Top executives for small- and medium-sized businesses in central Virginia remain optimistic about sales, capital spending and employment over the next six months, according to a recent survey.

The fourth-quarter economic outlook survey conducted by the Virginia Council of CEOs and the University of Richmond’s Robins School of Business found that 57% of CEOs expect to add jobs in the next six months, up from about 47% during the survey conducted in the third quarter.

More than 71% of CEOs who responded to the fourth-quarter survey said they expect sales to increase over the next six months, an improvement over the 65% who expected sales to increase in the third quarter.

“Despite uncertainty over next year’s elections, CEO optimism for a continued strong economy seems to have returned,” said Randy Raggio, associate dean at the Robins School, who administers the survey.

“However, expectations may be hard to achieve, as CEOs see the tight job market as a major issue for the coming year,” he said.

Nearly 50% of CEOs in the survey reported that talent issues are their priority for next year.

It is unclear whether the economic cycle is headed toward a recession.

“For now, CEOs of small and mid-sized companies are taking good advantage of the strong economy — if they can find and retain the workforce they need to grow,” said Scot McRoberts, executive director of the Virginia Council of CEOs.

Elissa Mast, CEO of E&R Sales, a Chesterfield County-based distributor of balloons and pens to retail stores nationwide, said she thought 2019 was going to be a difficult year because of an anticipated slowdown in the economy, along with a national helium shortage that has affected her business.

“Instead, we are going to beat our 2018 top-line numbers” for 2019, Mast said.

While she would not describe the economy as robust, she said the business has not experienced an expected dip.

Mast said she added about 10% to her staff in the fourth quarter and now employs 45 people, up from her usual staffing number in the low 30s for this time of year.

Some were temporary, seasonal hires such as college students, but Mast said she hopes to retain them at least through the second quarter of 2020 and possibly beyond.

“We are expecting growth in 2020,” Mast said.

The survey was conducted Dec. 3-12, and 76 CEOs responded from industries including construction, manufacturing, finance, insurance and retail.

The average company whose CEO responded to the survey had about $12 million in revenue for the most recent 12-month period. The average employment was about 60.

More than 42% of CEOs said they expect capital spending to increase in the next six months, up nearly 10 percentage points from last quarter.

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