A Family Business Survived One Pandemic. It’s Determined to Do It Again.

A Family Business Survived One Pandemic. It’s Determined to Do It Again.

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By the time Robert L. Stevenson gathered his work force at Eastman Machine in Buffalo in mid-March, businesses nationwide were shutting down. But Eastman, which makes fabric-cutting machines, has been in family hands for four generations, and Mr. Stevenson wasn’t about to turn off the lights.

Standing atop a table in the lunchroom just off the factory floor, he recounted other crises in the 132-year-old company’s history — World War I, the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918, the Great Depression and World War II. “We survived those episodes, and we’ll survive this one,” he told his employees. “We’re a family business, and we will take care of everybody.”

A little more than a month later, Eastman has successfully battled to stay alive but has the scars to show for it. Forty of the company’s 57 production workers have been laid off, a move that Mr. Stevenson said was unavoidable.

“It’s painful, and we never like to lay people off,” he said. “But otherwise there would be no company to come back to.” He has continued to pay for the furloughed workers’ health benefits, so he feels he has kept his word that everybody would be taken care of. This week, he plans to bring back five assembly-line workers.

Demand for the cutting machines that Eastman makes at its downtown factory is down 50 percent, but there have been enough orders to keep 17 production employees on the job. Eastman’s equipment is used by the aerospace and transportation industries, as well as by makers of medical masks and shields, qualifying it as an essential employer permitted to operate under New York State guidelines.

The 76 office workers at Eastman are operating remotely, even though functions like marketing and sales have been hobbled. “People who were close to making decisions before the pandemic have postponed out of fear,” said Elizabeth McGruder, vice president for European sales and marketing.

Small businesses like Eastman make up the bedrock of U.S. employment, accounting for half of all private-sector jobs, according to the Small Business Administration. Eastman’s durability shows how some small to medium-size companies are prepared to ride out the crisis.

Buffalo lost thousands of jobs in the postwar era as large industrial companies like Bethlehem Steel, Curtiss-Wright and Bell Aircraft shut operations there, said Ben Rand, president of Insyte Consulting, which advises small manufacturers in the area.

Eastman is typical of the factories that remain, he said, noting that of 1,500 manufacturers in the Buffalo region, only 2 percent have more than 500 employees.

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Since he took over from his father in 1988, Mr. Stevenson has avoided high levels of debt or risk-taking. That has served him well in the current crisis.

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