Small business disaster hub case studies

Learn how Queensland small businesses have prepared, responded, recovered and communicated in a disaster with our case studies.

Asking for help, communicating and adapting were the key to recovery for a Townsville cafe and catering company.

Type of disaster or crisis: Flood recovery
Industry: Hospitality
Location: Townsville

Before the monsoon trough hit northern Queensland in 2019, Townsville cafe owner Chris thought he was prepared for natural disasters. But the cafe and catering business owner was blindsided by the unexpected level of flooding.

Having grown up in North Queensland Chris prepared well, shifting perishable stock to a central refrigeration room and ensuring dry stock was off the ground. But when the monsoon hit, his catering business located 20 minutes north of the CBD in Idalia was inundated, without power and inaccessible for 9 days.

After the all-clear, he and his staff cleaned up the Idalia shop, salvaged what they could and moved it to his cafe in town. Since then, Chris has run 2 businesses from the one premises, reconfiguring the cafe's kitchen to include catering.

A key learning was the importance of keeping in regular touch with suppliers to let them know the business wasn't going to disappear, and putting payment plans in place to maintain stock deliveries.

His other piece of advice was to stay open, even if it's with a limited offering or shorter hours.

'Even if you have limited capacity, it's important people know you're open and they can still go to you. We communicated to our customers through social media and made sure we were listed on the Council's page advising which businesses were still open,' Chris said.

Chris said next time he'd ask for government support sooner instead of trying to do everything himself.

'It's not just about you, it's about making sure your staff have ongoing work. The Queensland Rural Industry Development Authority were great.'

He also called his insurer and bank and was able to suspend repayments for 6 months.

Although Chris continues to rebuild his business, he's managed to keep his staff employed, and has gradually been able to pay off debts and his suppliers.

'Although we're not fully recovered, we're resilient,' he said. 'We're battle hardened, and with the help of a resilience business grant, we've been doing training with the Small Business Recovery Centre so we know how to do it better next time.'

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Biosecurity measures including electric fences, high-pressure cleaning of all vehicles and automated sterilisers have helped prevent the spread of Panama TR4.

Type of disaster or crisis: Biosecurity preparation
Industry: Primary producer
Location: Innisfail

John has been in the banana industry in Innisfail for 23 years and was first exposed to Panama disease (TR1) 19 years ago.

Since then, he's done everything he can to keep the disease and other strains like Panama TR4 off his farm, and prevented it spreading by ensuring no soil carrying the bacteria escapes.

Back in 2002, he started by installing fences stopping people coming onto the farm and built sterilising dips for all trucks and people coming onto the property and leaving it.

'Clean in, clean out,' John said.

Despite the precautions, Panama TR1 got out of control, and he had to shift from growing Ducasse bananas which are susceptible to the bacteria, to Cavendish, which aren't.

Then Panama TR4 was detected in Tully around 5 years ago, which kills all banana varieties.

As soon as he heard of the new strain, John started cleaning his trucks with a high-pressure hose as they came onto and left the farm and has now introduced automated sprays and steriliser which washes the under-carriage of trucks as they enter and leave the farm.

He has electric fences in place to stop unwanted guests, and truck drivers and workers are required to remove their shoes and put on a pair of provided boots to enter the farm gate.

'I've trained the workers,' John said. 'If it gets in here, we're gone – none of them will have jobs.'

Although John admitted he can't stop potential infection being carried onto the farm by wildlife like pigs and rats, he says the biggest threat is humans.

'I've done everything in my power to prevent it. I've given it a red-hot crack,' he said.

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Rolling out industry body recommendations, effective phone and video communication with staff and keeping tabs on drivers for contact tracing has kept the trucking company and its staff safe during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Type of disaster or crisis: Major health event response
Industry: Transport and logistics
Location: Far North Queensland

A Far North Queensland interstate transport company survived the challenges of closed borders and changed operating conditions resulting from COVID-19 restrictions without missing a beat.

Transport company owner Jade said a combination of quickly rolling out industry body recommendations and drivers going above and beyond had kept the business and its staff safe during the pandemic.

'When COVID-19 first emerged, we immediately limited contact with interstate drivers, kept tabs on where they were for contact tracing, and made sure drivers were equipped to protect themselves at truck stops,' Jade said.

'I also did toolbox talks with them face-to-face on their phones and started doing video calls to make up for the lost contact they normally get when they come into the depot.'

