It’s safe to say that we could never have predicted nor been prepared for what this year would have in store for us as business owners and decision-makers. There was no playbook to follow. No benchmark data to draw upon. No lessons learned from companies that had dealt with it before. Truly, the word most often used to describe the year 2020 has been “unprecedented.”
Leaders had to set the course for COVID-19 safety protocols and operating plans, interpreting guidance from federal, state and local leaders while relying on informal collaboration with peers and CalChamber on best practices to navigate business needs amid a public health crisis.
The official declaration of a global pandemic in March brought stay-at-home directives that crippled entire industries. Some like our food manufacturing sector were deemed essential, a classification that presented its own challenges on how best to remain operational while educating and protecting our workforce to face this new virus.
But COVID-19 wasn’t the only challenge California businesses and residents would face in 2020.
Innovation and Resilience
As we’ve seen throughout history, times of great adversity are often followed by exceptional innovation and adaptability. We witnessed this in 2020, as many business sectors had to demonstrate agility to survive. Restaurants acclimated to serving only takeout or offering outdoor dining. Schools learned to provide instruction online and in hybrid models. And companies that could, quickly adapted to a remote workforce business model.
Local government collaborated with businesses to convert streets and parking lots into creative outdoor eating spaces. And companies pivoted from manufacturing widgets to producing Personal Protective Equipment or hand sanitizer.
As a global consumer packaged goods company, Blue Diamond responded to dramatic shifts in consumer buying and consumption patterns. We revamped production schedules and marketing lanes to accommodate skyrocketing demand for shelf-stable food products and baking ingredients.
And at Blue Diamond, like many other businesses, we implemented innovative safety measures and protocols to ensure our workers and customers were protected and healthy so we could keep production lines running and products on the shelf. If unprecedented was the word of the year, clear plexiglass was certainly the material.
Addressing Food Security
Despite such resilience, many California businesses and industries struggled to survive operating restrictions and stay-at-home orders for their customers. I applaud CalChamber’s efforts to advocate on behalf of those small businesses, urging restraint from the Governor and encouraging economic relief.
Unfortunately, the sudden spike in unemployment caused a food security epidemic all its own. A staggering number of Californians, including families who had never before relied on food bank support, sought help, straining the resources of food distribution centers and nonprofits throughout the state.
In response, our state’s businesses and communities rallied. It was encouraging to see such an outpouring of financial support and donations of food and necessities to help those in need. It was just one example of some of the “good” that prevailed throughout the pandemic.
The COVID-19 crisis also put a spotlight on the everyday heroes among us – first and foremost, our healthcare workers who have endured unimaginable demands on their skills, compassion and resolve. But other essential workers recognized as critical during the pandemic have been those involved in keeping our food supply chain healthy—be it in the grocery store, in foodservice, in the fields, or manufacturing plants processing food. These essential heroes deserve our admiration and appreciation.
Just as most of us were settling into navigating the new COVID-19 journey in May, California, along with the rest of the country, faced a deafening outcry surrounding social injustice. The tragedy of George Floyd’s death was the proverbial straw that broke our nation’s collective sense of tolerance, stirring a need for change among us all.
The emotional, societal reactions had significant implications for businesses. Most organizations like ours initiated much-needed conversations and took internal stock of our role as corporate citizens within this landscape, seeking to identify ways to drive meaningful change in the areas of diversity, equity, and inclusion.
I was proud to see the leadership role CalChamber forged in urging California employers to help end racial injustice and inequality by providing timely and relevant webinars, podcasts and training resources to enable the state’s workplaces to be part of the solution.
I was also honored to recruit next year’s CalChamber Board of Directors executive committee which will be the most diverse we’ve ever seen, an important milestone for this season. I think we’ve all been reminded of the importance of making sure our leaders represent our employee and customer bases, and our communities.
There is no doubt we still have a long way to go as a society, but I am encouraged by the steps I see so many businesses taking to stand up to what is wrong and do what is right.
A Tumultuous Election
Amidst all the challenges of 2020, it also happened to be a tumultuous presidential election year and businesses’ property taxes were on the ballot in California with Proposition 15.
The majority of Blue Diamond’s almond growers are multi-generational family farmers and Prop 15 would have exacerbated the difficulties of running a small business or farm within California. Thanks to the strategic leadership of the CalChamber and the many industry associations aligned in a Vote No campaign, the proposition was defeated.
