JEFFERSONVILLE – A recent event provided insight into the changing business world in southern Indiana and the Louisville area and the continuing effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.
One Southern Indiana presented the OneForum Business Education conference at The Refinery in Jeffersonville on Wednesday.
This is a new 1si event that featured a day of speakers, panel discussions and networking focused on various aspects of doing business in South Indiana.
Uric Dufrene, Sanders Chair in Business at Indiana University Southeast, provided economic forecasts for the South Indiana and Louisville region.
John Mittel, co-founder of sparkling water company Phocus, was the event’s keynote speaker, and panels of local business leaders focused on small business collaboration and regional growth.
In the Louisville metro area, Dufrene predicts that job losses will be recouped by the end of the year or early next year, and he noted that labor shortages will present challenges. obstacles to growth.
Labor shortages were a main focus of Dufrene’s presentation, and he noted that the situation could accelerate investments in automation and technology as companies struggle to find workers.
“How do we meet demand – how does a business meet demand despite existing labor shortages? »Said Dufrène. “Well, it’s capital against labor. Maybe we can invest in equipment, maybe we can invest in machinery to meet demand rather than increasing our workforce in some cases.
One of the challenges will be to match the supply of skills with the demand for jobs, he said.
“What I think will happen because of all of this is that you are going to see a greater polarization between the skills and the unskilled,” he said. “It was an important discussion before the pandemic, and I think it will only intensify after the pandemic. You can’t just invest in expensive machines without certain skills to operate them.
Dufrene said there had been a record increase in average wages in southern Indiana. He predicts that the “competitive landscape” for small businesses will intensify after the pandemic due to higher wages.
“When you increase your wages you can’t come back in two months and say, well now we’re going to decrease our wages – especially when you have a labor shortage situation,” he said. .
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In his opening speech, Mittel discussed both the origins of his sparkling water company and the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the company.
Mittel is originally from Louisville and he graduated from the Speed School of Engineering at the University of Louisville with a degree in Industrial Engineering and worked at GE as a Supply Chain Engineer.
While Mittel was studying at UofL medical school, he teamed up with co-founder Tom O’Grady to launch Phocus, which offers soda water containing caffeine.
The idea was to provide a healthy alternative to sugary sodas and energy drinks that could keep people energized as well. The drinks are infused with caffeine derived from tea. Phocus was launched in October 2017 and is distributed nationwide.
Mittel moved to New York City in May 2019 for Phocus expansion in the city and throughout the Northeast. As the company continued to grow and “built a very big success story,” the pandemic struck.
When COVID-19 hit, Phocus lost 72% of its business overnight, Mittel said. In April and May, the company cut its workforce in half, and since then it has been striving to bounce back and strengthen the team.
“It has probably been the most difficult year of my life,” he said. “I would say the six months after midsummer of last year were probably the lowest I’ve been,” he said. “It was probably the first time I seriously thought if I had made the wrong decision.”
However, those challenges prompted him to “move forward with whatever comes next,” Mittel said. The company is doing better and the Phocus distribution network has continued to grow.
The company is expanding its distribution network with Kroger and recently entered into a distribution agreement with Publix which will allow the drinks to be sold in 800 stores.
“We have come a long way and it has been an incredible journey,” he said.
The pandemic has also led to the growth of e-commerce for Phocus, and the company has seen strong sales through Amazon and its website. As the focus shifted, Phocus redesigned its website.
The large number of repeat customers has been a major factor for the company, Mittel said.
“This is something that we have seen in all of our ecommerce so I think it’s very safe to say that COVID has dramatically accelerated the digital market 10 to 15 years ago,” he said.