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North Bay business leaders tackle what comes next after coronavirus, wildfires

Emerging from a coronavirus crisis into a new world for the North Bay hinges on “shifting, evolving and healing” our way of doing business, but it also requires financial support, a bank wealth manager said at a meeting of local top executives Thursday.

“The big reason we see a recovery is our stimulus. The big question from here is when is the next stimulus coming,” said Margaret Reid, vice president and senior portfolio manager of The Private Bank, a division of Union Bank. She said “it needs to happen,” as the business community negotiates a second and third wave of the coronavirus outbreak.

“We’re still in the middle of this, and there’s growing concern it’s likely we’ll have choppy months ahead,” said Reid, who specifically delves into wealth planning, investments, estate services and risk management for her clients.

Reid appeared virtually at CEO Briefing, an event by the Business Journal. Joining her at the summit were Karissa Kruse, Sonoma County Winegrowers president; Amy’s Kitchen President Xavier Unkovic; and Keysight Technologies’ Chief People and Administrative Officer Ingrid Estrada, who stepped in for CEO Ron Nersesian.

Consumers savings, spending like a roller coaster

What the team at Union Bank’s exclusive division has found is consumers have a way of circumventing a crisis after the initial shock.

Case in point, even though consumer confidence has been lagging, which is “expected given the uncertainty,” a 33.6% savings rate last April was commendable, Reid explained using U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. It stands to reason. People stayed home in great numbers with the “inability to spend” like they typically have, she noted as a “cautious optimism.”

But nonetheless, the savings-rate slingshot plummeted back down to 14.1% in August as shelter-in-place fatigue set in over the summer.

Home and hearth enter the picture

The bank executive said long-established migration to the cities is “unraveling,” shifting back toward the suburbs.

That bodes well for real estate sellers and agents in the North Bay, especially with millennials, who have long put off buying a home, getting married, starting a family or remaining with one company for an extended period of time.

Existing property owners are also investing in home improvements and furnishings as they spend more time there while working and playing. Because of this, online ordering has prompted delivery trucks to blanket the streets.

Help wanted and needed

While a rebounding retail sales sector joins a strong housing market particularly in the North Bay despite the crisis, specific economic factors like the state of jobs have experienced “negative impacts” that can lead to a widening economic disparity, Reid cautioned.

“(Jobs are) very critical to continuing the healing of our economy,” she said.

What about our psyche?

The panelists all agreed that health and well-being play a critical role in lifting a weary populace dealing with crisis after crisis over a prolonged period of time.

Unkovic pointed to healthy meals led by a shift to more plant-based food and the call for a more sustainable future as a means to keep citizens in the North Bay and beyond able to withstand the obstacles of a changing world.

“Food is our first medicine,” he said, further endorsing the notion that eating better provides “a direct impact on feeling better.”

And what goes better with time than wine?

Kruse, who also serves as the executive director for the Sonoma County Grape Growers Foundation, views her industry as being very much behind using food and wine to promote a sustainable future for the area.

“We’re going back to the root of food and wine pairing,” she said, adding her observation that many have become “backyard farmers.”

Since wine makes all food taste better, Kruse insists her industry needs to focus on “demystifying wine.”

And while restaurant closures pose an “unfortunate” component to the wine industry, this latest trend is countered by a 20% rise in consumption because people are drinking at home.

The industry is paying attention to behavioral habits and trends.

Of those venturing into supermarkets, wine enthusiasts are making choices based on brand identification, so promotion may be the key to being selected off the shelf.

Whether preferring wine from a boutique establishment or one mass produced, Americans have turned to wine consumption as a way to “relax, treat themselves or connect — often on Zoom happy hours,” according to Kruse.

One for the ages

Millennials are taking their quest for better experiences to the wine table by leaning into the beverage in greater numbers, Kruse mentioned. Gone are the days of this age group honing only an interest in hard cocktails and beer.

No sour grapes here. Despite an industry reeling from a $150 million crop loss and 50,000 tons of grapes “unpicked or rejected” from “unfortunate” wildfire smoke damage, the industry plans to adapt.

The rebuild requires a rebirth of togetherness that needs to be spawned by business leaders.

“Communication is absolutely key to get us out of crisis management mode,” she said.

An area of opportunity

In tourism, panelists gave an advantage to the North Bay over global destinations that require airline travel, mass transit and unfamiliar territory.

They endorsed the idea that the North Bay’s parks, beaches and Wine Country serve as a clear auto destination for travelers seeking something special on vacation without covering the world to see it.

Keysight’s tech vision

Still, with the trend of holing-up-at-home for work and play comes a need for an elevated level of technological advances including increased telecom capacity. After all, Keysight, the Santa Rosa design and engineering firm, sent 10,000 employees home to work.

Estrada said her company stands poised to answer that call with ramped up production as well as no layoffs, hourly reductions and pay decreases that would affect its workforce.

In addition to a $1 million investment in community nonprofits, Keysight is prepared to deliver widespread 5G bandwidth to more communities.

“This will just continue to accelerate,” she said.

The event was underwritten by Union Bank.

Susan Wood covers law, cannabis, production, energy and agriculture as well as banking and finance. For 25 years, Susan has worked for a variety of publications including the North County Times in San Diego County, Tahoe Daily Tribune and Lake Tahoe News. She graduated from Fullerton College. Reach her at 530-545-8662 or susan.wood@busjrnl.com.

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