Coronavirus has devastated many of Australia’s small businesses. Where to from here?


Only six months ago, Jennie Bardsley’s independent travel agency of 26 years was bursting with energy.

“It was a happy little place, people rang up excited looking for a holiday,” she said of her Perth-based business, which specialised in travel to Britain and Ireland.

“Now I’m constantly dealing with sad and stressful situations where people’s family members have died, people’s parents are ill and they need to get home.

“Everybody’s got a story, some of them are crying on the phone, they can’t even speak because they’ve got so much to deal with.”

When the global outbreak of COVID-19 halted the international travel industry in mid-March, Ms Bardsley was forced into fight or flight mode, working furiously to bring holidaymakers home.

“Nobody could get on a flight, flights were full.”

Jennie Bardsley working one of many late nights from her home.(Supplied: Jennie Bardsley)

As Australia locked down, she transformed into a personal advisor for hundreds of distraught people who attempted to secure emergency travel exemptions to the UK.

“I’m probably doing five percent of my business, it’s a tiny, tiny bit,” she said.

“It’s not a profitable one. I am trying to help people, but I’m also hoping that it will keep the name going.”

An empty airport departure lounge
Ms Bardsley worked to secure emergency travel exemptions after international travel ground to a halt in the wake of the global pandemic.(ABC News: Hugh Sando)

The stress and angst have taken its toll.

“My 21-year-old son said to me ‘what’s wrong?’ and I said ‘there’s no money coming in, this is it, I can’t see anybody coming in.’

“So he said, ‘I’ve got a few grand in the bank, you can have it if you want.’ I was like, wow, I ended up absolutely crying my eyes out.

“I think it’s fight or flight mode, isn’t it? I’ve never been a pushover, and I’ve always been an adapter.”

September will be a critical month for Ms Bardsley, when the government’s JobKeeper payments keeping her three staff afloat are set to dry up.

“If it’s not extended, then I can’t keep them on a full time position with the borders not being open,” she said.

A sign outside a shop advertising WA flights
Travel agents in WA have had to switch operations to organising local itineraries with interstate and international borders closed.(ABC News: Gian De Poloni)

Ms Bardsley was optimistic Australia would fully re-open its international borders by the end of the year, spelling the end of her living nightmare.

“I think at Christmas, there’s going to be lots of different, difficult decisions I’ll have to make,” she said.

“Do I have to close down? Do I work on my own?

“I’ve been a good little business for a long time. I’ve got lovely clients, I have great staff.

“I’m almost 52, I don’t want to retire just yet, I have at least another 10 years in me.

“To have all that just to be torn down and torn apart by COVID would just be such a shame.”

‘We’re in uncharted waters’

While Ms Bardsley has never been busier, Robert Pintabona longs for the days he was being run off his feet.

“I do miss the psychotic part of the business where you’re running around like a blue-arsed fly getting things done,” the sports trophy manufacturer said.

Robert Pintabona at his trophy shop
Robert Pintabona owns Exclusive Trophies, based in Perth.(ABC News: Gian De Poloni)

Over 34 years in business, Mr Pintabona has weathered many storms but when COVID hit, he was forced into retreat.

“The phone calls stopped, emails just dried up, queries were non-existent,” he said.

“I would come in and out every couple of days, feed the fish, grab the mail, but there was absolutely nothing.

“There was no point in basically operating the business as usual, because there was just nothing to do.”

Mr Pintabona was gearing up for his busiest time of year — the winter sports season — fielding hundreds of requests from sports clubs for trophies to hand out on presentation night.

“Within about three hours, it was just bang, thank you very much, it’s been nice knowing you, we’re not going ahead with our order,” he said.

$25,000 was wiped off his books in one hit when large gatherings were banned.

“It wasn’t over a couple of days, it was that morning, Mr Pintabona said.

A man sandblasts a label on a glass
Mr Pintabona employed two full time staff to design and manufacture trophies on site.(ABC News: Gian De Poloni)

He was now looking at shifting his focus towards corporate clients.

“I’ve loved doing this for 34 years and you know that your sports clubs are your bread and butter but you can make more money from corporate,” he said.

Mr Pintabona, who has big names like the West Coast Eagles on his books, was hopeful normal community sporting fixtures would resume over the summer.

“If we start to see that cricket and the summer sports are back to normal and people start to enquire, February 2021 should shape up to be okay,” he said.

“Some are looking at doing maybe a presentation at the beginning of next year while other people have just basically forgotten this year.”

Sports trophies at a shop in Perth.
Mr Pintabona was looking to switch his focus to corporate trophies.(ABC News: Gian De Poloni)

Mr Pintabona’s immediate anxieties stem from the winding up of the JobKeeper payments for his two staff, and from the potential of a second wave of infections.

