As a global pandemic began to hit West Michigan, executives around the region stepped up to lead their organizations and their employees through the time of crisis.
Faced with an unprecedented challenge, CEOs in many cases prioritized the safety of their employees and customers over their ability to stay open and continue operating. With no end in sight to the global health crisis, the leaders also will face many extraordinary challenges in the weeks and months ahead. But through it all, they say they’re focused on effective internal and external communication, informed decision making and sound business practices to lead their employees through the tumultuous times.
In the days after the crisis began to upend daily life and operations in West Michigan, the MiBiz editorial team spoke separately with the following business leaders to hear more about how they are approaching leadership during the coronavirus pandemic:
- Franco Bianchi, president and CEO of Holland-based Haworth Inc.
- Joan Budden, president and CEO of Grand Rapids-based Priority Health
- Mark Eastburg, president and CEO at Pine Rest Christian Mental Health Services
- Pat Greene, president of Grand Rapids-based Cascade Die Casting Group Inc.
- Bryan Jones, CEO of Holland-based JR Automation
- John Kuiper, executive vice president at Colliers International in Grand Rapids
- Patti Poppe, president and CEO of Jackson-based Consumers Energy
- Tom Rizzi, CEO of Grand Haven-based auto supplier GHSP and executive vice president and COO of parent company JSJ Corp.
- Tim Schowalter, president and CEO of Grand Rapids-based Pioneer Construction
- Mike Stevens, president and co-founder of Grand Rapids-based Founders Brewing Co.
- Mary Anne Wisinski-Rosely, partner and office specialist at NAI Wisinski of West Michigan
Here are some highlights from what they had to say.
What kinds of long-term planning are you doing around coronavirus within your company?
STEVENS: We’re obviously looking at this daily. We have executive meetings every day at 9 a.m. to discuss the day’s events. Unfortunately, this thing is unfolding to unprecedented levels on a daily basis. So we’re devising plans … and looking outward well into summer and what that looks like. It’s our goal to do all we can to protect our employees and our community while trying to keep people employed to whatever extent we are able to and allowed to. Internally from a business perspective, we’re looking at our cash flows and what we can sustain in terms of length if this thing goes on. Fortunately, we’re in a decent position to withstand more, but we also have to be diligent as we look to the future and what can be accomplished. … As a society, it’s important that we all realize that the more we can do now to dampen this curve the better, because I think economically we don’t want this to stretch out to four months obviously. Right now, the priority is let’s all come together as a human race, and do the right things to protect all, so that we can get through this as quickly as possible.
SCHOWALTER: If the economy does go into recession and slow down, we expect to be impacted. Projects will be delayed or canceled. However it’s typically a one- to two-year lag that the construction industry feels as the rest of the economy slows down. There are projects underway that will be completed. The impact more so is in businesses that decide to wait on the decision to start a project they may be planning on for next year. We don’t know what we don’t know yet on the downstream impact. We’ve been through plenty of pandemics, but we’ve never been through something where the reaction to it has been this strong and this severe.
WISINSKI-ROSELY: Short term, there is going to be some impact. Closings can still happen, from what I can understand. If there’s been closings in the works, that will still happen. For the most part, short term, it will definitely impact us. It’s hard to say long term how it’s going to impact us. I try to think positive. There’s always a need for real estate, whether it’s to dispose of it, to downsize, to rightsize — there’s always going to be a need. Hopefully things will bounce back, things that have been put on hold will come back. It’s just a big unknown.
KUIPER: The folks that are managers or tenants for retail, they’re obviously dealing with an unprecedented situation where you’re more or less being told to shut down to some degree, which brings up the question of financial stability for the tenants. There’s obviously concern in the market as we’re trying to figure out what this looks like, but it may be that the best course of action right now is to remain calm and over communicate and try to stay up to date with where we’re at and what’s happening. … The bulk of warehouse and distribution companies are going to weather this very well. The crystal ball is cloudier on the retail side of things. That’s a hard one. There isn’t any historical data to point to.
POPPE: ‘Long term’ is an interesting time frame. It feels like each day is a long-term decision-making process. We’re certainly preparing to make sure power generation, gas compression and power and gas delivery assets are safe and available during the coming months. We’re preparing and have run worst-case scenarios in the event that a large number of our co-workers are affected, whether it’s self-quarantine because of someone in their family or because of work interaction. Current actions are to have rigorous implementation of social distancing, sanitizing and cleaning of all surfaces that our coworkers could come in contact with. I’ve had great conversations with some of the multi-national companies located here that operate in China and Italy and Michigan — like Stryker, Whirlpool and Dow Chemical. They’ve had great success globally where the virus is the epicenter in those countries. We’re absolutely copying and pasting policy standards with our own facilities and workforce.
