Ten years ago, everything changed. The headlines after the stock market crashed more than 700 points on Sept. 29, 2008, were big and constant about failed financial institutions, rising unemployment rates and falling housing prices.
But the headlines couldn’t quite capture what was taking place on the individual level. People and families were forced to navigate tumultuous times, and few were left unimpacted. Some saw their lives upturned. Some saw opportunities emerge.
The Forsyth County News talked with five residents about what came to be known as the Great Recession and the indelible mark it left on their lives.
From middle class to working poor
Suellen and Stephen Daniels
Ages: 59 and 62
Before the crash: "Steve and I were both in the computer industry. He was in data mining and worked for Digital, Compact and HP, and I was a corporate software trainer,” Suellen said.
In 2008, Daniels said that her husband left HP for a job at a startup company and together they invested heavily in it.
Not half a year later, she said that they returned home from a trip abroad and found that the economy had been dealt a crippling blow and their startup was in dire straits.
"It was a house of cards, and it all fell down," she said.
Their new business didn't survive the crash and almost overnight they went from comfortably middle class to working poor.
During the crash: To survive, the Daniels worked multiple part-time jobs, filed for government assistance programs and got help anywhere they could find it.
After years of struggling to keep their heads above water, Daniels said that she and her husband alighted on an idea to help families that, like them, were struggling to find healthy affordable foods.
The result became the organization Meals by Grace, which delivers meals to families in need.
Where they are now: Today, both Suellen and Stephen Daniels serve in key roles at Fill Ministries, the organization they co-founded to provide food, resources and training to people at risk in the local community. Most recently, Fill Ministries completed construction on an aquaponics greenhouse project in north Forsyth.
Daniels said that while her family has recovered from the crash, their lives were permanently altered by it in ways that they still feel today.
"When we lost everything, it changes your perspective and gives you a chance to restart your world," she said. “But we still don’t have insurance.”
She said that Meals by Grace and Fill Ministries were their way of coming back in contact with normal people and elements of their old lives in a constructive way.
"But we would have never in a million years thought that we would be farmers," she said. "Even when we lost everything and we were struggling to survive, working all those jobs."
— Alexander Popp
Before the crash: Johnson, a Forsyth County native, knew he wanted to go into the construction industry while attending the University of Georgia, so much so that he started his company, Vertical Earth, in 1997 before graduating.
From just two small crews then, Johnson built Vertical Earth into a company recognized for its growth. By 2007, the company had 85 employees and had been featured in Inc. 500, an annual list of the 500 fastest-growing private companies in the country by Inc. magazine.
During the crash: At the time, the majority of Vertical Earth’s revenue came from the private sector. Johnson estimates about 80 percent of the company’s projects were in large residential or commercial developments. The other 20 percent was public work: schools, highways and various other transportation projects with local governments.
When the recession hit, virtually all of the private-funded opportunities evaporated.
“Everything was just upside down,” Johnson said.
Johnson had to improvise. Public sector projects went from 20 percent of the company’s revenue source to about 90 percent. Whereas the company had previously done work in nearby states sporadically, it started regularly doing work in Alabama, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee. The company also took on a new venture, contracting with a company out of Louisiana to help maintain interstate fuel pipelines in Indiana, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
Meanwhile, employees started leaving for various reasons – some out of trepidation over the construction industry, some for other reasons – and Vertical Earth’s workforce fell to about 50. Salaried employees also agreed to take pay cuts to avoid layoffs.
“It wasn’t a great profitable time for the company,” Johnson said, “but basically we were solid.”
Where they are now: One thing the recession provided was an opportunity to acquire new talent. By 2010, the company’s plans were leading to growth again, albeit more tempered than before, but without much debt and the company’s expanded public-sector work, Johnson was able to bring on people who had been laid off by their previous employer.
“They had great resumes,” Johnson said.
Now, Vertical Earth is up to about 200 employees, Johnson said, and the gap between public and private projects has decreased; Johnson estimates about 60 percent of projects now come from the public sector and 40 percent come are private work.
Johnson said that balance is crucial to the company’s ability to navigate future economic fluctuations, and he’s even more mindful of capital management than before the recession.
But Johnson’s biggest takeaway from those tumultuous times is building loyalty with employees.
Of the ones who took a pay cut, Johnson said most are still with the company.
“You look back on it, you just realize how admirable it was,” Johnson said.
— Brian Paglia
Stuck in limbo
Before the crash: According to Martin, he has lived in the metro Atlanta area since the early ’80s and before the crash, he was “between marriages,” working in the field as a technical service representative for Konica Minolta Graphic Imaging, a job he had held for more than 15 years.
In June of 2008, he was let go from his job as part of a large reduction in staffing. In two years, Konica Minolta was liquidated.
