No one knew back in March 2020.
No one knew the paradigm shift COVID-19 would cause, how it would impact the way we live, the way we communicate, the way we teach our children and, yes, the way we do business.
The tumult of this global pandemic reshaped the world’s economy. Businesses had to scramble. Companies had to shift priorities. Leaders had to make tough decisions to survive in this new reality.
But moments like this epitomize “A Life of Climb,” the CEO’s leadership journey. And while that journey is filled with twists and turns, ups and downs, victories and setbacks, great leaders continue upward. They take on those challenges and become stronger in the process.
“When you have the courage to take action, you not only see what you’re capable of, you see what is possible, and you continue to get stronger and more innovative,” says Vistage speaker and “Chaos Coach” Corinne Hancock.
Meet four Vistage members who found ways to recover amid the pandemic and grow their businesses. These CEOs unearthed new outlets, took the initiative, leveraged their resources and made big bets. They didn’t wait for the storm to break; they broke the storm.
Here’s how they did it, not only in their own words, but also from the perspectives of their Chairs. See how they continued to climb and what lessons they learned along the way.
Interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity.
CEO and President, MAGNET: The Manufacturing
Advocacy and Growth Network
Vistage member since 2016
We’re probably among the weirdest of Vistage members. We are a nonprofit manufacturing consultancy. We sell consulting services, engineering, sales and marketing strategy, operations excellence, and new product development. We lead the sector in various workforce development efforts. Our goal is to grow jobs and get people into those great careers in Northeast Ohio. Our region’s economy is half dependent upon manufacturing.
When COVID hit, business stopped. We got a Paycheck Protection Program loan, and we had grant funds. We could have just sat on our bums and said, “Let’s ride this thing out.” But about a week before the shutdowns in Ohio, one of our local hospital systems brought a prototype for a ventilator part to one of my vice presidents. I off-handedly approved it. “Yeah, sure. Build that. Sounds good.” It was not two weeks later that the pictures of New York nurses wearing garbage bags and people wearing the same masks for weeks at a time started flooding the news.
That prototype? We realized we could do it again. We had connections to the manufacturers and the knowledge in our engineering staff to figure out the supply chains and supply chain alternatives. So we started doing that, but very quickly we realized that we didn’t have to do this alone. In fact, at the state level, there were other groups, such as the Ohio Manufacturers’ Association, that would be interested in helping. They could be our partners. They could have a broader reach. We could find anybody in the state who had an idea on a way to help the situation and help them make it happen.
That quickly turned into an initiative by Ohio’s Governor, Mike DeWine, who had made a call for manufacturers to help. We had 2,000 manufacturers step up in two days. So we kept on working. In responding to every single one of those manufacturers, we realized that the reactive approach was not going to be enough. There were products that we could design, and we could go and find the manufacturers to make them. We could create our own supply chains.
In three months, with those 2,000 manufacturers, we ended up making millions of pieces of PPE. And those are just the ones we specifically designed. We coordinated with 30 companies to come together and make a million face shields in less than five weeks. We made a million swabs, and there’s a Vistage connection here. A member of my group wanted to make these swabs, and we had the connections to vendors and to the hospital systems to make it all work.
We made a million cotton face masks produced by a thousand Amish workers, hand-sewn, delivered to a network in the southwest portion of Ohio. We then realized that that was not going to be sustainable. We needed automation. We designed automated systems and had them built; they’re the first of their kind in the country. Now they make 100,000 masks a day, and they’re producing millions for the state of Ohio.
Lessons learned: If we can capture some of that innovative spirit, help companies see that investment in their businesses and their innovation is not just good for their financial future but for their kids’ and our region’s financial future, that would be amazing.
We saw in Ohio what collaboration can do. We had companies, nonprofits, lobbyists, the government, all working together to make this stuff happen, and it was powerful. It further brought to light how much we need to invest in talent development to fill open positions. There are great, well-paying careers if we figure out how to fix the workforce system that brings new employees into manufacturing and retains them through advancement.
And I would not have been in the position to have helped do any of this without Vistage. During the last six or seven months, I had my peers encouraging me. They were the little bird in my ear saying, “You guys can do more.” I give so much credit to my group and my Chair, Cheryl McMillan, for pushing and helping me through all of the strategic decisions that every Vistage member makes. Because of what I learned from them, we were well-positioned to do all of this.
CEO, Weekends Only
Missouri, Illinois and Indiana
Vistage member since 2018
As a furniture retailer, we’ve been focused on e-commerce as a big part of our growth platform for a number of years, and that goes with continuing to expand the store network in smaller, midsize markets of 400,000 to a million in population. We were close to having the lease signed for a new store back in March when the pandemic hit.