BIANCHI: We are a global company, so we started to talk about coronavirus in early January because we have two plants in China. We have a very strong presence in Europe and in Italy where unfortunately the outbreak is quite significant. We are dealing daily since early January with the evolution, the twists and turns, the bad news, the government reaction, the state reaction, the local reaction, the people and the emotional reaction and the family component daily. Long term, I see we are doing a lot of scenario planning, but the truth is I think you see how the market is reacting, there is a lot of uncertainty. And so, we are preparing for multiple options, from the most optimistic to the most serious ones.
BUDDEN: We began to watch this when it emerged in China. It was the kind of thing where you could see the wave coming ashore from a long way out. We have actuaries on staff. I have probably one of the most renowned actuaries in the country and she’s done a great job forecasting ramifications on the number of cases. We’re trying to work with provider offices to make sure that they’re financially strong because we’re a partnership. We don’t have a product without the great providers delivering the care that our members need. We’re trying to think of it in a 360-degree way. It will accelerate how we work. It will accelerate how our provider partners work. It will accelerate a change on how members access the health care system and what they do around their care.
JONES: There is the immediate need of addressing what’s going on today, but you have to continue to focus as well on what the future holds and how this is ultimately going to change what the future even is. So it’s just trying to keep all those things in mind and at the same time making sure the team is taken care of in creative and new ways. How do we continue to have the conversations that need to be had from a virtual perspective? How do we make sure that our team continues to get the support and the enabling that they need to continue to do their jobs in a new way that’s obviously quite different than what it was previously?
RIZZI: From a business perspective, our long-term plans remain unchanged. Only the when and how of achieving them will change slightly. More importantly, we have significantly improved on our ability to manage a crisis and keep our employees safe during a health crisis like this one. We’ve learned. It’s one of our core values: Learn by doing. We have managed this well on a global level. … We predict a temporary drop in passenger car volume, globally, which we’ll have to adjust to, but all of the opportunities for us to provide technology solutions to the auto manufacturers still exist. However, we are seeing multiple new opportunities utilizing UVC disinfection technology together with our partner, UV Angel. We are actively working on projects to provide UVC disinfection technology in the passsenger car, appliance and commercial vehicle markets we serve and we made the strategic decision to move more resources to these opportunities.
EASTBURG: The situation is changing from moment to moment. We are at this moment 95-percent occupied with short-term planning. We have two areas of focus: How can we keep our patients, residents and staff safe, and how do we keep access to behavioral health going today, tomorrow, the next day and the next week? We are into the budget-planning season. How do we even think about our budget and our strategic planning for the next year? From what I’m hearing from the health care system, they’re anticipating what they’re calling ‘the surge’ in the coming weeks, so we’re not really looking beyond the surge in terms of our energy.
From a business leadership perspective, what are your top priorities right now beyond keeping workers safe?
STEVENS: We’re minimizing exposure best we can by not allowing the public into the facility. We’ve greatly increased sanitation practices. In production, we’ve implemented work units that are isolated units amongst themselves. So should anyone get infected, that whole unit can be pulled out and another unit put right in place. It’s a way of isolating any kind of spread that might or might not incur. Fortunately, to date, we don’t have any cases, and I think isolating these units greatly allows us to protect our folks in terms of that exposure. I think just a lot of common sense and social distancing, and increased sanitation practices paired with breaking these units into work units (is going to) minimize any kind of spread and keep people safe.
SCHOWALTER: Not all projects will need to stop, and the reason for that is many of our clients fall under the category of essential businesses as defined in the executive order. If our clients fall under any one of those categories, they will make a designation that their contractors and suppliers are also an essential infrastructure supplier. Therefore those projects will continue to move forward.
WISINSKI-ROSELY: We have closed our office so pretty much everybody is working remotely. I’m still working even though I’m at home, and I have some clients working on some projects. New stuff is something to be seen, how much of that is going to happen in the next three weeks. There has been some discussion with Michigan realtors, with the governor’s office, as to whether we are considered a critical service or not. I don’t believe there’s been any determination on that that I’m aware of. It’s more or less staying in touch with our clients. My plan moving forward is to stay in touch with clients, to reach out to past clients to see if I can assist them. It is a good opportunity in that regard.
