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Coronavirus pandemic claims another victim: Robocalls



Have you been missing something amid the lockdowns and stay-at-home orders? No, not human contact. Not even toilet paper.


Industry experts say robocalls are way down — scam calls as well as nagging from your credit-card company to pay your bill. The coronavirus pandemic has inflicted millions of job losses, and scammers have not been immune.

YouMail, which offers a robocall-blocking service, says 2.9 billion robocalls were placed in April in the U.S., down from 4.1 billion in March and 4.8 billion in February. That’s a daily average of 97 million calls in April, down from 132 million in March and 166 million in April.

The main reason: many global call centers have closed or are operating with fewer workers, said YouMail CEO Alex Quilici. While it may be odd to think of scams being run out of call centers rather than a dark, creepy basement or a garage, that’s often the case, particularly in countries such as India and the Philippines, experts said.

After a lockdown order went into effect in India in late March, “we saw the volume of calls basically half the next day,” Quilici said.

That means scammers will probably be back in force once the call centers come back online. Stepped-up enforcement from industry groups and the U.S. government could nibble around the edges of those call volumes when the scammers are back, however. In recent months, federal agencies have focused on going after the small telecom providers that were allowing calls from COVID-19 scammers, citing the urgency of the pandemic.

And free blocking tools that were already in place on many people’s phones help consumers dodge unwanted calls, so it’s not clear how many have noticed the lower numbers of scam and telemarketing calls in the past couple months.

“What we do hear from consumers is call blocking tools are effective in reducing a significant number of robocalls but some unwanted calls are going to slip through,” said Maureen Mahoney, a policy analyst with Consumer Reports.

Complaints about unwanted calls to the Federal Trade Commission have been steadily trending down since late 2018, and dropped by more than half in March from the year before, to 240,000. The Federal Communications Commission gets many fewer complaints overall but says those also fell 50% in March, to 10,000, and 60% in April, to 7,500.

None of which is to say that nuisance calls and phone scams and texts have disappeared.

“While reports of robocalls are way down overall, we’re now hearing about callers invoking the COVID-19 pandemic to pretend to be from the government, or making illegal medical or health care pitches,” an FTC blog post declared in mid-April.

And Mahoney predicts that calls will pick up again, and it won’t just be scammers back in action. With so many people out of work and behind on their bills, debt collectors will be relentlessly badgering them to pay soon enough, she said.

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Walmart pushes forward with new HQ plans to help staff collaborate post-pandemic



In contrast to the many tech CEOs seeing work-from-home as remaining the norm after the pandemic eases, Walmart’s chief executive says face time at the office will remain crucial to how the retailer’s corporate employees function when things get back to normal—and once its new campus opens.

Walmart last year heralded a new 350-acre home office project expected to open in its hometown of Bentonville, Arkansas in stages and be completed by 2025, updating an outdated facility with a goal to more easily attract and retain talent for which it has to compete with the likes of Amazon, Google, and Apple.

But the plan was announced well before anyone could imagine a pandemic like COVID-19 would have people work from their homes for months on end. Yet despite that, Walmart chief executive Doug McMillon firmly believes the value of in-person collaboration with colleagues will endure and says it won’t change the future home office’s design much.

“As this crisis has gone on, we’ve noticed things that were missing,” McMillon said on a webcast of Walmart’s annual shareholder meeting on Wednesday. “How do you get to know people? How do you get a sense for what the culture is like? Culture inside a company is such an important aspect.”

The future Walmart headquarters will boast features of modern-day office life including mass timber construction, ample biking paths (the company wants 10% of employees to commute by bike), green space, and outdoor meeting rooms to position itself as a high-tech, cutting-edge company worthy of today’s biggest tech and retail talent, not just a mammoth discount chain.

Walmart, the largest private U.S. employer with 1.4 million workers, has a staff of about 14,000 at its headquarters. The current campus is made up of a decentralized series of 20 nondescript buildings, many with one floor only in deference to founder Sam Walton’s aversion to flash. The new campus will be made up of offices and cafes with smart building design, solar panels, and regionally sourced materials, surrounded by outdoor spaces.

Still, the pandemic has led countless companies to rethink whether they really need people come into the office as much. Shopify CEO Tobi Lütke recently told Fortune that most the Canadian e-commerce company’s employees would work from home from now on.

“One thing we’re not going to get back to, at least in the tech industry, is office centricity,” Lütke said. Twitter and Square have also given employees the option to work from home permanently, while Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg thinks half of his employees could be working remotely in five to 10 years.

Walmart’s executive vice president of corporate affairs, Dan Bartlett, said the new office project was still in the design stages, so changes could be made to reflect any longer lasting impacts of the pandemic and how Americans like to work without “disrupting the overall timeframe of the project.”

The company was long afflicted by a silo culture in which different divisions didn’t work together well enough. That was notably the case with its e-commerce and retail divisions for years. But now Walmart has emerged as a strong No. 2 to Amazon, and the retailer is benefiting from more harmony across its divisions, something crucial in the retail and e-commerce wars.

