in a virtual vacuum.

Certainly, for the time being, both small and large businesses in Huntsville are adjusting well to the circumstances. Telework and working from home, Zoom conferences and virtual events have made their way into the mainstream, and everyday life from online learning to groundbreakings, tradeshows, and award ceremonies are relying on virtual technology to carry them through. 

While some people, particularly in the educational field, are reporting “Zoom fatigue”, others are already seeing it as an opportunity to get creative, scale back office space, and streamline procedures and operations well into the future if not permanently.

But how sustainable is it really?

Air travel at Huntsville International Airport is ordinarily 70 percent business and 30 percent leisure. Currently combined, HSV is operating at about 30 percent of what it was this time in 2019. 

According to Jana Kuner, airport public relations and customer service manager, air travel is slowly improving, but business travel will be the real indicator for how long it will take to get back to normal, and when it does – assuming it will eventually, just how much will business have changed?

“Do people prefer Zoom to in-person meetings and are the savings in travel costs justifiable when compared to face-to-face meetings to ‘close a deal’ or meeting new people to build relationships?” she asks. “These are questions businesses everywhere are asking and the airport is interested in their perspective.”

Bevilacqua Research Corp. CEO Larry Burger said employees are losing, and missing, the personal connection with people.

“Those little conversations you have waiting for a meeting to start, or at the end of the meeting when you extend the conversation beyond the meeting,” he said. “You lose that sense of belonging, that feel of family in an organization when you haven’t seen someone in a month or so who works within your company.

“I think there are a lot of general update meetings for established customers that may continue to be virtual after everything returns to normal,” said Robert Conger, senior vice president of Technology and Strategy at Adtran. “However, when it comes to competing for new business and establishing key relationships, companies will still want to be in-person once they are able to safely do so.

“I do think web meetings and remote work will continue to play a much larger role in business than they did prior to this year, but each company will have to make their own decisions about when they may return to normal based on the type of work and roles within each company.”

For example, Conger said it will depend on the type of work a company is doing, the individual roles within those companies, and the experience level of the employees as to how effective remote working will be in the long run.

“For a lot of jobs like software development, remote work is fairly efficient and effective as long as the employees have a good environment at home to limit distractions. However, for employees that are new to a company or are earlier in their careers, there is a lot of value in those face-to-face work environments where you can collaborate more frequently and easily.”

Kuner uses the AUSA 2020 Annual Meeting going virtual this year as an example of a travel-related event that had a big impact on HSV because so many people in Huntsville travel to that conference by air. 

“Some things just can’t be done in the same way virtually,” she said. “While a simple meeting or conference call can accomplish some tasks, it can’t replace the in-person networking, relationship building, and deal making that in person accomplishes.”

Burger agrees.

“Virtual conferences are much less effective because you don’t get that synergy of a face-to-face,” he said. “We just had a live event in Huntsville for the Redstone Small Business Contracting Conference & Expo and we got more than a dozen leads that were unexpected because we were there. We could have discussions face-to-face with people wandering around the exhibit hall. None of it would have occurred virtually.

“We get almost nothing from a virtual event. We are still following up with several opportunities to work together with companies we met at the Redstone event. That’s the value of the conference … being in person, able to combine everybody’s good ideas to come up with a much better solution.”

How about the costs incurred in by having to have IT teams and creative departments develop virtual “booths”, Kuner said. Do other businesses stop by those booths like they do when the conference is in person?

“We hosted our first virtual customer summit a couple of months ago,” said Congers. “We had to invest in a platform that nearly cost as much as what it would have cost to host customers on site, at least for the first use. With that said, we can continue to use the platform at a lesser expense moving forward, so it will reduce our cost over time. 

“In the case of the virtual customer meeting with Adtran as the host, it was a great success in terms of how many customers we were able to reach versus on-site but you certainly lose some of the focused customer attention and relationship-building opportunities in a virtual environment. 

“As for the larger virtual conferences with booths, these are much less effective than the typical in-person conferences.”

But Burger said in-person meetings hold an advantage over online meetings.