POPPE: Liquidity is No. 1. We know we have customers who have been shut down by the governor’s orders. So the revenue impact of those decisions obviously has an effect on our business. We’ve done all sorts of stress-testing and worst-case scenarios to confirm we have adequate cash flow and liquidity in place. We’re being prudent on expenditures that are discretionary so we can still achieve our financial objectives in the face of the uncertainty. It really is about stress-testing our original plan for the year against these new assumptions. That scenario planning has been very powerful for us to work through bookends of what could potentially happen. We’re running stress tests as we speak, doing it in real time.
BIANCHI: This moment that we are living in will have a profound economic impact and we have to delay as much as we can that economic impact to the paycheck of our workers, to the company, to the future, to our clients and to the state. … We closed very good in 2019 and we entered very strong into 2020. Our numbers are strong and our backlog pretty much everywhere is very strong. With that, we are starting to see the beginning of a reduction in orders. I would say it’s not extremely significant at this stage. With that in mind, we are planning for various future scenarios that include the different degrees of business reduction. We connect those scenarios to a strong balance sheet, but we are going to be very careful and connect all the scenarios to cash to make sure that the company will continue to stay strong.
BUDDEN: I’m a believer that when there’s chaos, there’s opportunity as well, so I love some of the innovation that’s occurred with new businesses doing hand sanitizers and face masks. That’s great. What we’re trying to say is what could we do differently to make our interaction with members, providers, agents, employers more efficient and more productive. What haven’t we thought of? What opportunities does this provide to us to really think about how we do our business differently?
JONES: First and foremost, it’s keeping our workers safe. That’s an easy one to answer. Secondary would be doing everything we can to take care of our customers’ needs during this time while keeping in mind and respecting the order that’s in place from the governor, and then trying to best interpret that from the perspective of the state’s guidelines.
RIZZI: Keeping employees safe, comfortable and calm in the workplace — in all our facilities globally — is top priority. This is not new for us. It is also very important for me to remind employees that they are important. They are what drives our success. Despite the recent and significant shortage of work in our North American plants driven by OEM shutdowns and the associated revenue drop we are experiencing, we have offered more than two weeks of additional paid time off to our production workforce to support them during this difficult time. This is one example of demonstrating our commitment to our workforce. Lastly, I like to remind employees that we’ve been in business for 100 years, we’ve seen other times of crisis, we’ll learn and grow and survive through this one, too.
EASTBURG: Making sure that we’re paying people. Making sure that our billing, coding and receiving reimbursement happens. That’s the lifeblood of an organization like ours. The back-office work continues to be vitally important, so our accounts team and finance team are working really hard to make sure that happens. Most or all of them are at home or able to work from home.
What does this situation call for from an executive leadership perspective?
STEVENS: It’s important that we reflect inward and be very transparent — as transparent as we can. That’s what we’re doing at Founders. As a leader, you have to step up, and be very open with the situation at hand, but also provide support and a positive message. We’re going to get through this. It’s going to be tough. It’s a scary time. It’s going to get worse before it gets better. But we will get through it, and I think it’s important that we try and send that message as well. It’s just important to remember that there’s a human element here, and as a leader you have to be sensitive to that, and you have to respect all concerns from all of your employees.
POPPE: At the heart of it, it’s all communication, both internal and external. I have a great team. We have an incident command structure in place, right out of the Department of Homeland Security Emergency Response System. It allows us to interface well with state and federal emergency response resources and enables this very smooth communication flow. In a crisis, if too many people are talking to too many people, it can get very confusing very fast. The other form of communication is to my co-workers. I have been using direct means of communication. With great tools, I can do quick videos right from my desk. We have an employee app, email and social media. Eighty-eight percent of my co-workers said they feel they’re getting the communication they need and we’re handling the situation well. We have daily safety briefings and I’m directly communicating and reassuring co-workers with their mental health in mind. For a lot of people this is extraordinarily stressful because it’s so uncertain. Because so many meetings are remote, we added a mental check-in at the end: How is everybody doing? We’re finding people are fundamentally green at work, the system is in control, but they’re red or yellow at home. Maybe it’s an elderly parent, or there’s something going on at home, maybe a child who is scared.
BIANCHI: Most of the leaders in the world have a title that suggests that they should be leading, but also we can see even with the people without a title where leadership really makes the difference. History will tell us how good of a job we are doing, but I think we have to keep people connected to a bigger purpose of one team, one company, one goal. We have to make sure that people communicate often to be very transparent. We are in the moment of no rumors, so we need to try to stay in front of most of the rumors inside the company and all the rumors outside of the company. You have to be present and visible. I try to be, and all of that in a local and in a global company organization is an interesting exercise, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. You have to communicate often, you communicate transparently and you have to communicate quickly because what makes sense today, in two days could feel false and out of place. You have to be truthful, which I think I try to do every day. You have to be you because at this moment, people will see through you very quickly. They understand when communications are fake.