“It’s been an interesting period of my life, and I would not like to go through it again. It’s been fairly traumatic,” he said.

“We’re in uncharted waters, it’s a new territory, and we’re just treading very, very lightly so we don’t go through the ice and end up where the Titanic is, right down the bottom.”

Hopes for ‘one hell of a party’ season

Katrina Sykes also learnt to tread water when she flipped her events catering company into a home food delivery service overnight.

“It was just to keep our noses above water so that we could get through this.”

A woman in a black shirt stands in front of a blue van
Katrina Sykes owns Claremont-based events catering company Soiree Kitchen.(ABC News: Gian De Poloni)

The takeaway and delivery strategy was one many in the food industry adopted when sit-down meals were outlawed in March.

“It was initially fantastic. It gave us a huge positive boost. But then it kind of trickled off,” Ms Sykes said.

Seven years strong in her business, she had to make the difficult decision to lay off almost 50 casual chef and waitstaff when all of the year’s planned events were cancelled.

“What happens in September with JobKeeper and rental relief is my biggest anxiety and I’m hoping that it correlates with an uptake in bookings,” Ms Sykes said.

“At the moment the bookings are trickling in. Our biggest to date is 45 people.”

“What we’ve found is that it’s been a bit of a double-edged sword retaining a presence through the shutdown because people think that you’re doing really well.

“And we’re not, you know, we’re actually running at 75 percent loss even with the assistance.

“But we have to keep that facade up to say, ‘we’re still here, we’re loving your support, together we can get through this — all of these positive affirmations the whole time, just hoping that eventually that’ll pay off.”

Chefs prepare meals in a commercial kitchen
Ms Sykes had to let go almost 50 casual staff at her events catering business.(ABC News: Gian De Poloni)

Ms Skyes’ three permanent staff say she was positive and upbeat by nature, but she admits it has been hard to save face.

“There have been times when I thought I won’t be able to get out of this,” she said.

“When you realize that you are trying your hardest but still losing money it’s even more devastating.

“If you start thinking too much about it, Debbie Downer, you get yourself down on it and it’s easy to go down that rabbit hole.

“I think the best advice that I ever got was just to keep making decisions and keep moving.

“Some will not be the best decisions but that’s only hindsight, you’re making the best decision at the time.”

Carrots and potato sit on trays inside a commercial kitchen
Ms Sykes switched her business model from serving canapés to hearty homecooked meals.(ABC News: Gian De Poloni)

Ms Skyes was hopeful once the weather warmed up, people will be ready to hold larger events again.

“I think we all want to restart in 2021. Once it’s over, there will be a massive celebration.”

‘Massive’ financial and psychological blow

In early March, cafe owner Donny Collins had every reason to celebrate.

He had just purchased a renowned Perth dining institution and threw a block party celebrating its grand reopening.

A man stands behind a coffee stand inside a cafe
Donny Collins had to close his Mt Lawley cafe, Bowie Kitchen, just a week after its grand opening event.(ABC News: Gian De Poloni)

Two weeks later, he shut up shop and bunkered down for almost three months.

“Just to rebrand, reinvent and reposition yourself takes a lot of energy,” Mr Collins said.

“You’re setting yourself up and you’re gunning for this potential open, and then it all fell into a heap.

A man and woman sit at a cafe speaking to a man standing up
Customers had been slow to return to Bowie Kitchen after it re-opened in June, but it’s hoped business will pick up over coming weeks.(ABC News: Gian De Poloni)

In the days following the party, things were looking grim.

“It just fell out the sky, it just went bad,” Mr Collins said.

“I saw it in the figures. You’re taking thousands over the weekend, and then you go down to hundreds.

“Our crowd is older, so they panicked earlier than a lot of other places. They ran for the hills first.”

He chose not to offer takeaway services during the shutdown period because the financial burden was too severe.

“Financially it nearly ruined me and mentally it wasn’t really a break because you’re always thinking about the business; how we’re going to set up again and losing staff,” Mr Collins said.

A man wipes tables inside a suburban cafe
Mr Collins said he was excited to be open again and hoped buzz about his new renovation would carry on.(ABC News: Gian De Poloni)

On his first week back open, the cafe took just enough revenue to cover wages.

“We’ve lost a bit of the mojo, but if you’re a good operator you try and hold everything together and overcome,” Mr Collins said.

He’s hoping as people become comfortable and word spreads about his new business, the people will come back.

‘This is the pinnacle’

All four of the small businesses the ABC interviewed said they’d never experienced anything like the hardship COVID-19 had caused.

“We’ve been through all different things: 9/11, Ansett folding, volcanos erupting, the global financial crisis — but this is the gold medal,” said Ms Bardsley.

“This is the pinnacle, nothing has been as worse as what we’ve gone through now. Even if you put all the others together, it’s still not as bad.”



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