When crises befall the economy, most businesses face tough decisions and clouded futures. 

Jay Cricks is no different, but he’s been able to find comparatively steady seas for Wausau-based NorthStar Restoration Services when the waves have gotten choppy for others.

“Actually, we’ve been hiring the last couple of weeks,” said Cricks, who’s owned NorthStar since January 2012. “Fires and floods have no idea there’s a virus going around, and toilets still overflow.

That’s one positive of an emergency-based business such as NorthStar. Business has been good, but the inherent challenge is that such circumstances don’t happen at convenient or predictable times. Plumbing fails, fires ignite, and it all happens on its own schedule. Weather forecasts are about the only foreshadowing Cricks and his team have of potential problems.

When the COVID-19 pandemic touched Wisconsin, it cast some unforeseeable fog into the crystal balls of business owners.

“The first thing I thought was, ‘Are we (consid

ered) essential?’ ” said Cricks, who co-owns NorthStar with Wausau-area native Shawn Millikin. “Once that list came out and we saw that ‘emergency services’ was on it, that put me at ease. Then, we were left to think about how we were going to finish existing jobs and service our clients."

If such ups and downs have made hiring a challenge in a statewide economy that saw a 3.5 percent unemployment rate as recently as February, businesses in a position to hire may soon have a significant larger pool from which to draw. The state Department of Workforce Development projects Wisconsin’s unemployment rate to hit around 27 percent due mostly to the shutdown surrounding COVID-19. 

“The whole (hiring) climate has turned right on its head,” said Cricks, who said his staff of 28 — including three recent hires — is about right for now. 

NorthStar’s supplies are stocked about right, too, due in some part to the good fortune of timing. Cricks and his team usually stock up on their next year’s supplies at the end of the previous year. It gives them time to assess the past year and project growth into the next, while spending out anything that might be remaining in the budget. The pandemic hit hard in March when things started to close and cancel mid-month.

“About 85 percent to 90 percent of our business is fire damage and water damage,” Cricks said, “but we do good deep cleans, too. We’ve started getting some calls (about that). Businesses are looking for that light at the end of the tunnel, maybe in May, for that grand reopening.”

When businesses do reopen, and begin calling back laid-off or furloughed employees, Cricks recognizes that could impact his work force if he’s brought folks on board who might get that call. 

“We have roles we need to fill,” Cricks said. “And if they’re talented, we hope they’ll stay and be a cheerleader for our company, or (if they leave) refer us.” 

Cricks sees multiple benefits to establishing and maintaining strong relationships with his work force. It keeps them on board, but when people do move on to other opportunities, it can lead to inroads at prospective clients.

NorthStar has plenty of potential of its own, having turned $4 million in sales in 2019. That was up about 21 percent from 2018, and he’s seen anywhere from 12 percent to 25 percent during the past five years. Even in the recession years of 2008-09, Cricks said NorthStar saw growth. 

“Because some competitors failed, there was downsizing,” he said. “We were able to attract staff and grow our sales.”

Cricks’ and Millikin’s efforts have led NorthStar to a spot on the 2019 Inc. 5000 list of fastest-growing companies in America, and a reader-driven “Best in Marathon County” honor through the USA Today network. 

Recent investments in equipment and training include a high-capacity laundry machinery, and a Matterport camera that can scan and move through each room of a house, documenting the “before” state of everything that can be sent to insurance companies just in case catastrophe does occur. 

“We’ll be offering that to real estate agents, too,” Cricks said. “We just received it (April 13), and we’ve already deployed it to a fire-damaged home.” 

All of those new toys and more will be inside NorthStar’s new 29,9800 square-foot space at 4900 Stewart Ave., an upgrade of more than four times from its previous space.