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When Josh Broder heard in mid-February that the novel coronavirus was already spreading overseas, it didn’t take him long to ask his coworkers to marshal a plan that safeguarded workers and continued business.
“I think this likely will become widespread, so please develop a contingency plan,” Broder, who is CEO of Portland-based Tilson Technology, wrote in a Feb. 21 email to his workforce vice president. “If we don’t take any control measures, with a company our size we can expect 12 to 24 deaths.”
With work-from-home, physical-distancing and other measures the company put into place, those casualties did not happen. Tilson, which has 600 employees in 20 states, only had one employee in another state test positive and recover.
Broder, Hancock Lumber CEO Kevin Hancock and Sea Bags CEO Don Oakes spoke about how they are reinventing their companies to deal with COVID-19 at the Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce’s Eggs & Issues virtual breakfast on Wednesday.
Broder said that when he first heard of the coronavirus spread, he emptied the company’s offices quickly. Tilson had broad exposure nationally, including an office in Seattle, where one of the earliest outbreaks of the virus happened in the U.S. White collar employees worked from home, while those installing and maintaining equipment outside continued to work in small groups as essential workers.
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A big downside for the company is not being able to meet potential and current clients face-to-face or having employees engage in on-the-fly discussions at work.
“We feel like we’re on borrowed time a bit on the organic relationships that happen and evolve when people work together,” he said, adding that Zoom meetings don’t meet everyone’s needs. “We’ve worked hard to recreate some of those more organic moments where people can connect and talk about things that are not a scheduled meeting.”
For Hancock, whose Casco-based lumber business was deemed essential, one of the biggest challenges is that a big part of the business is onsite lumber manufacturing. He gave employees at the company’s 14 Maine locations the choice of whether they wanted to come to work or apply for unemployment.
“Everybody wanted to work,” he said. “Taking that extra time to allow the employees to really choose their path has had a really big impact. I think the people on our teams are really owning the responsibility for making this work together.”
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The company reengineered its manufacturing process to include more cleaning, 6-foot distancing and additional partitions between workers. Hancock said a surprise was that overall safety performance improved as did overall productivity.
Oakes, CEO of Portland-based Sea Bags, also let employees choose between work and taking a voluntary furlough. The company, which makes tote bags out of used sails, had 15 stores operating and another 17 seasonal stores in 13 states when the pandemic hit the United States. It closed stores state-by-state according to local regulations.
Oakes said his immediate reaction to the virus was to help the company survive, so he started building up cash by drawing down the company’s line of credit at the bank. He also looked carefully at spending and expenses. Perhaps the biggest move was to get declared an essential business by the state by starting to make face coverings.
The company sold 28,000 face masks in its first two months of production, 25,000 of them at cost to organizations across the state and the City of Portland. It also donated about 800 coverings to Maine veterans homes and 75 State Street, an assisted living facility in Portland. Soon, it was selling the face coverings online.
It also began to collaborate with other businesses to sell tote bags online filled with various items for different occasions, such as chocolate from Wilbur’s of Maine for Easter.
Getting employees back into the office once pandemic restrictions were eased turned out to be a trial-and-error exercise. One of the workarounds for employees returning to the Portland office, but who were concerned about being in too close quarters, included a new second-floor entrance to the building. But Oakes soon learned that it created a problem: workers still had to go to the first floor to punch in and out on the time clock. The company subsequently installed a second time clock upstairs.
Still, after what Oakes called a great start of the year, April became the first time in its history that the company experienced a loss. Sales were down 13 percent compared to the previous April, and sales in May were down 32 percent.
But he sees some upside when the retail stores reopen throughout the country.
“I’m happy to say that within a couple of weeks we’ll be able to call employees back,” he said.
Watch: Janet Mills announces changes to June 1 reopening phase