As well as face-to-face COVID Safe training, printed copies of the material was supplied for the trucks, so drivers understood the importance of cleaning amenities before using them while on the road and making contactless deliveries where possible.

'The guys are onboard,' she said. 'They voluntarily go off to get tested, and the great thing is, it's dramatically reduced sickness overall.'

Jade said she was conscious of the isolation the drivers were experiencing not only at work, but once they got home, where they self-isolated to avoid infecting family and friends.

The company was also involved in a pilot program run by the Queensland Trucking Association to help businesses identify and respond to mental health issues which could arise as a result of increased driver isolation.

'The impact will affect the industry going forward, and we never know what the future holds. We just have to put things in place to help them cope,' Jade said.

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A Queensland hair salon owner advises other businesses to always go through a financial adviser to avoid phishing scams that promote fake investments.

Type of disaster or crisis: Information technology (IT) threat response
Industry: Retail
Location: Brisbane

Queensland hair salon owner David said he'd never consider personally investing in a financial product again without first seeking financial advice.

David said he recently received an email promoting the investment potential of bitcoin, which included endorsements by well-known celebrities like Chris Hemsworth and Richard Branson.

It prompted him to research the company online, which promotes itself as 'the best broker from the markets', telling people their finances 'grow with us'.

'I checked the reviews, and some were really good, so I put in $250,' David said.

In fact, the company was an unregistered, unauthorised broker which had attracted warnings from the United Kingdom's Financial Conduct Authority and Scamwatch in the United States.

When David transferred his money, he provided his email address and phone number. He quickly started receiving large numbers of automatically-generated emails telling him his investment had increased to $1,400 and encouraging him to invest more.

'I continually got phone calls from people from overseas with strong accents, claiming to be based in Bankstown in Sydney,' he said. 'I told them I wanted to withdraw the $1,400 straight away.'

The callers agreed as soon as he provided his passport and bank details for identification purposes and to allow the transfer of funds.

Fortunately, David realised the dangers of giving out his personal information and refused. He has now given up hope of ever seeing his $250 again.

'I feel a bit silly, but it's easy to fall for,' he said.

He warned others not to fall for similar phishing scams that try to trick you into giving out your personal information such as your bank account, password, passport and credit card details.

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By planning ahead, using digital media and accessing government grants, holiday unit and café businesswoman Yvonne helped her business to survive 2 of the worst years of its 16-year history.

Type of disaster or crisis: Flood and major health event response
Industry: Tourism
Location: Gulf of Carpentaria

Yvonne's business, located in Karumba in the Gulf of Carpentaria in Far North Queensland, was impacted when the tourist trade dried up following the monsoon trough, which flooded surrounding areas, in 2019 and coronavirus (COVID-19) in 2020.

In 2019, Karumba and Normanton missed out on the damaging effects of the flood, but her business was left in limbo with no tourists due to road closures and perceptions that the area was affected.

'We didn't close, but coach groups and tour groups cancelled, which had a detrimental effect on tourism for the whole year,' Yvonne said.

Then COVID-19 hit, which was devastating until the ban was lifted on domestic travel leading to improved domestic trade in July, August and September 2020.

'JobKeeper was an absolute saviour, it enabled us to hold on when COVID-19 stopped tourism over Easter on top of a bad year.

'We also got a $10,000 state government disaster recovery grant to do a sustainability plan going ahead, which has given us some strategies going forward.'

Fortunately, good planning meant Yvonne had money put away, knowing that every year is unpredictable.

Although she can't afford big marketing budgets, Yvonne also relies on the internet and social media to promote what's going on in her area and let people know they're open for business.

She's optimistic that 2021 will be a big year, with a high number of forward bookings and coach tours expected.

Also consider...

Richmond supermarket owners focus on customer needs to boost business during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

Type of disaster or crisis: Major health event response
Industry: Retail
Location: Richmond

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Richmond supermarket owners Leah and Steve became more responsive to their customers' needs increasing their fresh fruit and vegetable offering and providing free contactless grocery deliveries.

Leah said COVID-19 led to increased sales for their supermarket as local residents didn’t travel to Townsville or Mount Isa for appointments or to shop.

'We saw a big increase in the sale of fresh fruit and vegetables because people shopped locally,' Leah said. 'So we started to offer a wider range of healthy meals and options to meet customer demand.