It put things on pause. As soon as cases were announced in our local markets, we started to see an immediate drop in sales. And then as cases began to mount, we started to see some responses from local governments. By the middle of March, we were considering whether or not to stay open. Then the local governments made that decision for us: We were effectively closed for seven to eight weeks, depending on the location.
The issue was the definition of essential versus nonessential business. We thought of Best Buy, Staples, and Office Depot. They’re considered essential because they fit in this traditional idea of a home office. And as we got deeper into the pandemic, we realized that we were also essential to this expanding idea of a remote workforce. I mean, I was working from my dining room table. We’re all looking for flat surfaces for our work stuff.
We also saw e-commerce sales grow each week that we were closed, so we certainly realized, “OK, there’s still a demand for furniture.” The week the stimulus checks came out was a record week for us online.
I began to really study the Stay at Home order and the definition of essential and nonessential. And based on personal experience, the experience of folks I was talking to, plus the definition of essential business, I said, “We can reopen as essential. We’re going to reopen.”
I sent letters to the St. Louis County Executive. And then did the same thing over in Illinois, basically letting them know, we plan to reopen on May 15. When the city of Fairview Heights (Illinois) said, “Hey, you guys can’t be open,” we said, “Yeah we can,” and we referenced the Stay at Home order, the definition of essential business, and let them know that we contacted the state and had no response. They relented and said, “Okay. You guys can stay open.”
We were also able to file for a Paycheck Protection Program loan and secured one a few days before the first tranche ran out. Initially, we made the decision to lay off our part-time staff and announced the layoff on a Monday. I got the details from my bank and some insight into what was going to be in the PPP legislation in the CARES Act on Wednesday of that week. That Thursday of the same week, we called back all the part-timers. So, in effect, we never laid them off and we actually paid all of the retail associates to stay home for eight weeks, both part-time and full-time.
The biggest lesson I’ve learned is how important e-commerce platforms are going to be, and how it’s going to continue to grow exponentially over time. In order to do that, you still require a brick-and-mortar presence. Eighty percent of our sales are still in the store. People still want to touch it, feel it, make sure it’s the right color, and that it fits before they purchase furniture.
The other thing is, I’m just grateful for the resilience I’ve seen in the folks who work in the business at all levels. Their dedication to the business and to our customers has been humbling.
Finally, the power of Vistage for me has been the power of community. To have people share their COVID protocols and say, “Hey, here’s what we’re doing in my office,” certainly provided reassurance. And the meetings gave me some sense of normalcy. We’re still meeting every month. We’re still talking. My one-to-ones are still going on. They may be on Zoom, but they’re still going. That’s been incredibly powerful and, mentally, very good for me.
Founder and owner, The Option Group
Vistage member since 2020
At The Option Group, we provide private case management, advocacy, and placement services for families with a loved one declining cognitively or physically, due to age, catastrophic injury, chronic disease or disability. We assess and create a care plan to support them so they’re safe, independent and comfortable — either in their home or at a facility that can offer the care they need.
Things turned upside down when COVID came. We had case managers, social workers, nurses and people in the field who were no longer able to access facilities where many of our vulnerable clients resided. I had also purchased a 1950s-themed adult medical day center franchise in Maryland. We had to put all that on hold because Maryland adult day centers were one of the first the state closed down. That was supposed to be our big growth opportunity for 2020.
Also, we deal with a population that’s been greatly affected by COVID-19, and we couldn’t get into facilities. It was a CDC and a state of Maryland requirement to close the doors and not allow outsiders to come in. They wanted to protect the people and staff from exposure. The problem is we have clients who are non-communicative. Their loved ones aren’t allowed to enter facilities and they’re unable to leave, so we had to find ways to stay in touch and advocate from afar.
We got Zoom and other technologies so we could see our clients and get more information. But you’d have to schedule an appointment, and the staff member would stand there holding the iPad or cell phone, so clients weren’t able to freely speak or have private conversations with their families.
We followed that up with the GrandPad, a tablet designed for seniors. We would program their “circle of trust” into the tablet so they could contact them. They would see their daughter’s picture, hit send, and immediately they’re in a video chat. It was a way for them to talk to family members whenever they wanted. This also allows telehealth, so physicians could stay in touch with patients.
Getting the GrandPad to our clients has become quite a success. It helps families stay connected and helps us do our job better. It’s actually become a marketing tool for some facilities to bring in clients hesitant about moving into an assisted living facility.
We had a Vistage speaker, Mark Debinski, talk about artificial intelligence and how to use technology right around the time I was researching the GrandPad. So the timing of that speaker was great. It gave me some insights to think about as I moved forward with that program and created processes.
