Having learned lessons from the Great Recession, Mark Viggiano reopened his Philadelphia-area restaurant in 2010 after being forced to close it in 2009. Among the steps he has taken is being open fewer hours, using an online reservation system and renegotiating his lease.

AP photo

Having learned lessons from the Great Recession, Mark Viggiano reopened his Philadelphia-area restaurant in 2010 after being forced to close it in 2009. Among the steps he has taken is being open fewer hours, using an online reservation system and renegotiating his lease.

Businesses learn from recession

By Joyce M. Rosenberg

The Associated Press

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NEW YORK – For some small business owners, the Great Recession turned out to be a lesson in how to run their companies better.

Many owners whose businesses failed during the recession have taken the plunge again, restarting the businesses or opening new ones. But they’re not repeating past mistakes. Their companies are leaner, smarter and less risky.

There are no definitive numbers on how many small businesses failed during the recession. But there were 337,303 fewer companies with less than 499 employees in 2011 than there were before the recession began, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The government hasn’t released more recent statistics.

Here’s how some of the companies are making sure they are more recession-resistant:

  • Internet, not inventory – Let someone else take the risk. That’s the lesson Frank Muscarello learned from the recession, and the strategy he’s used in building MarkITx, an online marketplace where companies from Fortune 500 corporations to the smallest businesses can buy and sell refurbished computers, servers and other high-tech equipment.

Muscarello started Chicago-based MarkITx in December 2009, right after he lost his previous business, Vision Point of Sale, in a bankruptcy auction. Vision Point failed after its bank suddenly demanded collateral on a $3.5 million loan during the credit crisis in 2008. While Muscarello had cash registers worth millions of dollars, the bank considered them almost worthless because they couldn’t all be sold within 90 days. Without collateral, the bank called the loan, and Muscarello didn’t have the money to repay it.

“I never wanted to be in the inventory game again,” Muscarello said.

MarkITx doesn’t hold any inventory. Its website lists equipment for sale, and helps sellers set a price. The company takes payment from buyers and holds it in escrow until the machines are delivered. It also arranges for equipment to be shipped to a separate company that inspects it and refurbishes it. The website, which began operating in April 2011, has more than 2,300 users.

MarkITx is less vulnerable to economic downturns, Muscarello said.

“I need an inventory-less business model to really grow,” he said.

  • Scaling back and restarting – Mark Viggiano has improved his restaurant’s chances of success this time around by scaling back. He’s serving only dinner, not lunch, at Viggiano’s BYOB, and is closed Mondays, typically a slow day at restaurants.

The Italian restaurant reopened in the Philadelphia suburb of Conshohocken, Pa., a year ago after failing in 2009. By cutting its hours and opening only at its busiest time, Viggiano has lowered overhead costs.

He employs a smaller staff. Since most customers make their reservations online, he no longer needs a hostess starting early to take phone calls. The changes allow him to have a staff of 14, down from 55.

He has time to do his own food shopping instead of having it delivered, saving more money.

Viggiano also renegotiated his lease, lowering his rent.

These steps have boosted Viggiano’s cash flow, which was hurt when customers dined out less during the recession. High rent and a heavy debt load also hobbled the restaurant. So did big sporting events that lured customers away to sports bars on weekends, his most lucrative nights.

  • Living with slower growth – Total Home Supply’s revenue isn’t exploding like co-owner Mike Luongo’s previous company, AM Royal. He’s not unhappy.

AM Royal, which sold major appliances such as washers and dryers, thrived with the housing market boom. Sales surged from $2 million in 2004, its first year, to almost $10 million in 2008, and the Fairfield N.J.-based company expanded to rent a second warehouse.

But it went bankrupt after housing’s plunge caused revenue to drop by more than 50 percent, to $5 million in 2009.

Luongo and two business partners have a more cautious approach with Total Home, which focuses on selling cooling and heating equipment, including air conditioners. Revenue was $2.5 million last year, up from $1 million in its first year, 2010. It might reach $4 million this year, Luongo said.

“I feel very comfortable about the direction we’re in,” Luongo said.