“In a post-vaccine world we’re going to need office space and people are going to collaborate,” McMillon said. “Being present with each other is going to matter over time.”

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Corporate tax cut by July unlikely



By Charmaine A. Tadalan and Jenina P. Ibañez Reporters

AN IMMEDIATE REDUCTION of the corporate income tax rate to 25% by July is unlikely, as the Senate prioritized other measures over the Corporate Recovery and Tax Incentives for Enterprises Act (CREATE) bill on Wednesday.

“We focused on the Bayanihan (2) bill,” Senate President Pro Tempore Ralph G. Recto said in a mobile phone message on Wednesday.

The CREATE bill is the revised version of the Corporate Income Tax and Incentives Rationalization Act, which now provides for an outright 5% reduction of the corporate income tax to 25% from 30%, as well as flexible tax and nontax incentives for investors.

Finance officials earlier hoped the lower tax would take effect by July, as part of efforts to stimulate an economy battered by a coronavirus pandemic.

The Department of Finance (DoF) earlier estimated the 5% tax reduction will cut government revenues by P42 billion in the second half if CREATE is implemented by July, and by another P625 billion in the next five years. The DoF hopes these foregone revenues will drive economic activity and allow businesses to continue funding their operations and keep their employees.

Congress was scheduled to adjourn sine die on Wednesday, but decided to hold another session today.

Asked whether the measure may still hurdle the Senate before the year ends, Mr. Recto said “yes, with amendments.”

Senate President Vicente C. Sotto III last week said the proposed CREATE was among the priorities of the chamber, but the Senate’s session agenda for Wednesday did not include the bill.

Under CREATE, the tax will be further reduced by 1 percentage point annually beginning 2023 until 2027. In its previous version, the bill proposed to gradually reduce the rate until it reaches 20% in 2029.

Albay Representative and House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Jose Ma. Clemente S. Salceda said in a separate message the measure might still be tackled in a “special session.”

“It’s up to the Executive, which we await,” Mr. Salceda said.

Finance Assistant Secretary Ma. Teresa S. Habitan said the DoF may request for a special session for the passage of the CREATE bill.

“We’re hoping it will be part of what is passed in the regular session. Otherwise, we might request for a special session,” she said in a mobile phone message.

The CREATE bill was among the recommendations of state economic managers to revive the economy. More than 30 local and foreign business groups have also supported the passage of the bill.

Mr. Sotto, however, said he doubts the measure would be taken up in a special session. He also said the Constitution bars Congress from holding sessions 30 days before the opening of the next regular session on July 27. This gives them only until June 8, should a special session be called.

Mr. Sotto said they can hold a session as late as June 8, but others are saying the latest they can do it is on June 11, taking into account some holidays. “To play safe… the last is June 8,” he said in an online briefing.

Meanwhile, the Philippine Ecozones Association (PHILEA) is backing the retention of the current incentives system for an additional 5 to 10 years, aligning itself with foreign and export groups.

PHILEA in a letter addressed to the Finance department and Senator Pilar Juliana S. Cayetano said retaining the incentives system during the pandemic or a specified and “reasonable” period would help the country be competitive in attracting investments from companies moving operations out of China.

The position of PHILEA, along with foreign and export groups, stand in contrast with other business groups that have supported the immediate passage of CREATE. The bill also rationalizes tax incentives, granting a transition period of up to nine years.

PHILEA, which represents 12 member companies and 20 industrial estates, said the Finance department must release a statement that existing incentives under the Philippine Economic Zone Authority should be retained for at least five years and ideally ten years.

“The statement must be forceful and irreversible in order to erase doubts that have been created in the minds of many companies both about the removal or reduction of incentives and the image that the Philippines is mercurial in its policy-making,” the association said.

PHILEA added that incentives timelines should be improved, noting that the Philippines is behind some neighboring countries in terms of the number of years incentives are offered.

The Joint Foreign Chambers of Commerce of the Philippines, along with an outsourcing industry group and electronics and wearables export groups, had said in their own position paper that incentives allowing companies to pay 5% tax on gross income earned in lieu of other national and local taxes should be retained for five years prior to sunset provisions.

The same groups back the immediate reduction of corporate income tax to 25% and pushed for accelerating reduction to 20% by 2025.

But PHILEA said that this reduction would be a welcome development for domestic manufacturers, but for exporters, it is more important to retain the existing tax incentives.

PEZA said it would recommend amendments for CREATE to apply only to domestic companies and small businesses, retaining status quo incentives for export companies.

PHILEA also asked that the Finance and Trade departments appoint a private sector counterpart in efforts to attract companies moving factory production out of China.

“This should preferably be a Philippine entity that can represent the country as a knowledgeable citizen. The assignment of the investment house would be to mobilize the players in the ecozone industry, coordinate with the relevant Government agencies, and identify and organize other factors that will give the country an advantage over its competitors,” the association said.

