Debrief: He’s Fine (but manufacturers aren’t)

The challenge of a generation: The coronavirus pandemic is hard on everyone, notes Mazars USA Executive Board member Craig Fine, but for companies in critical manufacturing and distribution industries -- who can't have employees work remotely -- the logistics are exponentially more difficult.


From its Parisian headquarters and throughout its multinational network, accounting giant Mazars has unequaled exposure to the coronavirus crisis, spanning continents and industries. And thanks to its global nature, each of its international offices shares equally in that front-row, from-the-trenches perspective, including its Long Island operation, a pulsating hub of 165 professionals with coast-to-coast clientele. Craig Fine, managing partner of Mazars USA’s Woodbury office, says the parent company and its subsidiaries were well-prepared to deal with the pandemic internally and to help clients through the mess – though no one was completely ready for COVID-19, which is “unprecedented in the modern era.” The Mazars USA Executive Board member, who previously spent decades dissecting manufacturing and distribution operations for Garden City firm Biscotti Toback & Co. (acquired in 2012 by then-WeiserMazars), does see short- and long-term innovations in the mix, but understands better than most that right now, manufacturers and distributors are in the fight of their commercial lives.

Chance favors the prepared: Fortunately, in our business, a lot of us are used to working remotely. And as business advisors, we have preached for years for clients to be ready for disaster – not necessarily knowing it would be a pandemic, but we certainly have controls in place.

Lay of the land: That being said, those couple of weeks leading up to state and federal governments urging people to work from home – as well as us, as a management group, realizing that for the safety of our employees, it’s better if we start social distancing – we did have to do some reconnaissance. We made sure systems were in place and adjusted as necessary.

In this together: We’re making plenty of adjustments to the way people work. We have a staff who’s ready to work at home, but now, many of them are at the same time homeschooling children, or taking care of sick or older loved ones, or might be ill themselves. There’s a lot going on. A lot of anxiety, a lot of angst.

Craig Fine: Quick action, but slow recovery.

You can take the accountant out of Biscotti Toback, but…: I still have the sensibilities of somebody working in a 45-person firm. I really learned, I hope, how to connect with clients – and I’ve also learned, from both places, that I’m not only a practitioner, I’m also running a business. This helps me be not only empathetic to business issues, but to understand them directly.

Not 9/11: This is an unprecedented event. Just the scope of the disaster, the uncertainty of it. 9/11 was a tremendous tragedy, but it was somewhat localized and finite in nature, for a lot of people. Obviously, when you lose a loved one, it impacts you for your whole life, but as a country, we were able to regroup and focus and pull together, after what was kind of a one-shot event.

Open-ended: I’ve spoken to a lot of my more experienced partners, and no one has ever seen anything like this. This is ongoing. There’s uncertainty as to when it’s going to end, and it’s already having a tremendous impact on unemployment. Most economists will say employment was one of the things that was fueling this economy. Now there’s all this uncertainty as to when we’re going to get back to “normal employment,” and there are real recession fears – aside from health fears, which are obviously devastating as well.

Show me the money: [For manufacturers and distributors], the first concern is obviously access to capital – that banks might not be as willing to lend. If you need working capital or you have long-term capital-expenditure needs related to investments, this is a very difficult time to address that through financial institutions.

Staff infection: Their other big issue is staffing. Manufacturing and distribution businesses, in particular, don’t have the luxury of letting people work remotely, so they have real issues right now – people coming to work potentially ill, people not coming to work at all. Many are working very hard right now to make their workplaces safe, because so many of those products are essential.

Multiple fronts: I’m working with a specialty-textile manufacturer on Long Island who’s trying to get his company to make textiles that go into [personal protective equipment], the things that keep doctors and nurses safe. They’re doing well from a testing standpoint, but they have staffing concerns and concerns about making the retooling investment. They need cash. And they’re also dealing with the federal and local governments, to see how to get the stuff into distribution pipelines, once they manufacture it. There are a lot of challenges.

Mental toll: [After the pandemic], I think there’s going to be a lot of caution by a lot of people. There’s going to be an impact on the psyche of the American people – is it really over? This is impacting everybody, and I think it’s going to affect the way people approach their lives for years to come.

Fish story: There are also concerns about the speed with which we can come out of this. I have a client in the seafood-distribution business, whose clients are mostly restaurants. His concern is the restaurant business won’t come back so quickly – it’s going to be an evolution, and that’s going to impact his business and his staff’s lives for a long time.

Slow recovery: I do think a lot of businesses will be slow in coming back, and there’s going to be a ripple effect throughout the economy, felt on many levels related to employment and investment. It’s definitely going to be a process.

Hello boomers: There’s also a lot of hope. For one thing, a lot of businesses will use this to streamline their processes. And there are a lot of people at home right now with plenty of time on their hands, trying to think of ways to innovate a new product or business. I think we’re going to come out of this with an innovation boom – and a lot of cool ideas.

Interview by Gregory Zeller