COVID-19: Business in the USA through the eyes of a French entrepreneur

  • French entrepreneur in the US
    Sylvain Perret
Interview
Published 2020-03-26 09:00
Updated 2020-03-26 12:00

Like most countries around the world, the USA haven’t been spared by the coronavirus pandemic. This unprecedented health crisis is having a significant impact on every sector of the US economy. Sylvain Perret, a real estate specialist from France, talks about the slowdown in the USA and gives out some precious tips for those looking to do business abroad.

Where are you from, and what brought you to the USA? How long have you lived there?

I am from St Etienne, France. I spent 36 years in the Rhône Alpes region. Then I was transferred by Crédit Mutuel, the bank for which I used to work, in Guadeloupe. After spending three years in Guadeloupe, I realised that island life was not really "my thing". Moreover, I made several trips to the USA between 2007 and 2009. I was attracted to the USA for many reasons, including its vastness, the ease of contact with people, the hospitality, the size and openness of the market for professional activities, etc.

We moved to Orlando in 2010 when our children were aged 4, 8 and 11 (so they are 14, 18 and 21 today). We still live here, and we really appreciate this city. The quality of life and cost of living ratio is excellent, and the schools are very good. We are 15 minutes away from the largest campus in the USA, University of Central Florida; my children are studying there, and I myself have been an Executive MBA student there for a year.

Coming to the USA, I went from the status of Banking Executive to that of an entrepreneur with – like any entrepreneur – many ups and downs. My wife was already self-employed, specialising in the sale and import of decorative items and furniture.

My business, Objectif USA, is a real estate agency specialising in support for foreign investors. Our activity relates to the acquisition of apartments, houses, complete buildings and also businesses. We are also famous for the sale of businesses and the support of E2 visa applicants – because we are passionate about our job. My wife assists me as her business requires less physical presence. She is currently in charge of the personal and residential part.

What are your personal views about the current health crisis in the United States?

I find it hard to answer modestly. From a personal point of view, one has the impression of living on another planet as the threat has been underestimated here – it is still the case today when the Governor of Florida refuses to set up confinement. We are also worried because the two of us have asthma from time to time, and this is even riskier. Reading the news provides double-anxiety when we see what is happening in Europe, and we imagine what we risk here if we don't react more promptly and in an efficient way.

What is the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on your business?

It's also very complicated – a sudden stop. The activity of foreign buyers – on which we mainly depend – has simply disappeared, and it makes sense. Fortunately, we have local activities which are 100% American: business sales, rental management and also the E-commerce part, which is managed by my wife. But the local market has also slowed considerably. Fortunately, the properties we have in rental management are rented and the professional situation of our tenants, in general, has remained unaffected. Indeed, a lot of people will not be able to pay their rents in the coming months, and these situations will have to be treated with humanity, but also a certain degree of firmness as the obligations and personal situations of owners have also deteriorated.

This week, I am mainly contacting a maximum of French-speaking customers who have moved to the USA to see what I can do for them. Aids have been planned, but nothing says they will be eligible for these aids, and in some cases, it may even be better to give them up for reasons related to immigrant status.

In relation to this, I recently agreed to be part of a list for the elections of consular advisers in order to be able to propose improvements in the lot of French entrepreneurs on US visas. However, given the situation, the elections have been postponed until further notice.

What would you advise to entrepreneurs looking to move to the USA given the impact of the pandemic on the global economy?

Some practical points:

  • Look at your insurance contracts; if you have a ‘business interruption’ clause, it can provide compensation for this type of situation. My concern is whether insurances providing for this service will pay.
  • Have a look at the loans from the Small Business Administration (SBA.gov), the Disaster Loans, etc. Again, I have a concern: it is impossible to get an answer from the SBA as to whether visa holders will be eligible. I’m especially worried about the question "Are you a US citizen?” which is on the application form.
  • Be proactive and warn your landlord (owner of the commercial premises) that it is likely to be complicated to settle your monthly rent. You must request a ‘Rent Defferment’. I have sample letters for those who need them.
  • See how you can help your employees if you have any. If you help them get through this ordeal, you will find them after the crisis. If you disappear in a tunnel, nothing is guaranteed.
  • Put your business in ‘minimum’ mode, limit all outings to ‘keep your back’ while waiting for better days.
  • Perhaps, remote work is possible for mode for some. Adapt your offer for others, such as the implementation of ‘curbside pickup’ for restaurants, for example. Think outside the box.
  • Stay home. Seize the opportunity to ‘take a step back’, do what you have always postponed, reassess your business model, prepare for it to restart twice as strong.
  • Stay safe.

What are your short-term and long-term plans regarding your business?

Given the current situation, it’s hard to make long-term plans as you never know how tomorrow is going to be.

First, I’m trying to keep in touch with the customers of Objectif US via our Facebook group. I have several requests from clients to help them draft letters to their landlords or fill out aid application forms. So in the very short term, I think this is going to be my main activity.

Whenever I list a business or a house, I make a short video of it – a sort of virtual visit – as very often, my clients are far away. This is useful to me today as we are no longer able to organise any real visit, so the video comes in handy.

I’m also planning customers meetings via Zoom to discuss their respective situations, and quite simply to fight the loneliness and the monotony.

In the long run, I intend to resume my activity as it has always been, but once again, no one knows what tomorrow will be like.

Any personal plans?

Those who know me well know that I always have 1,000 projects, sometimes too many elsewhere.

As mentioned above, the MBA is a bit of a childhood dream. It allows me to meet extraordinary people, and group work allows for a wealth of ideas. In our econometrics course alone, with two colleagues, we developed a mathematical/statistical model that could be used in an application, for example.

I also like to write, so I am writing new articles for my websites, and I hope to finish a book that I have been writing for several years. The milestone of 10 years here could be the trigger to finally finish it.

Still, in the short term, the elections mentioned above are important in order to weigh in on the situation of French entrepreneurs in the USA. I spend a lot of time on it.

In the long run, I really like to pass on knowledge and experience. I regularly give lectures on differences between France and the USA at the corporate level. This is something that I would like to develop in the future. I have seen too many companies crashing because of misconceptions about the American market. Some do not see the USA as they are, but as they would like it to be. Sometimes, the reality shock is really hard to bear.