Like most companies, Vauxhall Enterprise LLC was hit hard by the pandemic.
The small, family owned trucking operation based in Harnett County had been growing by hauling retail products and other freight from one destination to another, all across the country.
And then, almost overnight, it all stopped.
With people holed up in their homes to keep from getting sick and worried about losing their livelihoods and income, they stopped shopping at stores and slashed what they were spending. Commerce hit the proverbial wall — and so did Shirley Gray’s trucking company.
“Nobody knew what was going on in the transportation industry,” recalled Gray, who has been in the trucking business for almost a decade. “Shippers just paused. They stopped on the logistic side. Furniture, lumber, everything like that was stopped. Nothing was being shipped except essential goods. Truck drivers were quitting. There was no freight. Nobody was making money.”
And that’s only the part most people could see. Things looked even worse from where Gray sat. Even when her truck and van were on the road, they were making a small fraction of the usual rate per mile. Truck stops were closed, so drivers couldn’t get food on the road, and when they arrived to pick up freight that would normally be ready to go, they often had to stay in place for a few days just to get loaded.
So, Gray faced a moment of reckoning. What does the owner of a trucking company do when there’s no business: shut down until things get better or find some way to use bad circumstances to create a good outcome?
Gray took the second option and got all of the help she needed from the Central Carolina Community College Small Business Center and a pandemic relief program called R3 — the shorter, catchier name for “Reboot, Recover, Rebuild” — a federally funded initiative offering small businesses the consulting and financial assistance they needed to survive.
Terri Brown, director of Central Carolina’s Small Business Center, said the college has always provided free assistance, but the additional funding allowed the center to hire more counselors to work one-on-one with companies.
“It was triage, really,” she said. “We found out what businesses needed help with most to stay in business. Sometimes it was financial help, other times it was legal advice or a social media or marketing strategy.”
Brown said it had a big impact. Even though funding was available for just six months, from June through December of last year, 107 small businesses in three counties served by the college received one-on-one counseling. About 78 jobs were retained and 47 new jobs were created. Seven new businesses were started. And it was all accomplished with a grant of less than $60,000.
Gray used the opportunity to position Vauxhall Enterprise for the future. Working with Mari-inetta Pavlic, Coordinator for the Small Business Center in Harnett County, Gray managed to arrange financing to purchase the truck she was leasing, which gave her complete control of the business.
Then, she focused on a more detailed business strategy and what she called “the marketing piece.” Taking advantage of professional referrals from the small business center, Gray had a company logo designed and placed on her truck. Then she had a website developed.
It may have seemed a little ambitious at the time. But while there was nothing she could do about the pandemic, there was something she could do with the free time it created. “I didn’t want to go under,” she said. “I wanted to go up.”
R3 helped many other companies as well. Joy Dodson, for example, used the pandemic to change her career entirely and pursue her dream of owning a full-time bakery. With free consulting she received, the Dunn resident opened Joy By The Pound and is now selling gourmet pound cakes in more than eight different flavors.
“Without this program, I probably would not have the opportunity or knowledge of how to own and operate my own business,” she wrote to the college in a testimonial about the R3 program. “Thank you so much for allowing me to participate in this wonderful program and thanks to the amazing business coaches that have become forever friends!”
Surviving the pandemic hasn’t been easy, Gray said, but all of the changes she made have set her on course for a much brighter future.
“I’m so glad I did it during the pandemic, that I didn’t wait,” she said. “It’s much better now. I’m in control now and have the support that I didn’t have before.”