BUDDEN: As a leader, my job is to remain calm and to evoke confidence to the people I work with and the people I serve. We are here to serve. We have our members and employees’ best interests in mind and we’re here for the long run. We have a very good group of dedicated, well-intentioned, committed employees that are trying to help the members that we serve. Being overly emotional or to not have a calm demeanor will just create more chaos in the world, not help it.
JONES: I think one of the biggest best practices right now is just simply over-communicate. If you think that you’ve communicated something well, communicate it again and communicate those things often. Because again, in an environment where things are changing very, very rapidly, I think it’s critically important that even if something hasn’t changed, we communicate that it’s still the same. Really driving home those things that we do know, the things that we don’t know, and the things that we’re working on.
RIZZI: When things started to get really bad two weeks ago, I lengthened the duration of my daily huddle with my executive team and cash flow became one of the key metrics we started talking about on a daily basis. Managing cash is also not new to us, but we need to keep this in the forefront of our decision making now.
EASTBURG: It requires lots of communication among leaders. We have a daily response team meeting where we have 20 to 25 leaders in the organization on the call, going through what’s going on, how has the situation changed since we met yesterday. We’re constantly forming sub-teams to work on different projects. That sort of response team, huddle, crisis management — it’s a critical nuts and bolts, logistical requirement. It also requires really, really good communication. We have ramped up communication and we’re getting out notices twice a day to staff of critical information. We’re sending information out if something changes that people need to know about now. We’re creating short video clips that are viewable by all staff talking about how their work is different. It’s the housekeeping staff talking about how their work is different. It’s a nurse talking about how their work is different. I’ve done a couple of addresses talking about where we are as an organization, rather than send typed emails. Let people tell their stories. That’s important, to keep the human connection that’s harder to have right now.
What’s your best advice for employees who are looking to you for guidance in this era of uncertainty?
STEVENS: Because everybody manages this stress level differently, I just try to reiterate and reassure them that their worries and their concerns are top priority for us, and every decision we make on a daily basis is really centered around the wellbeing of our people. I think Founders is in a fortunate enough position where we can weather this storm. I think the human element is paramount and more critical than the business element at this point. I think as long as we can send that message and stay focused on that initiative, we’ll be able to get through this with some positive messaging, and keep people comfortable with the way our business is moving forward.
POPPE: I think there’s real power in maintaining that social distance, rigorous sanitizing and cleaning and hand-washing. They’re simple measures but they work. Then feeling optimistic and proud of the vital service that we provide. I’m extraordinarily proud of my team. I’ve been out in the field with some of our crews. They’re working, and working safely. In a time when all of these things are outside of our control, to zero in on what you can control and know one can make a difference — that feels pretty good.
BIANCHI: Stay current with communication. Stay close to the leader of your company by listening and being open. Hopefully, we have created inside the company a culture where people are not shy. If they don’t understand, they ask questions. If they do not agree, they talk to their leader. Ultimately, they even talk to me. They know that they can even talk to me or to the family. Never like today have people needed to be transparent but at the same time, they have to understand the context and stay current on all communication. A cool head is also a very important component of the right level of a behavior and right level of action.
BUDDEN: What I want to tell them is I care about them and I care about their health. We’re doing everything we can to make sure they are safe. Our number-one mission is serving our members and we do that through our providers, and I promise that we have a lot of talented people working on how to do this best and keep our company sound so we can be here in the future to help other people.
JONES: Stay engaged in the process. Things are changing very, very rapidly and sometimes even multiple times per day. Give grace where you can. There are a lot of things that just simply are not known at this time or are changing very quickly. I know a lot of people want answers and they want to be secure in those answers. The reality of it is that there are not many good, stable answers at this point other than the general human desire to make sure that we take care of our employees and that we take care of each other. That’s the biggest thing. How do you give grace in that situation when there are so many unknowns and there are so many things that are not clear.
RIZZI: Frequent communication, staying calm, showing empathy and support for what employees are going through, and reassuring them that we’ll get through this together.
EASTBURG: Reassurance that the leadership is working around the clock on your behalf, on behalf of patients to do the right thing to keep you safe, to find the personal protection equipment that you need. We’re part of a great team and family, and this is our moment as supervisors to step up and be what the community needs us to be. Health care workers around West Michigan are truly doing heroic work.