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2020 proved big businesses aren't as bad as some believe

2020 proved big businesses aren't as bad as some believe
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I write about small business, and even though small businesses generate half of the country’s GDP and employ half of its workers, there's another half to what was a very difficult 2020: the amazing contributions made by big business. 

Sure, you can fault America's corporations for many things. Some are hurting the environment. Others are either buying or manufacturing their products in parts of the world where human rights are abused. Not a few have had discriminatory pay practices, under-hire minorities and misclassify employees as independents. In some parts of the country, big retail and restaurant chains have brutally squashed their mom-and-pop competitors, and on the internet big companies have been justifiably accused of hindering the ability of some small companies in certain legal industries – adult products, firearms, health supplements – to do business.

But despite these faults, it's important to appreciate how big companies have helped the country – and particularly small businesses – this past year.

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For example, by the middle of 2021 most of us are expecting the COVID-19 vaccine to be available to pretty much anyone who wants it, which means that our small businesses will be able to fully operate. For that we can thank Big Pharma.

Long the target of public ire over pricing and profit-taking, when the coronavirus struck nearly a year ago, some of the world's largest drug companies put aside more profitable projects, re-aligned their internal plans and then developed vaccines within a timeline never before seen in human history.

You may say there's a profit motive here. But according to some reports, after this year and thanks to the way development has been funded, those profits may be very short-lived. These companies knew this going in, but that didn’t deter them. And the risks were high.

“I think the reputational risk to a (pharmaceutical) company if it turns out they cut corners to be the first in the market in the United States — that would be the end of (them),” Dr. Jeffrey Kopin of Northwestern Medicine said in a local television report. “You could never get your reputation back.”

But it’s not just the drug companies that stepped up.

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You've heard of government programs such as PPP and EIDL that helped small businesses through the pandemic. Well, in 2020 countless corporations set up similar funds to do the same. Companies such as Facebook, Yelp, Verizon, FedEx, Lendio, Amazon, Salesforce and Thryv created their own small business grant programs that gave out billions of dollars in funding to mom and pops across the country just to help them survive. Many others – particularly tech firms, real estate managers and banks – waived fees and payments during the most difficult periods of the downturn. Sure, they got good PR from their efforts. But none of these small businesses turned down the cash, did they?

Equality was also top of mind for corporate America in 2020. In the wake of the spring protests that centered around racial inequality and police violence, big corporations sprang into action. Throughout the year companies like Wells Fargo, Starbucks, PayPal, Tory Burch and Apple invested hundreds of millions of dollars into community programs, venture capital firms, nonprofits and grassroots organizations that invested in and supported minority owned businesses throughout the country. Again, good PR. Again, also good for the recipients.

Well before 2020, big companies have been giving back to their communities. Pretty much any corporate brand with a ".com" also has a ".org" representing their charitable foundation. Billions every year are spent by brands such as Coca Cola, Merck, Citigroup, Bank of America, Chevron, ExxonMobil, Goldman Sachs and Walmart on individuals, nonprofits, communities and small businesses that are working to improve such things as education, innovation, diversity, equality, health, energy efficiency and the environment.

Then there are the employees, the workers and the staff. We’ve seen the reports of the underpaid, the overworked, the victimized and the abused. We’ve read about the bad eggs that ignore basic safety protocols and put their employees’ health at risk.  

But then there are companies like Hilton, Wegmans, Cisco, American Express and many others that pay their employees well above minimum wage (and as much as $15 per hour), offer generous health and retirement benefits, provide ample time off and invest millions in their human resource efforts to make their work environments top class. Many big brands – like Microsoft, REI, Airbnb and Zillow – have also extended their work-from-home policies into mid-2021 out of concern for the safety of their employees (and of course to minimize any potential liabilities, but who can blame them?). 

Surprisingly, and with a few exceptions, most larger corporations have retained the bulk of their employees even throughout what has been an unprecedented economic downturn. Sure, unemployment – at 6.7 percent – remains high. But of the 11 million unemployed, most are from the hardest hit industries – retail, restaurants, leisure – and the biggest sufferers are hourly workers employed by both big and small companies that have been forced into shutdowns by their local governments.

Meantime, most other industries have held their own, with some – construction and many service businesses – adding jobs. I’ve spoken to countless employees at large companies who say that their employers have been doing their very best to accommodate remote working and their family pressures, and many of these people are grateful. 

Yes, they can seem evil at times. But let's not forget that big businesses – and their employees – are the core customers of the nation's small businesses. They hire us for consulting, construction, cleaning, accounting, maintenance, window-washing, catering and countless other billable tasks. Their employees eat our pizzas, tip our wait staffs, pump our gas, use us to get their clothes cleaned, buy our products and hire our children to babysit. They also pay the bulk of the taxes, which creates the communities for our businesses to operate. 

The world is complicated. Good people sometimes make mistakes. Good companies sometimes do bad things. When that happens, there should be consequences. But in 2020, big companies did more good for the world than bad. And for that, small business owners should be grateful to them.

Gene Marks is founder of The Marks Group, a small-business consulting firm. He frequently appears on CNBC, Fox Business and MSNBC.