“We attended another live event where we rolled out a new product and more than 10 percent of the people we talked to were very interested in following up or purchasing, whereas we can’t get any traction with just online stuff,” said Burger. “For a new product, if you let me explain it to people and talk to them about it, they tend so say, ‘Oh, okay, that makes sense’ or ‘That’s a good idea’.”

Burger said Bevilacqua has made allowances for some of his employees so they can still travel.

“We’re doing very limited travel, but we have several folks who are traveling by automobile,” he said. “One of our older employees who is high risk, bought a recreational vehicle so he and his wife can travel together. Of course, what used to be a half-day trip takes them two or three days, but they feel safer and they don’t have to stop at restaurants along the way.”

Roger Rhodes, Business Development director at Qualis, said nothing replaces the human face-to-face interaction for building relationships and making deals but he believes virtual meetings are here to stay.

“We completely cut out travel since May,” said Rhodes. “I think virtual meetings will continue to play a major role in business for the foreseeable future, but companies will reassess travel costs versus the benefits in the near future but the way of marketing and business travel has definitely changed. We will look to others to determine that balance of travel for the new norm.” 

Congers agrees.

“Virtual meetings will continue to be a vital component in day-to-day engagements where maybe face-to-face meetings are not as critical or as a complement to less-frequent on-site meetings,” he said. “However, when it comes to relationship-building and pursuing new customer opportunities, each vendor will want to have an edge of their competition and being in front of the customer more often is one way to achieve that.”

Kuner said it is important for people to know HSV is clean and safe and they have all of the appropriate procedures in place to keep people safe. 

“We encourage our region to get back to the sky for business and leisure,” she said. “Our airport is so heavy with business travel, if Huntsville gets back to traveling sooner, it could positively impact the airport since the airlines will be making decisions for adding back flights and routes based on demand. It could give them an opportunity to re-evaluate what worked before the pandemic, and where needs are for travel after.

“If we show that we are back to the sky and we need the service, then chances are that they will provide it. This could be an opportunity for us to shake things up.”

Companies Step Up to Help Produce Protective Equipment during Pandemic

Innovative thinking and ideas know no limits in the Rocket City, famous for finding solutions to complex problems and managing complicated situations.

The list of needs from the hospitals as they ramp up preparations for a potential surge in COVID-19 cases include surgical and procedural masks, N95 masks, isolation gowns, gloves, face shields, face goggles, ventilators, and swabs. However, it is the “other things” category that breathes life into Huntsville’s smartest minds during this unprecedented medical crisis.

Huntsville Hospital and Crestwood Medical Center are, of course, at the heart of these efforts. The Huntsville-Madison County Chamber of Commerce has taken unprecedented steps to coordinate small business and manufacturing efforts to provide additional equipment and supplies to health care providers throughout the community, in the event our area gets overwhelmed with COVID-19 cases.

From the very beginning of the coronavirus crisis, Madison County companies and manufacturers large and small have been participating in these efforts, some adjusting their operations, while others are adapting to needs as they arise, and donating goods and services.

Lucia Cape, senior vice president of Economic Development at the Chamber, is spearheading the manufacturing efforts, maintaining an ongoing list of needed items and locations where businesses can drop off those donations, including the Chamber office on Church Street downtown.

“The manufacturing of these supplies, whether it is something you already manufacture, or something you can modify, the Chamber is running that information down and giving it to Huntsville Hospital and Crestwood to help them coordinate it,” Cape said. “Both hospitals are getting overwhelmed right now with the medical aspects of COVID-19 and this helps keep things in the proper channels.”

The Chamber holds regular calls with manufacturers to get clarification about what items can and can’t be made outside and over their existing supply chain or existing distributor base; and what the procedures are for getting a design approved.

Many of the requests are in reference to face shields, but Cape said several companies responded, offering anything from machine tooling shops that can make metal parts for ventilation carts and shelves, to 3D printers, and shops which specialize in custom injection moldings that can make pretty much anything.

And anything can mean taking on unexpected problems.