Prop 15’s rejection at the ballot box, as well as the CalChamber’s post-election voter survey, reinforced that the majority of Californians oppose tax increases that could further cripple our state’s economic recovery efforts. Our legislative representatives must keep that in mind as their directive moving into the new legislative cycle. Our economy cannot afford added tax burden coming out of the pandemic.
On the federal front, it will be critical for California to stay engaged with the new administration. And it will behoove our state leaders to leverage their now positive relationships for help in California’s economic recovery.
Securing California’s Economy
As the fifth largest economy in the world supporting more than 40 million people, we must be focused and diligent in maintaining this status by rebuilding our economy and reducing our debt.
The CalChamber’s lobbying efforts once again stood in the way of the worst impulses of the Legislature. Of the 19 bills the CalChamber identified as “job killers,” 18 were stopped in the Legislature through the partnership with moderate Democrats or through the CalChamber’s unique voice in the Governor’s office to secure a veto.
As we focus on economic recovery from the consequences of COVID-19, we must not lose sight of the state’s long-term economic health and the important work to be done on issues that will continue to be foundational to California.
I’d be remiss in finishing my tenure as Chair without touching on three areas I believe especially vital to our state’s healthy economic future—trade, water and agriculture.
Trade will be critical to our state’s economic recovery. Although trade policy is determined at the federal level, its impact on California is immense. California is the nation’s top exporter, with exports amounting to more than $170 billion.
As a former long-term chair of the CalChamber Council for International Trade, I recognize its sustained efforts to secure passage of the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA). Because almonds are California’s No. 1 ag export, I deeply understand the necessity of free, fair, and open markets.
Blue Diamond sells to 100 countries in a given year. Maintaining our relationships with key export markets such as China, Japan, Mexico, and Canada, while looking to open new markets, will be critically important in rebuilding our economy—locally and globally.
Water and Sustainability
The availability of water throughout our state remains a top priority for industry and communities. Although we have enjoyed a period of reprieve, we must recognize the inevitability of a coming drought.
With this increasing likelihood, I must emphasize the devastating impacts this will have on agriculture and the need for consistency in farmers’ water allocations. Water is quite literally the lifeblood of the industry, and without it, we cannot survive.
Utilizing science-based solutions while increasing our investments as a state in critical water infrastructure will be essential in providing for human consumption, California’s ecosystems, and the agriculture industry.
Having a secure water future does not mean choosing between people, food and the environment. However, it does require all stakeholders to work together and for agriculture and business to be unified and engaged in water policy discussions at the local, state and federal levels.
To further do its part, the agriculture community continues to take responsibility for being good stewards of the land to ensure a sustainable future. The almond industry alone has committed to aggressive goals for water efficiency and zero waste, air quality and pest management.
Though often forgotten and overlooked, California’s agriculture industry provides more than 2.5 million jobs, $56 billion to the economy, over half of the nation’s fruits and vegetables and 80% of the world’s almonds.
Our state’s agricultural backbone provides job creation and economic stability to some of our poorest communities, especially those hit hardest by economic downturns.
I look at our hard-working almond growers, many fourth- and fifth-generation families whose farms are not only their livelihood, but their legacies.
As our state faces a continued exodus of businesses from unfair regulations and overzealous taxation, we can’t afford to lose such a vital sector of our economy—farming families whose futures should remain quite literally rooted in California.
Looking ahead, pursuing proactive policies for agriculture that ease the almost insurmountable burden of growing crops in California will be the bedrock to whether this flourishing industry and these families remain.
From the farms and processing plants to the ports and grocery stores, the California agricultural supply chain can serve as a key economic driver as we rebound from this recession. It is my hope that the state will leverage this opportunity to partner with thousands of farmers, food processors and food companies within California to reinvigorate the economy.
Looking Toward the Future
Given the promise of a COVID-19 vaccine, we should have a handle on this pandemic in the foreseeable future. With that, we need to move proactively to fully reopen California’s businesses and focus on rebuilding our economy.
We must continue to urge our elected leaders to assist in this effort and recognize the strong connection between healthy people and a healthy economy. Following the season we’ve come through, California residents will rebound and rediscover optimism about the future, and consumer confidence will follow.
Although this “unprecedented” year has been filled with challenges and uncertainty, it has made us stronger and more resilient. I look forward to working with incoming Chair Donna Lucas and the rest of the CalChamber leadership team in the coming months. I truly believe the best is yet to come.
Mark Jansen, 2020 chair of the California Chamber of Commerce, is president and chief executive officer of Blue Diamond Growers, Sacramento.