Businesses start to see a turn in the economy

April 24, 2010|By ARNOLD PLATOU

WASHINGTON COUNTY -- Eric Peifer, Kim Teska and Bob Dooley are seeing something different in the economy this year and it gives them hope.

"I think we're finally to the point where people are saying, 'I still have my job, I still have my income ... I feel better. Now's the time to start spending some again," said Peifer, vice president of Burkholder's Inc., a 60-year-old Hagerstown flooring company.

Teska, manager of Bast of Boonsboro, which is marking its 173rd year in the furniture business, said she also is seeing a positive shift.

"In and around November, I started seeing an increase in foot traffic over last year," Teska said.

"Now, by all means, that is nothing compared to what it was during the boom," she said.

Still, the slight strengthening is significant more than two years into the nation's recession.

And it is giving Peifer enough encouragement that he is thinking about doing something he hasn't dared in all that time -- hire an additional employee.


"I'm thinking about hiring someone," he said.

In that statement alone, there is hope for all of the economy, he said.

"I think I'm kind of average, so if I'm thinking of hiring, maybe someone else is, too," said Peifer, who has 13 employees now.

"And we're thinking about upgrading our computer system. So if I'm thinking that, maybe someone else is, too. And if we're doing it, then maybe, I'm assuming somebody else is, too. And that's good news for everybody."

A domino effect

The past couple of years have not been good financially for much of anybody.

Certainly not for Dooley's moving and storage company, Martin Storage Co. Inc., which has been in Hagerstown since 1912 and has been an agent for Allied Van Lines since the 1930s.

"I've never witnessed it at these levels before," said Dooley, who has been in the business since 1974 and has owned it for about 10 years.

"The business levels are down quite a bit. I would estimate roughly 30 percent in the past year overall compared to, I guess, 2008," Dooley said.

"You guys ran an article on home sales in the area, how much of it is foreclosures. That affects the moving industry and the relocation industry in general," he said.

The families that are being forced out of their homes can't afford to hire a mover, so that's lost contracts because of the economy, Dooley said.

And work that normally would come to a mover when someone's job is transferred also is being frozen by the economy, he said.

"Now, one spouse goes to the new job site and the rest of the family stays back here in the house until they can get it sold," Dooley said. "They can't afford two mortgages."

On top of that, the military isn't moving service families as much as it used to and commercial storage and moving jobs are down.

Still, Dooley has managed to keep nearly all of his employees. He has 13 now.

"We've done some temporary layoffs, but nobody permanently," he said.

Peifer, whose company sells and installs ceramic tile, hardwood and floor coverings ranging from carpeting to bamboo to cork, said there have been times in the past year that he had to keep redefining "worst" as business fell away.

"End of '08, beginning of '09, it was like, well, next month can't be worse than this month. And it was," Peifer said. "And you kept thinking, it can't be any worse. And it was.

"I think it was people seeing their 401(k) lose 50 percent and all the doom and gloom out there. And the customers just stopped spending. But we have seen a nice normalization since 2010 began."

Bast's has seen tough times, too, as the economy has made consumers less confident and furniture less of a must-have item.

Fortunately, Teska said, "we have our own niche. So while the downtown in the economy has been very difficult for us, normally when we see customers come in, they are coming in to make a purchase. That has helped to sustain us. We have a lot of loyal customers."

These days, "mostly, it's a customer just trying to refurbish, revitalize their home. I don't hear a lot of 'we're buying a new house,'" Teska said.

Signs of hope

So all three -- Teska, Peifer and Dooley -- are focused on the current surge in home buying and how that might increase their business after the contracts go to settlements this spring.

"Sure, absolutely," Peifer said about the hope it offers his business.

"It would sure be nice if we can start to add jobs," Peifer said. "I think that's probably the key, as long as we don't have another huge hiccup in the market, which would cause people to pull up."

Teska said she sees advertising about the federal home-buyer tax credits in many places, including the subdivision "across the street from where I live that has big banners up saying, 'Buy now, take advantage of the tax credits.'"

Dooley said that given all of the ways the recession is hurting his business, he's hoping the current home-buying surge does mean more work for his employees.

But he's not sure it will.

"I'd certainly like to see it, but the people who use movers are a small percentage," Dooley said. Increasingly, people -- especially younger adults -- are renting trucks and/or getting friends to help them move, he said.

Nonetheless, Dooley is watching and hoping.

"We're not seeing anything pre-determined in our schedule yet, but people, I think, they're waiting longer to schedule the mover, to make sure the house sale goes through," he said.

"They'll kind of call the last minute -- another concern I have to deal with."

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