One of the things that has arisen from the making of N95 masks, for instance, is that prolonged wearing of the masks has shown to cause some skin breakdown on the bridge of the nose of clinical staff. There may be an opportunity for a device that could cushion the nose and prevent that from happening.

Cape said it is things like that that create unexpected opportunities that might not be on an original list of needs, but for which the Chamber is happy to be a clearinghouse.

“If you have things to sell, donate or have some great ideas, bring them to the Chamber so we can make sure they pass through the right channels and we will connect you directly,” Cape said.

Also, if the hospitals reach a point in which they don’t need some of these items any longer, the Chamber is setting up distribution throughout the community to doctor’s offices and clinics inside and outside our community to help.

Other creative ideas consist of converting CPAPs into ventilators; using plexiglass to make intubation domes; and making ventilator helmets based on a design from a company in Texas that looks like a space suit helmet. One manufacturer on a teleconference call with the Chamber hinted that surely someone in Huntsville can make that.

Study: Ventilator helmets said to be better than traditional face masks.

A couple of companies are assessing whether local doctors and respiratory therapists would embrace that kind of therapy if it were available.

Yet another company is tooling up a sanitization assembly line at Lincoln Mill that can bleach manufacturing parts intended to go into the supply chain.

Another company has offered to repair broken or failing electronic, plastic, or metal equipment.

Companies are also looking at ways to be more efficient, for instance, cutting the filtration material used for making N95 masks differently, and basically getting four masks out of what was originally one.

“We just want to make sure before anyone goes down that track that it is something the hospitals can accept, made by someone from outside the supply chain,” said a spokesperson for the company.

A representative from Huntsville Hospital said he thinks the FDA has waived some of the rules during this pandemic and if they begin running low on anything at some point, emergency authorizations they have already received, give them clear guidance that if reasonable health care professionals and doctors agree these ideas are an acceptable way to do it, then it will be okay.

Many large companies have stepped up to the plate as well.

PPG, which employs 700 people in Huntsville, announced it will donate 50,000 surgical masks and 10,000 N95 masks to several hospitals in the United States including Huntsville Hospital and Crestwood Medical Center.

“PPG is proud to support the medical community as they courageously continue their work on the frontlines of this global pandemic,” said Michael H. McGarry, PPG chairman and chief executive officer. “As One PPG family, we will continue to work with our community partners to provide support and deploy resources wherever possible. We look forward to a brighter future, together.”

Several local companies have donated personal protective equipment (PPE) to help hospitals and medical workers stock up on supplies. Adtran, Aerojet Rocketdyne, ATI, Brown Precision, Bruderer, Dynetics, Facebook, HudsonAlpha, Huntsville Utilities, John Blue Company, Matcor-Matsu, Mazda, Toyota Manufacturing USA, Inc., Mitchell Plastics, Navistar, Polaris, Remington, Turner Construction, TVA, and the UAH College of Nursing have all donated several thousand pairs of reusable protective eyewear to Huntsville Hospital, Madison Hospital and Crestwood Medical Center.

Toyota Motor Manufacturing Alabama, one of the area’s top employers, has kicked into high gear in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. TMMA is helping curb the spread of the virus by donating masks, safety glasses, shoe/boot covers, gloves, blankets, and cotton swabs to medical personnel.

The automobile engine company is also utilizing its facilities to mass fabricate 3-D printed face shields here in Huntsville.

According to Jeff Samms, COO of the Huntsville Hospital System, Toyota has a nice design for the shields and are now making hundreds of them for the hospital..

“The unknowns for all of us on this is what’s going to affect utilization,” he said. “COVID-19 patients use this isolation equipment at many times the normal rate, so there is an exponential growth in our use of the product, and we don’t know what the demand is going to be.”

Most of the hospitals admit their normal supply chains are broken right now and they are never quite sure what they’re going to get.

Toyota is also offering manufacturing and engineering expertise in support of any company seeking to increase their capacity for making medical supplies and equipment like ventilators and respirators.