PHILEA added the government should create a major public relations program and to streamline industrial parks applications for ecozone approval to accelerate a “tedious and slow moving” process.

“A deadline for processing in each agency should be established and rigorously followed.”

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How a hair-care company went from salon supplier to sanitizer powerhouse



When AG Hair moved into its new, 70,000-sq.-foot, state-of-the-art manufacturing facility in Coquitlam, B.C., two years ago, it was part of a plan to supercharge expansion of its hair care product line to salons in international markets. Europe was next on its list. Then COVID-19 hit.

Not only was the European expansion put on hold, but salons in major markets across Canada and the United States were temporarily closed. Very few were purchasing hair products, so manufacturing was halted in mid-March, leaving most of the company’s 82 employees out of work.

AG Hair could have waited out the pandemic but instead decided to lean into its entrepreneurial culture and make a sharp pivot. It began providing hand-sanitizing products for front-line health-care workers, addressing a global shortage.

“We realized there was this massive need for health-care professionals, and we wanted to make a difference and be able to provide them with the products they needed,” says AG Hair CEO Graham Fraser.

AG Hair received Canadian and U.S. approvals a week after applying for the licences needed to make sanitizer, and produced samples to show local authorities within 48 hours.

AG Hair’s Coquitlam facility has pivoted to making hand sanitizer (Photograph by Alana Paterson)

“That rapid response time, and the fact that we had gone through all of the Health Canada regulatory hurdles, showed [the local health authorities] that we were a partner they could trust and someone they could look to, to deliver the products they needed,” Fraser says.

Within a month, the company started pumping out the products, first for the health-care industry, then for consumers on its own website and on Amazon. About 10 per cent of AG Hair’s hand-sanitizer production also went to people in need, as identified by organizations such as United Way.

Parallel 49 Brewing Company is also using AG Hair’s Coquitlam manufacturing facility to produce its own blend of liquid hand sanitizer for front-line health and emergency workers, in partnership with the B.C. government.

Fraser credits his team for its energy and creativity in making the hand-sanitizer production happen, and helping put AG Hair staff back to work.

“We realized we had an opportunity . . . and then it became this incredible, almost war-room mentality and collaboration with our owners, our executive team and our people to say, ‘How are we going to get through this?’ ” Fraser recalls. “I think our success speaks to the type of people we have and the entrepreneurial spirit of pursuing every avenue we have, understanding how we can produce the products and making it happen.”

AG Hair’s commitment to investing in future growth is a big part of what makes it a Best Managed company, says Nicole Coleman, a partner at Deloitte and co-lead of its Best Managed Program in B.C.

“Capability and innovation come through quite strongly with this company,” says Coleman, who is also AG Hair’s coach at Deloitte. “I don’t think they would be able to pivot as quickly if they weren’t so strategic and had the internal capabilities to do it.”

The manufacturing facility was a big investment, but one Coleman says has already paid dividends.

“They were looking forward with a strategic plan in mind about future growth and how they could expand, rather than just focusing on the day to day,” she says. “Best Managed companies are always pushing the envelope and are conscious about planning for the future.”

AG Hair was founded in Vancouver in 1989 by hairstylist John Davis and graphic artist Lotte Davis. The husband-and-wife team began bottling hair products in their basement and selling them direct to salons from the back of a station wagon.

The company eventually moved its manufacturing off-site, to a third party. One day, John went to watch the operations and was surprised to see salt being poured into the mixture. Although he was told salt is commonly used as a thickener, he didn’t like the potential side effects of dry hair and skin.

It was at that moment John decided the company would oversee its own manufacturing. “Through that experience, John also became an expert in product development,” says Fraser, who came to the company in 2000 as director of sales.

After having worked for more than two decades at PepsiCo and Kraft Foods, Fraser was eager to work at a smaller, more agile company where he felt he could help make a difference.

“It was perfect because I got to bring a lot of structure and process that I learned in those organizations, but I also learned an awful lot about being an entrepreneur from John and Lotte: that sense of urgency, the decision-making process, the need to get things done and drive things forward and pursue opportunities,” he says.

Fraser has helped drive AG Hair’s expansion into the U.S. and internationally, including Australia, Taiwan, and Central and South America. A portion of its sales go to One Girl Can, a charity founded by Lotte that provides schooling, education and mentoring for girls in sub-Saharan Africa.

Fraser also oversees the development of new, trending products, including a new deep-conditioning hair mask made with 98 per cent plant-based and natural ingredients. Hand-sanitizing spray and gel will be the latest addition to the company’s product lineup.

“We don’t see the demand [for hand-sanitizing products] going away,” he says. “As the isolation policies start to get lifted, people are going to need forms of security and protocols as they get back into regular life and work. We see there’s going to be a need for these types of products long-term.”

This article appears in print in the June 2020 issue of Maclean’s magazine with the headline, “Working out the kinks.” Subscribe to the monthly print magazine here.

The post How a hair-care company went from salon supplier to sanitizer powerhouse appeared first on Canadian Business – Your Source For Business News.

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