Steven Aposhian, FireFly Automatix CTO, and Jovita Carranza, U.S. SBA
Photo by Mark LeBlanc
“FireFly is one of the companies that has validated exactly what the PPP was supposed to be and the objective it was to achieve: retaining their employees,” said Jovita Carranza, head of the U.S. Small Business Administration [sba.gov].”These are the types of employers the American Dream is all about, that stabilize any economy and strengthen the security of our nation. We realize the importance of the small business sector.”
How have the PPP (Payroll Protection Program) and EIDL (Emergency Impact Disaster Loan) impacted small U.S. businesses? The SBA’s head, Jovita Carranza, paid a visit to Salt Lake City on Aug. 20 to answer that question by meeting with some of the businesses impacted by COVID-19 who have participated in these and other SBA programs.
One of the companies Carranza came to see was FireFly Automatix, Inc. Founded in 2010, FireFly manufactures automated, self-propelled equipment for niche agricultural markets such as the harvesting and maintenance of turfgrass. The company’s very start was propelled by an SBA loan of $250,000, allowing the company to become Utah’s fastest growing privately funded company in 2016 and 2017. This kickstart enabled FireFly to increase productivity for sod farmers, requiring 50-75 percent less fuel than competitors and bringing Internet of Things (IoT) connectivity to the turf production sector of agriculture.
When COVID-19 arrived, FireFly employed 130 people in its Salt Lake City facility. The company knew PPP support would be essential to their ability to protect the jobs of these people, many of whom are supporting their families through traditional blue-collar jobs.
“Without PPP, we’d have needed to layoff approximately one-third of our workforce,” President Matt Aposhian said. “We were shedding tears.”
The company applied immediately through a large national bank when the program opened. As with many participants, on the day before the closing of the initial PPP funding they were told their application wouldn’t be making it through before the program was closed.
The stress was permeable throughout the company. Immediately, they turned their attention to a regional Utah bank that stepped up and offered to help. First Utah Bank took on the submittal and in less than a two-day period was able to reach success. A total of 130 positions were saved and the company has since been able to add 15 percent more (24 additional), for a total of 154 current jobs.
“FireFly is exactly the kind of company the PPP program was designed to address,” Carranza noted during her visit. Together with SBA Director for Rural Affairs and Region VIII Administrator Daniel Nordberg and SBA Utah District Director Marla Trollan, she noted there are 57,000 small businesses in Utah. Since March 2020, 52,275 PPP loans totaling more than $5.25 billion have gone to Utah’s small business owners, along with another billion dollars distributed through EIDL.
In all, 40% of the $310 billion in federal funding has been processed for 4.4 million businesses and has accessed the lowest income businesses, which has been the program’s highest intent. Seventy percent of the forgivable loans were made to businesses with fewer than 10 employees, minority owned and women-owned businesses.
“We had loans as low as $281, in one case, and one as low as $2,000,” Carranza said. Funding sizes ranged from $2,000 up to several million dollars.
The Ripple Effect of Continuity on the Company’s Future
Thanks to the security the company gained through PPP, FireFly has been able to continue production of its machines unimpeded, and now has sales in place through the end of this year, according to Andrew Limpert, the company’s CEO.
Further still, the company’s ability to maintain business continuity through the current season ensures the company’s ability to obtain other forms of growth funding required to reach its full fruition within the several years to come. For the employees, the families, and the farms across many different regions of the world that will use FireFly equipment, the impact of continued operation through the pandemic will be felt by future families and businesses for many years and potentially even generations to come.