On a personal level, for Derek Miller the pandemic started off in style.
It was the second week of March 2020, when he and his wife boarded a Delta flight in Los Angeles bound for Orlando. The Miller family had just spent a few days vacationing at Disneyland and now Derek, the president and CEO of the Salt Lake Chamber, was on his way to Florida for work meetings with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
At the gate, he and Laura were told they’d been upgraded to first class.
“Uh, OK,” they said.
They boarded and settled into their extra wide, extra comfy seats and waited for the rest of the plane to fill. And it never did.
“We were the only two passengers on the entire plane,” Derek Miller remembers. “I asked a flight attendant what was going on. She said this was what they called the cruise flight, where people from California fly to Florida to make their cruise ship. Nobody was going on a cruise, so no one was on the plane.
“That’s when I thought, ‘Oh, wow, this is serious. It was like out of the twilight zone.”
By the time he returned to Utah a few days later, the entire country — including Disneyland — was locking down.
“It’s hard to re-create the feeling of uncertainty back then, of just how much we didn’t know,” says Miller, who remembers wondering as he made his way to the darkened chamber offices on 400 South his first day back in Salt Lake City. “How bad it is going to be? Will we stay in business? Will anyone?”
He didn’t see another person on the elevator until May.
A year later, the business association CEO can afford to tell his war stories because not only is the Salt Lake Chamber — which unlike its name implies, is really a statewide organization with over 8,000 member businesses in all 29 Utah counties — still standing, but so, remarkably, are the vast majority of its members.
Miller reports that the chamber’s rate of membership renewals, above 90%, is at an all-time high, as are new memberships.
Granted, the chamber doesn’t encompass all Utah businesses, but it does account for more than a fourth of them, and almost all of the biggest ones. For further evidence that Utah has weathered the COVID-19 storm better than most, Miller points to two impressive statewide indicators:
• Utah’s unemployment rate of 3.5% is the fifth lowest in the nation.
• The state actually recorded positive job growth over the past year, creating 47,000 new jobs to tie with Nevada for top percentage in the nation.
Miller is quick to add the disclaimer: “That’s not to say everyone is OK. If you lost a job, if you lost a business, that’s 10 out of 10 on the pain scale,” no matter what the statistics say.
But overall, as rough as it’s been, it could’ve been much worse.
In Miller’s view, it was critical for Utah to launch the Economic Response Task Force just days into the lockdown (which Miller chaired), followed by the Utah Leads Together campaign that combined the interests of the health and business communities.
“I’m so glad Utah avoided the ideological fights that went on elsewhere,” he says. “Very early on we stated explicitly our goal to manage both the health imperative and the economic imperative together. The people involved in putting that plan together truly believed they weren’t mutually exclusive, they were mutually supportive.”
There were other key factors that kept businesses from going under: the federal government’s payroll protection loans; the more than 10,000 Utah businesses that stepped up to take the Utah Department of Health’s Stay Safe to Stay Open pledge; and maybe most importantly, the willingness of companies to adapt and work together.
As an example, Miller points to two local outdoor equipment companies: DPS, known for its custom-made skis, and Petzl, known for its comfortable headlamps.
Problem was, the pandemic brought demand for custom-made skis and comfortable headlamps to a screeching halt.
That might have been that if DPS hadn’t retooled its manufacturing facility to produce plastic protective face shields desperately needed by doctors and other health care workers, and Petzl, instead of producing bands for its headlamps, hadn’t partnered with DPS to make comfortable headbands for the shields.
Suddenly, two businesses that learned of each other through the Salt Lake Chamber’s webinar information sessions, flipped from the wrong end to the right end of the supply-and-demand chain.
“These were two Utah companies in need that said, ‘This isn’t what we do but this is what we do now,’” says Miller. “They connected and solved their problem.”
“We still have a lot to do, a ways to go,” says Miller. “But I think it is a surprise where we are right now — a pleasant surprise. And it wasn’t by accident. It wasn’t like we let the river carry us wherever it would go. A lot of people have put in a lot of effort. There are many people who deserve a pat on the back and we’ll never know all of them. In some ways it’s all of us.”