April Hughes, AIA, on managing risk during COVID-19

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AIA Voices of COVID-19 highlights how firms and firm leaders are dealing with this unprecedented crisis. This is the second in a series.

April Hughes, AIA, is the owner and managing principal of HPZS in Chicago and the 2020 President of AIA Chicago. Even before the CARES Act was passed, Hughes recognized how valuable the U.S. Small Business Administration’s loan programs would be during the COVID-19 public health crisis and published a step-by-step guide for architects on her LinkedIn page, which she has since updated several times in the past few weeks. “I think this naturally has blindsided many firm owners,” says Hughes, “and I like to try and be as positive and proactive as I can beand I have found that most of my contemporaries are not letting the grass grow.”

Our firm generally experiences about a 120-day lag in feeling the toll of having a low activity and billings month. So, while I’m not worried necessarily about four months from now, I’m worried about four months from May, [into] say September, when checks should have been collected and when projects are not billing because they have been put on hold. That, coupled with the probability that if we go back to work in July and have to start another round of social distancing in the fall, the one-two punch may be overwhelming to many businesses who are not considering the compounding issues of rounds of social distancing.

We have six employees including myself at the company, and, frankly, I’m proud of how they have stepped up. We’ve never been much for doing online team meetings, but now we use Zoom and Teams on the regular. It’s a huge shift, and really pushed our staff forward in utilizing technology that small firms didn’t necessarily need to use in the recent past. I think what seems to be lost now are the more personal moments that make office collaboration so important to the advancement of individual professionals and their body of accumulated knowledge. The shout across the office ‘hey, what code section was that?’ and mentorship moments that can’t be replicated on a scheduled Zoom meeting.

I think if you are a small business, you are no stranger to the relationship between staying in business and credit, whether those are credit cards, lines of credit, or long-term bank loans. So, I would offer that the idea of collateral is not a scary notion. It is part of the risk of being a small business owner. The relationship between business and risk really necessitates having that type of tool at your firm’s disposal. Ideally, the notion is that you apply for credit when you do not need it, and I do agree with that advice. However, this crisis introduces a significant amount of unknown information, hence, taking advantage of whatever tools you think you may need is important to do with the disaster loans.

Personally, regarding risk, I am a fan of the quote from the movie "The Princess Bride": “If you haven’t got your health, you haven’t got anything.” I am not willing to sacrifice my health, my family’s health, my employees’ health, or the health of their families in order to move forward a few thousand dollars by sending them to a job site over the next 60-90 days to confirm field dimensions. It’s a moral position and it’s such a short window of time in the grand scheme of things. If this means I need to take out a loan to keep them safe, so be it. Having a healthy business is what keeps people employed, but having a healthy workforce means we will still have a workforce. It’s not a question in my mind. Health first, then wealth, if we are lucky to make it through this together. And I think we will.

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