During the crash: For the three years following his firing, Martin said that he struggled to find a job, stuck in limbo — considered overqualified by nearly all of the businesses that he approached and received an interview from.
"Any position that might take advantage of my skill set ... and I could not get a job at a retail business because they were aware that I was probably not going to last long, due to not being paid as much as I was worth and possibly going to a better paying job somewhere else," he said.
He said that during that time he was briefly self-employed and was fighting to hold onto his home, using 401(k) money and any other means to make payments, until he was hired by the Cherokee County School System as a bus driver.
He said that position, and finally letting go of his home to live with his new wife, put him in a more stable situation where he could start building again.
Where they are now: After 11 months as a bus driver, Martin finally got an opportunity to get back in his field when he was approached by a recruiter about working as a contract worker with HP.
"At that time, HP was in a financial situation where they were only using temporary or staffing agency contractors and my contract was supposed to only be 24 months,” he said. “But after 13 months they decided to cut the funding on my project."
Instead of being let go once again, Martin was able to fill a permanent opening that the company had had for over a year.
"I was going to be let go, just as another department was looking for a local field service engineer,” he said. " I have been an HP Indigo Field Service Engineer since that day."
Today, Martin and his wife, Mary, a five-year cancer survivor, live together in Forsyth County.
— Alexander Popp
Listening to Warren Buffett
Before the crash: Over the years, Rice had developed an interest in the stock market. She joined an investment club while living in Florida, had maintained a 401(k) during her 51 years in the nursing field and added a Roth IRA for both herself and husband, David, in the early ’90s. They figured they could retire by 2012.
After a string of bad hurricanes caused property damage, Rice’s daughter and her husband came to them one day and said they planned to move. Rice’s daughter wanted them to come too.
“We said yes right away,” Rice said. “And I said, ‘But where are we going?’ And he said, ‘Oh, Cumming, Georgia.’ I had never heard of Cumming, Georgia.”
But Rice quickly approved. The area had low taxes, and the schools were among the best in the country. Rice was working for Aetna, managing mental disability claims, and they agreed to let her work from home. They packed up and moved into their new home in 2007.
During the crash: Rice was the one who managed the couple’s retirement portfolio, and so it was her who calculated how severely the stock market crash had impacted their plans.
When Rice did the math, the couple had lost 32 percent of their savings.
Frantic thoughts filled Rice’s head. She and her husband worried they would never be able to retire. Even worse, they saw people forced to foreclose on their homes, including some close friends.
“It was rather terrifying because I had heard stories about the Great Depression,” Rice said, “and I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, are we headed for something like that?’”
Where they are now: One day soon after the crash, Rice prayed. “What do I do about this?” Rice said. That afternoon, Rice said she got an answer.
She was watching a show on television, and Warren Buffett, the iconic business magnate whose net worth is about $87 billion, was being interviewed. The host of the show asked Buffett what advice he would give to investors to weather the uncertain economic moment. Buffett said to just wait, Rice remembers.
“I had a measure of confidence in him,” Rice said, “and so I held tight. I didn’t sell anything. I just held tight.”
Rice also had her and her husband’s 401(k)s managed by a professional investment company, and five years later – by 2012 – they were able to retire. Rice was a part-time substitute nurse in Forsyth County schools up until last year, but she stopped after the stock market improved rapidly starting in 2016.
Now, Rice attends Browns Bridge Church, and she serves in a personal finance program called MoneyWise Mentoring. She tells people three things: take a class about the stock market, get professional help if you need it and open a Roth IRA.
— Brian Paglia
Right age, right time
Before the crash: Teague said that in 2008, he and his wife Christy were recently engaged, living in Cobb County and just starting to build their life together.
Teague was at Kennesaw State University and working at a pool company, while Christy had just graduated from the University of Georgia with a degree in mathematical education.
"We had always wanted to stay in Cobb County, that's where we grew up, that’s where we are from," he said. "But no-one was hiring."
When an opportunity came up for them to move to Forsyth County and get away from areas that were starting to see the full effect of the recession, Teague said that they jumped on it.
During the crash: He said that his wife took a job at West Forsyth High School and bought their first home on the west side of the county in August of 2009.
"At that point in time, they were selling a house to anybody that could pay for one ... So we bought a house in Concord Farms," Teague said.
To help his wife pursue this new opportunity, he said he decided to leave the pool cleaning business and look for a new line of work. He stumbled across a new job on Craigslist, working in the warehouse of an industrial repair service.
"So I just picked it up to help pay the bills," Teague said. "I had no intention of being there long-term, and after about nine months the owner and general manager called me in the office and asked me to put on a nice pair of pants and see if I could go sell to people."
Where they are now: Today, Teague and his wife have two sons and live in a different, larger house closer to downtown Cumming.
"It's amazing really how it worked out," he said.
— Alexander Popp