While this was happening, a colleague in Pennsylvania was looking to retire. And it just was good timing. Again, I wasn’t really planning to expand, but we made the purchase and now we’re in five counties in South Central and Southeastern Pennsylvania, and I recently spoke with a colleague in a couple of other states about doing the same thing.
To do that, we had to think creatively. I was able to get a Paycheck Protection Program loan, which carried the payroll. We were able to come up with some new programs that families were asking for — care management and advocacy for private groups. And we continued to do what we do well. We’re excited to say we’re actually growing. We’ve hired three people since things shut down, and families are looking to us now more than ever to help them navigate this crazy health care situation.
One of the biggest takeaways from all this has been solving problems. We have to think creatively to create our care plans, but now we have to manage our own care and find ways to do what we do differently … and as well as before. This entire summer, we met with our clients outdoors. We do all the protocols of taking temperatures and making sure we’re not exposing our clients, but we’re also trying to think one step ahead and get protocols in place early. We’ve had to be versatile, flexible and creative.
The funny thing is, our Vistage group started in March of 2020. So we had one meeting before everything shut down. But we gelled very quickly and we’ve become a really tight-knit group. We’ve had weekly Zoom meetings, but we’ve continued to do our in-person meetings using the safety protocols. We’re distancing, but we all feel that we benefit greatly by being together. So I’ve been really pleased to be at Vistage, and I joined at a really auspicious time.
Co-owner and Co-founder, ILLUME Advising
Vistage member since 2020
At our core, ILLUME is a time and materials business serving the energy industry, primarily the electric utility industry and natural gas utilities throughout the United States. We support those utilities in the design, evaluation and strategy around clean energy programs and initiatives by centering the experiences and energy-saving efforts of the consumer or the end-user.
We started the year in a very healthy place, working with clients and plugging along when we started to get news of what was going on in Wuhan. When COVID hit, our greatest challenge was that we have a predominantly female workforce at ILLUME. About 80% of the people on our team are women and parents with young children. We travel all over the United States as a consultancy, serving over 50 investors on utilities — we’re on planes constantly.
We had to quickly pivot. We moved everything that we were doing operationally in terms of research and our client engagement efforts online, trying to understand how to change our core operations. We went from meeting in person and with clients to having to work in a fully distributed way with everybody in their homes.
Then the school closings followed, so now we have a workforce very much sandwiched between their consulting careers and delivering childcare and/or schooling their kids online. Consulting is a very difficult business; high levels of productivity are required all the time. So we went through a number of different things to provide support to our staff. We brought in a mental health expert to discuss mental health and well-being. We gave our team the tools to self-assess and support their colleagues when somebody was having a very difficult time. We offered flex hours and schedules, providing resources to parents and to all of our staff. Rather than waiting for employees to come to us, we proactively tried to determine what their needs were.
Externally, our clients were really interested in understanding how they should change their programs and their initiatives. That got us thinking, “How can we continue to serve our mission, our goal of bringing about a clean energy transition when we can’t actually go to people’s homes?” We refocused our marketing budget toward an in-depth set of webinars. We brought in experts from various fields and levels of expertise to specifically tackle problems: How do we redesign our programs? How do we continue to support our trade allies? Support small businesses that are under financial duress?
With these “fireside chats,” we found we were opening a lot of doors for new clients. It also created this trust with our distinct clients, and it has continued to serve as a platform to address their questions with our team or third-party experts. When the industry started to tackle questions of racial injustice — questions that have been on the margins for a while like who benefits from the production of clean energy and who doesn’t — we used our platform. We invited the people doing this work in communities, nationally and in various organizations to give voice to those topics our clients wanted to hear about.
For me, and I’m sure this is true for my business partner (fellow Co-founder and Vistage member Sara Conzemius), one lesson I’ve learned is you have to get good with vulnerability. You are no more an expert on public health than any other business owner. You have to get comfortable taking decisive action absent perfect information. So Sara and I have been very transparent with our team, and we have said, “Look, we know that this isn’t a perfect solution. Ask us your questions, question our judgment, but know that we’re in this with you and we’re doing the best that we can right now.”
In creating that sort of psychological safety for this really complicated moment, I learned really quickly that we had to be very clear on our expectations of people’s performance while providing all of the flexibility because the company still has to run.
Establishing greater clarity within our team and focusing on key results areas, was something that came out of a Vistage meeting and presentation with Vistage Chair and speaker Tom Foster, and that was really impactful. When he talked about current areas of responsibility, it became very apparent that we needed to really provide that specificity to our team and they were very grateful for that. But also in my one-on-one meetings with my Vistage Chair Katina Koller, I was able to have a space to have all of the conversations I needed to have. And there’s something incredibly valuable about just having an outlet.