The automaker continues to assist in providing essential supplies and emergency relief through local organizations and nonprofits, including significant monetary, “in-kind” donations to the United Way, community food banks, and to other key non-profit organizations geared towards helping those in need.

“Toyota’s core value has always been to contribute to society in meaningful ways beyond providing mobility for our customers,” said Ted Ogawa, incoming CEO, TMNA. “With our plants idled and our dealers focused on servicing customers, we are eager to contribute our expertise and know-how in order to help quickly bring to market the medical supplies and equipment needed to combat the COVID crisis. Our message to the medical equipment community is we are here to help, please utilize our expertise.”

Although currently, the “numbers” – that is the number of infected patients in Madison County hospitals – have not reached the critical level first projected, Chamber President and CEO Chip Cherry said, “We are incredibly grateful for the response from our business community to help our hospitals and first responders stock up on their supplies.

“It has been so good to see boxes of items come in over the last few days. We know these will help in the days to come. We know there is strength in numbers, and we and our members are committed to getting through this together.”

 

 

Business Briefcase for June

Team Dynetics wins $130M contract for Army’s first 100kW-class laser weapon system

Dynetics, along with its partners Lockheed Martin, Rolls-Royce and MZA Associates, has been awarded a $130 million contract to build and test the U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command/Army Forces Strategic Command’s High Energy Laser Tactical Vehicle Demonstrator program, a 100-kilowatt class laser weapon system. 

“High energy laser weapons have been a system that the United States has wanted to add into their defense portfolio since the invention of the laser,” said Ronnie Chronister, Dynetics senior vice president of contracts. “We are glad to be selected to build this new and safe weapon system that will provide a simple, yet cost-effective approach in theater.”

Team Dynetics is bringing together more than 70 years of directed energy experience. As the prime contractor, Dynetics will be responsible for final assembly and integration and testing of the system. Lockheed Martin, the laser weapon system integrator, will provide the laser weapon subsystem and Rolls-Royce LibertyWorks will design the integrated power and thermal management system.

The team will build and integrate the laser weapon system onto an Army medium tactical vehicle platform and conduct field testing at White Sands Missile Range.

Stovehouse To Welcome Locally Owned Coffee Shop—Charlie Foster’s

A new, locally owned coffee shop will be serving up espresso, lattes, cold brew, matcha and much more at the Stovehouse mixed-use development on Governors Drive.

Charlie Foster’s, founded by Huntsville natives Austin Jenkins and Hollie Jenkins, will offer high-quality coffee drinks while providing employment opportunities for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities. The 1,850-square-foot space will be adjacent to the food garden and include a private 500-square-foot outdoor patio for patrons. Charlie Foster’s is slated to open this fall.

“My parents, Debra and Alan Jenkins, founded Merrimack Hall in 2006 to give people with special needs a venue to practice the performing arts,” said Austin. “I’ve been lucky enough to see the impact they have made first hand, and I want to do something similar with Charlie Foster’s. We believe more businesses can offer employment to people with intellectual and physical disabilities.

“Our goal is to create an environment of inclusion and encouragement for our special needs community. All the while, we will be serving outstanding coffee in a very hip, industrial space.”

Classifying itself as a “multi-roaster” coffee shop, Charlie Foster’s will serve a variety of beans from roasters around the country, so guests can experience an array of options and flavors. There will also be plenty of cold and hot teas and pastries to choose from.

Visit charliefosters.com

Abaco Systems to move to 8800 Redstone Gateway

Abaco Systems, a manufacturer of rugged embedded computing solutions for military, defense, aerospace and industrial applications, has leased 37,400 square feet in 8800 Redstone Gateway.

“We’re delighted to have identified Redstone Gateway as the location of our new headquarters,” said Rich Sorelle, president/CEO at Abaco Systems. “This new facility will provide us with much- needed additional space and will be vital in ensuring that we can fulfill our commitments to our customers as our business continues to grow.”

Redstone Gateway is a mixed-use, class-A office park being developed by Corporate Office Properties Trust and Jim Wilson & Associates. As a result of this transaction, the building is 100 percent pre-leased. Abaco intends to occupy its space late this year.

