Northeast Ohio Mid-sized Companies are surviving in unprecedented times

April 27, 2020
Kirk Neiswander

Question: How are Northeast Ohio Mid-sized Companies surviving in unprecedented times and preparing for Governor DeWine’s decision to begin reopening Ohio businesses on May 1st?

Answer: By talking to fellow CEOs for group reasoning, the sharing of worthwhile ideas and strategies, and psychological assurances.

Nothing brings people together like a crisis, and a group of middle-market CEOs in Northeast Ohio is using tools developed in the Great Recession to battle the Coronavirus Pandemic right now.

Through the financial crisis of 2008 to the current pandemic, one observation made is that when leaders share their knowledge, current challenges, and opportunities, they are able to support each other in a very meaningful way.

A group of 15-20 mid-size company CEOs in NE Ohio have been teleconferencing every week since the first appearance of COVID-19 in our region to share information about ensuring workplace safety, maintaining positive work culture, navigating operational challenges, preparing for pending supply chain issues and of course, preparing for “the new normal” ahead. They are giving each other advice, ideas, encouragement and support, even sharing with leaders outside the group as well. Zoom calls have worked well so far for groups ranging from 10 – 25, with a strong facilitator, an established agenda, pre-identified questions and a good lead off example by one of the participants.  It is important to hear from everyone in the group as some of quietest members have the best ideas.

Idea sharing has also worked for leaders in HR, IT, Sales, family businesses, and smaller growth companies as they manage through the pandemic.  For example, IT leaders are sharing information about setting up remote workers en masse while dealing with new challenges of cybersecurity, mobility, procuring devices and accessibility.  HR leaders are tackling legal and policy issues as well as sharing strategies for keeping their organizations positively engaged.  Sales leaders are finding productive ways to build an even closer relationship to their customers as they uncover opportunities to create new value.

Indeed, companies that exist to grow in value know that “good things grow when ideas flow.”  

Here are some thoughtful issues that mid-sized CEOs are discussing:

  • Keep people safe and supported.

If people are not safe, soon you will find you don’t have many to work!   Companies are implementing safety ideas such as developing safety teams, increasing the amount of time between shifts so that there is no in-person handoff, splitting lunch breaks into much smaller groups, closing certain common areas such as small kitchens, developing multiple shifts to reduce chances of exposure, or requiring that employees who have to work in the field phone in daily temperature checks.  Have a plan in place for if or when an employee tests positive, including respecting appropriate HIPAA and HR practices. Even as Ohio starts to officially “re-open,” companies have considered creating a standard proclamation that they would sign showing all the safety precautions they are taking and adhering to. 

  • Communicate transparently with stakeholders.

This extends to your suppliers, customers, employees and professional service providers like your banker.  “Trust is ultimately your must.”  It follows that communication must be frequent, authentic and in many forms.  One-on-one meetings take on a newfound importance, so that employees have a means to express personal worries without concern for peer pressure or maintaining privacy.  To eliminate some anxieties, allow for post it notes in the lunchroom for employee comment and suggestions.  It is also a good idea to express frequent gratitude for those helping to keep things moving, while being supremely compassionate with those who may be dealing with a lot right now. The more employees read the doom and gloom in various publications, the more they worry about their safety and on-going employment. Dealing with psychology is an important management priority.

  • Stay close to remote employees. 

While working at home may be old hat to consulting firms or tech firms, it is new to many mid-sized companies.  Now is the time to develop a work-at-home policy that speaks to topics such as workspace, internet connectivity, and childcare.  Maintaining company culture requires extra consideration and effort, especially if employees are not working on the premises.  Daily routine is just as important as when people are together in person.  Companies are taking steps such as conducting all company Zoom calls, holding functional meetings at the exact same time as during normal times, or having daily check-in meetings at the end of each day.  Companies are even focusing on the positive, whether that means starting off all calls with good news, sharing a joke of the day on daily check-in meetings, or hosting virtual happy hours.  Many companies are saying that remote employees are very productive and happy not to deal with commuting, so you should consider now whether elements of work at home remain permanent.   

  • Don’t lose sight of vacation planning when there are fewer places to go. 

With cancelled school spring breaks and a decimated travel infrastructure, vacation has not been on people’s mind in quite the same way.  Plan now in case you have a crush of vacation requests later in the year that are not compatible with your operational needs.  Some companies are modifying their vacation buy-back or year-end carryover policies.    

  • Look for opportunities to serve your stakeholders in new ways

While you may not recoup your investments immediately, you will gain much more in relationships.   Give your employees opportunities to learn new technical and leadership skills.  Help your customers and suppliers solve problems.  Use time to experiment and innovate!  Economic downturns aren’t always a great time to find new customers, but they can be the best time to find new friends. 

  • Reduce Costs

Unfortunately, many businesses face the immediate need to reduce costs.  Consider asking your workforce for volunteers.  Some employees may feel safer staying at home and relying on savings or the income of a partner.  If you can at all afford it, continue to offer healthcare at a time when it could be needed more than ever.  Do whatever you can to maintain a good connection to your workforce so that they are more likely to return when times get better.  Some companies are going as far as providing hardship grants to employees in need.  Also, consider renegotiating contracts or terms of service with your bank, your customers, and your supply chain.

  • Be aware of changes in supply chains and develop contingency plans.

While many companies are struggling right now, many are serving thriving essential markets and are concerned about medium and longer-term impacts on supply chains. Consider contingency plans now for domestic options to help serve customers.

  • Plan accordingly for contraction and subsequent expansion. 

What parts of your business will lag behind or be leading indicators of change?  What opportunities will you have once conditions bottom out and begin to expand again?  When will be the right time to invest in new assets?  One company describes having multiple contingencies – including the “basement” and “bomb-shelter” plans – and is re-prioritizing resources to growth opportunities. Even when the virus threat peaks and starts to go down, the economic impact could be felt for many more months and years to come.

The predominant question most business executives wonder about is the length of the economic downturn and how deep it will go.  This unknown makes it tough for business planning, but it does not take away the need to do it.  Planning for multiple possible timelines and outcomes is essential. As we look to the future, get used to more virtual meetings and physically getting together a lot less often. Have we seen the end of the handshake?

One last observation: Everyone will remember a company and how its leadership dealt with employees, customers, and suppliers during very difficult times. Was the company truthful and honest and did the company communicate often and well? If well intended actions take place now during tough times, companies will have made a friend for life when times get better!

Published in Crain’s Cleveland Business, April 26, 2020: Personal View: Here’s what CEOs are discussing now

Kirk Neiswander is Founder and President of EDGE (Economic Development through Growing Enterprises) EDGE is a membership-driven non-profit organization focused on growing Northeast Ohio mid-market companies. EDGE helps leaders learn best practices, make sound business decisions and stay ahead of their competition.