TRENTON, NJ – As winter turned to spring and the coronavirus began taking hold in New Jersey, small business owners faced a variety of pressing questions. Were they considered essential services? Would the federal government provide financial aid to keep them afloat? When could customers safely return in person? 

Enter the state’s Business Action Center (BAC) and its executive director, Melanie Willoughby. The resource—which typically provides guidance for companies including assistance with permits, export plans, and loans—transitioned to meeting the needs of struggling entrepreneurs during an unforeseen crisis.

“For me, it has been very distressing to actually see so many retailers who have had to close their doors,” Willoughby said. “But I totally understand the marketplace changing…for the [COVID-19] pandemic.” 

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Willoughby estimated that the BAC fielded a combined 38,000 online chats and phone calls looking for clarity on how Gov. Phil Murphy’s executive orders would impact their operations. 

At the height of the lockdown, many of those inquiries came from merchants in need of advice on how to properly test employees for the coronavirus and the benefits workers could receive if they contracted the disease. Non-essential companies sought information on how to apply for grants and sustain themselves. 

But despite the widespread economic damage levied by COVID-19, Willoughby expressed optimism in the incentives that have historically motivated investments in the Garden State. 

“New Jersey’s got this phenomenal location because of the fact that we have this reach to such a broad audience in the area that we’re in,” Willoughby said. The state’s position as a bridge between New York and Pennsylvania, plus its railways, seaports, and airports, make it a prime location for firms to engage with new clientele and transport their products, she explained. 

Still, emerging startups may need to change their strategies to succeed in a post-coronavirus world. The cleanliness and convenience of virtual shopping, Willoughby described, has grown even more dominant in the last six months, forcing stores to adjust accordingly. 

“I think that retailers are looking for their new niche and how to operate, and probably many of them [need] to go online if they’re going to continue to survive,” Willoughby said. 

The executive director added that she anticipates New Jersey’s restaurants and retail stores will suffer from the virus outbreak for years to come. Conversely, Willoughby projected that the manufacturing and food supply industries stand to perform well long term due to the vital provisions they deliver.

After a 44-year career in state politics, Willoughby is no stranger to New Jersey’s evolving commerce landscape. A Howell native, she got her start with the Department of Community Affairs under Gov. Brendan Byrne following her graduation from Rutgers College in 1976. 

Willoughby also had two stints as a lobbyist with the New Jersey Business & Industry Association: her first from 1982 to 1986 and again from 2003 to 2018. In the interim, she was president and CEO of the New Jersey Retail Merchants Association, where she represented vendors’ concerns on the state and national levels. 

Across more than four decades, Willoughby has worked with each New Jersey governor and met every president from Carter to Trump. 

Then in early 2018 came her appointment to lead the BAC. After years spent advocating for business interests, Gov. Murphy placed Willoughby in charge of the state’s main support branch for local enterprises. 

“Think of us as the great connector,” Willoughby said. “We know where all the resources are, or we are the actual resource that’ll do it for you. But either way, you contact us, and we will be able to figure that out…to give you exactly where to go without you having to do all that research yourself.”

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