“Abaco Systems has had a strong presence in Huntsville for over 30 years,” said COPT’s Chief Operating Officer Paul Adkins. “We’re thrilled that they have decided to make Redstone Gateway their home to be closer to their U.S. government contracting customers, to have access to walkable amenities, and to use new facilities as a recruiting tool.

“Their lease, along with other recent leases, highlights the value proposition of Redstone Gateway.”

CFD Research Awarded $50M SBIR Phase III Project

CFD Research has been awarded a Small Business Innovation Research Phase III contract from the U.S. Army Contracting Command, to develop environment analysis tools, models, and test capabilities to characterize weather environment effects on the performance of weapon systems and sensors. The five-year contract has a ceiling value of $49.6 million.

Under this contract, the CFD Research team will evaluate environment and weather effects on weapon systems, sensors, and hypersonic vehicles. Huntsville-based companies Integration Innovation Inc. (i3) and IERUS Technologies join CFD Research as subcontractors for this award.

“CFD Research and our partners, through this contract, will expand the knowledge base of effects on flight vehicles and sensors and provide critical insight into the design and performance of next-generation weapon systems,” said Steve Cayson, CFD Research chief operating officer.

Mcmullan Named Huntsville Market Executive

SmartBank has named long-time banker John McMullan as market executive.

McMullan has more than 30 years of banking experience in the Huntsville area, most recently as executive vice president and market president for Southern States Bank. 

He earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration from the University of Alabama-Huntsville and is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin’s BAI Graduate School of Banking. He is also a graduate of the Alabama School of Banking at the University of South Alabama.

An active member of the Huntsville community, he is a member of the Downtown Huntsville Rotary Club and the Huntsville Committee of 100. McMullan also serves on the City of Huntsville’s Planning Commission Board.

“I am grateful for the opportunity to join this team and excited to work together to provide SmartBank clients with a first-class banking experience,” said McMullan. “SmartBank has been a great addition to the Huntsville region with a team that is talented, efficient and committed to putting the client first.”

Great Harvest Bread Co. Opening at Merchants Square

Great Harvest Bread Co. is launching its second Alabama location at the The Shops at Merchants Square,  RCP Companies announced.

Each Great Harvest bakery and café creates its own menu which may include gourmet sandwiches (including vegetarian options), espresso and coffee bar, artisan bread and other locally sourced specialties.

Great Harvest uses wheat from farms in Montana and bakes its breads every day from scratch.

“With our locally curated menu, you know you’ll be getting real food that tastes great,” said Sangeetha Bathala, owner of Great Harvest Huntsville, “We plan to source coffee and produce from local farmers and vendor and make our food the right way, with wholesome ingredients and from scratch, so you can feel good about eating our treats.”

Mercury Systems Dedicates Expanded Advanced Microelectronics Center

A Massachusetts-based aerospace and defense company is increasing its operations in Alabama.

Mercury Systems expanded its Advanced Microelectronics Center in Huntsville with a 24,000-square-foot facility for RF and digital processing technology, including 5,000 square feet of lab space with secure production capabilities.

“Our AS9100D-certified Huntsville facility now has even more capability, enabling us to continue providing very advanced, leading mixed-signal processing solutions that support our prime customers in the development of the next-generation radar, electronic warfare and ELINT systems critical to maintaining dominance of the electromagnetic spectrum,” said Neil Austin, vice president and general manager of Mercury’s Embedded Sensor Processing group.

Mercury Systems provides secure sensor and safety-critical processing subsystems to a wide variety of defense and intelligence programs.

Adtran Platform Provides Disruption-free Ultra-Broadband Wi-Fi Services

Adtran has extended its SmartOS-enabled portfolio of broadband access solutions with a new residential and small business gateway.

Operators can now expedite the delivery of ultra-fast internet services — leveraging recent investments in building multi-Gigabit access networks so that customers can have the richest broadband experience independent of location, device or infrastructure.

