How COVID-19 led business owners to
The COVID-19 pandemic prompted personal and professional changes for many business owners. Some were pushed to find new careers; others shifted their priorities. Here are the stories of three GOA Regional Business Association members.
Impetus for change
Neil Schwan worked for about 26 years in the trade show exhibit business, which ground to a halt during the pandemic. Like so many others, he was laid off.
“I always wanted to do something on my own, with more autonomy, and I thought, ‘This is my last chance to start a business,’” said Schwan, now an optimization specialist for Schooley Mitchell in Elmhurst.
Looking for opportunities, he came across Schooley Mitchell, which helps small- to medium-sized businesses with cost reduction. He purchased a franchise in September 2020.
“The fee is contingent,” he said. “If I help somebody, we share in some of the savings. That was really attractive — a chance to help people and make money at the same time.”
His business priorities have remained the same: finding ways to fulfill his clients’ needs. “It’s going really well,” he said, explaining he’s built a roster of smaller clients and will start pursuing larger ones as well.
Losing his longtime career prompted him to learn to separate his identity from his work, leading to a healthier attitude, he added.
The pandemic also was hard on his family, which includes his wife, a teacher, and his two children, at the time in high school. The family now makes a more concerted effort to spend time together, he said.
“It really showed me that family is really important. When things go bad, that’s who you have left,” he said. “It definitely shifted my priorities that way.”
Luck and hard work
Lise Schleicher, owner of Basketworks, Inc., was uniquely positioned when the pandemic hit.
She started her business in 1997 selling gourmet gift baskets of wine, beer, coffee, tea, cheese, chips, salami, nuts, dried fruit, chocolate, cookies, jams and more. Customers shop online, and can have the items shipped, or can pick them up from her warehouse in Northbrook.
Because she sells food, the company qualified as an essential business, and because of her online model, she was already set up for success during the pandemic.
“There were many things that were very difficult,” she said, such as half her household being at “high risk” for COVID-19. “But I didn’t have to close and I didn’t have to change my business. That was just sheer luck.”
The pandemic helped push her business to a new level, which she’s been able to maintain, she said. “I’m working really hard, but I am seeing success and enjoying it.”
Her priorities remain to grow her business and build relationships. Her focus is increasing her business’ search engine optimization (SEO) and social media presence.
Schleicher said she also gained new appreciation for her staff. “I am just so blessed.”
On a personal level, the isolation of the pandemic highlighted the importance of family and social connections. She and her husband have two adult sons, who for a time lived at home.
Once vaccinated, they made a big effort to have people over for dinner, Schleicher said.
“It really came home, for all of us, how much we value our friendships.”
A new adventure
The pandemic accelerated Vince Miceli’s professional journey by highlighting what he already knew – the importance of focusing on the IT side of his business.
Now the CEO of Titan Technology, based in Schaumburg, Miceli worked for about 15 years for a copying and printing company before setting off on his own.
He and his previous boss had conflicting philosophies, he explained, so after “riding the COVID storm,” he started his new company in October 2021. The company focuses on what Miceli calls “the three Cs”: cybersecurity, copiers and printers, and conference room tools.
He loves owning his own business — “I get to make the rules and do it my way,” he explains — and hopes to hire employees in January.
On a personal level, the pandemic was extra hard because he was diagnosed with stage IV non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and started chemotherapy a week after Illinois’ stay-at-home order. “I’ve been in remission for two years. Health is a big thing now because I don’t want to relapse,” he said.
With his new business, he eliminated his commute, lowering his stress level. He goes to the gym before starting his work day, which he can structure more flexibly, he said.
“I’m not working as many long hours but I am definitely more efficient during those hours,” he said.
He and his wife, who got married in June 2021, are putting more focus on spending time together and have taken more trips than ever before.
“I’m definitely happy. I have a lot to be thankful for.”