'We've always had online shopping, but we also started offering free, contactless delivery during COVID, and we're still offering that service now.'

Her advice to other small business retailers caught up in a pandemic was to stay informed.

'Listen to the news, and keep in contact with your affiliates,' she said. 'We had good support with information and signage from our affiliates.'

Leah said they followed all Queensland Health guidelines including offering hand sanitiser at the entrance and signage explaining social distancing, limiting the number of people allowed in the store at one time and warnings to those who were sick not to enter.

'The staff also did more cleaning of doors and counters and all automatically use hand sanitiser when they come into the store,' she said. 'As a result, we've seen a drop in sickness among the staff overall.'

Leah said she and her husband now feel better prepared to deal with similar experiences in the future.

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Market research and a decision to pivot and switch to a different product made a Hughenden cattle station more resilient to drought and flood, at the same time growing their business and expanding to export overseas.

Type of disaster or crisis: Natural disaster resilience
Industry: Primary producer
Location: Hughenden

Hughenden cattle station owner Peter says he was just lucky his cattle weren't badly affected by the 2019 monsoon flood. But the family's luck can be put down to good planning.

Back in the late-1990s when Meat Standards Australia introduced point-of-sale surveys to improve meat quality, meat sales halved, and Peter decided to switch to breeding Wagyu cattle.

'I looked at the product from a whole-of-life perspective and decided to import some and then export the beef back to Japan.'

His decision to pivot and switch to a different product in the same industry paid off.

When the drought hit in 2013, Peter decided to start hand feeding the cattle from home instead of adjisting them to be paddock fed.

'It all comes down to economics. The margins on them have changed.

'A Wagyu beast can fetch 5 to 10 times as much as a normal one if it has a high marbling score, but they're the same weight, same cost of production and the cost to buy isn't substantial,' Peter said.

This meant the Robertson family had their cattle in from the paddocks being hand fed near the house when the monsoon flood hit in 2019, saving them from being swept into fences or dying after getting bogged in the mud.

Sales were going so well, Peter and 15 other producers banded together to brand their product and market it overseas online. Sales boomed, but the group became victims of their own success as they couldn't meet demand.

'We had to take down the site as we were just too small. We were getting people wanting thousands and thousands of head a week,' Peter said.

'I had to say, that's how many I'll produce all season.

'Wagyu is a wonderful industry. You need to get the genetics right, but there are 150 million people in Japan and China who want it.'

Also consider...

After the 2019 monsoon floods, this Townsville builder's business grew quickly to meet business demand. He learnt the importance of getting things in writing, not jumping straight in, and remembering that work is just a job.

Type of disaster or crisis: Flood recovery
Industry: Construction
Location: Townsville

Townsville builder Joshua and his wife Sarah learned as a result of the 2019 monsoon floods to put everything in writing, not jump in and remember work is just a job.

In the wake of flooding caused by the 2019 monsoon trough in far north Queensland, the Townsville couple was forced to scale their building business up more than tenfold to meet demand for construction services.

Following the natural disaster, they went from a 2-3 person team to employing 20 people and regularly working 16-hour days.

Joshua said when the work's there, you just have to provide the service.

'The toughest part was having the finances to keep everything going and being able to pay the tradies,' he said.

'We had to negotiate faster payments from the big businesses we were working for, progress payments from QBuild and take out a loan as well.'

Joshua said they were quite naive at the start, later discovering insurance companies were paying out-of-town contractors up to 4 times more than he was being paid for the same work.

'We stripped out about 90 houses for $5,000 each, but I later found out some people were getting $20,000 to strip out a house,' he said. 'The insurers took advantage of us.'

His advice to other small businesses in a similar situation is not to rush in.

'Take the time to analyse the situation and have a plan of attack before you rush in,' Joshua said.

'And get everything on paper. We were left out-of-pocket on variations, because people thought the insurers were paying for them, but it was us.'

Despite the huge amount of work the couple faced, they never gave up.

'You just do what you can and don't let the anxiety take over,' Joshua said. 'There were a lot of angry people who vented their problems on our builders.'

With 6 children—including 3 under the age of 4—they had to focus on the fact that the work was just a job, despite wanting to help people as much as they could.

Fortunately, the couple made it through and said they'll be more prepared for the next severe weather event.

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