Huntsville-based Adtran is the leading provider of next-generation open networking and subscriber experience solutions

The new carrier-grade, SmartOS-enabled residential and small business gateway provides the ability to deliver highly competitive broadband—up to 700Mbps—without service or customer disruptions.

“The design philosophy with SmartOS is to give service providers a single, open source-based, secure software framework so that providers gain consistency and commonality to reduce testing or qualification cycles and increase speed to market for new and innovative services,” said Adtran Senior Vice President of Subscriber Solutions & Experience Jeff McInnis. “We can significantly reduce the cost and resources required to introduce new solutions into a network and help our customers bring better services to their subscribers through our feature-rich, SmartOS platform—enhancing the experience for everyone.”

HudsonAlpha mourns passing of co-founder Lonnie McMillian

The team at the HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology mourns the passing of an inspirational leader, Lonnie McMillian, the co-founder and chairman emeritus of the Institute.

McMillian died Sunday. He was 90.

McMillian was a founder of Adtran, a leading global provider of networking and communications equipment. When he retired from the company in 2001, he worked with longtime friend Jim Hudson to create HudsonAlpha.

The pair set out to develop a unique vision — a nonprofit institute that could combine the power of academic research with the resources of the commercial sector to bring discoveries to market quicker.

Their focus was to deliver better medical care to people everywhere. McMillian and Hudson’s belief in the Institute and their devotion to its success have impacted countless lives the world over, through advancements in diagnosis, treatment and our fundamental understanding of the genome.

“Lonnie was so deeply humble,” Hudson said of his friend, “that not many people have a true scope of how much he gave to the world. The institute is only one example, and I feel blessed for the opportunity to have worked on it with him.

“He will be dearly missed.”

McMillian was a generous philanthropist, and he lived out his commitment to improving the human condition through support of educational, scientific and other charitable causes. Many of his gifts will never be recognized due to his desire for anonymity.

“He was an innovator,” said Dr. Rick Myers, president of HudsonAlpha. “Lonnie was a visionary and a gift to all of us that knew him — and many more who were impacted by his generosity without ever realizing it. We have our work cut out for us to live up to his legacy.”

Small Business Awards celebration honors Huntsville’s best

Lynn Troy of Troy 7 receives the Russell G. Brown Executive Leadership Award from Chamber Vice Chair Hank Isenberg (Photo by Steve Babin)

Amidst a gala “Masquerade Ball” atmosphere of a masked audience in formal attire, the Huntsville Madison County Chamber celebrated the city’s entrepreneurial community in the 33rd annual Small Business Awards.

Gary Bolton, the Chamber board chair and vice president of global marketing for Adtran, welcomed the crowd to Tuesday night’s affair. Hank Isenberg, Chamber vice president, small business and events, and Haley Baker of WAFF-TV were the emcees.

“We are celebrating the most successful” small businesses, Bolton said.

“We received 650 nominations and there are 155 contenders,” he said. “There are 1,100 people here” … in the soldout event held in the Von Braun Center’s North Hall.

Lynn Troy of Troy 7 received the prestigious Russell G. Brown Executive Leadership Award, the top honor presented annually.

Canvas was a double-winner, capturing the Woman-owned Business of the Year and the Government Contracting – Technology Business of the Year awards.

Mary Taylor Griffith with Aleta Technologies was named the HASBAT Small Business Advocate for Excellence.

A new category debuted, saluting the area’s booming growth – Local “Creative” of the Year. It was won by Pizzelle’s Confections.

The other winners were: Rocket City Digital, Emerging Business of the Year; Flint River Dental, Medical Practice of the Year; Capstone Realty, Professional Services Business of the Year; Kristina Sexton of NXTSTEP Family Law, Young Professional of the Year; Downtown Rescue Mission, Nonprofit of the Year; MartinFederal, Government Contracting – Professional Services Business of the Year; Earth and Stone Wood Fired Pizza, Culinary Business of the Year; Matt Curtis Real Estate, Service Business of the Year; and Summit Information Solutions, Technology Business of the Year.