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A historical perspective to a historic pandemic

July 1st, 2020 / By: / Editorial

What is the biggest professional challenge you’ve overcome?

This is one of the standard questions Review asks the subjects of the Perspective cover article. While some responses are unique to an interviewee’s specific circumstances, the most common answer involves seeing a business through the economic impacts of 9/11 and the Great Recession. 

While the coronavirus pandemic is unprecedented, I keep coming back to the answers to that question to put this current challenge into context. For example, in the October 2019 issue,
Tom Auer, president of Bearse USA, described opening a factory
in Puerto Rico just before Hurricane Maria ravaged the island in 2017. “It was a little bit of a rough start, but we’ve been around
for 97 years,” he said. “It’s just a blip in our history.”

Indeed, survival stories in this industry aren’t limited to the crises within our lifetime. Many IFAI member companies carry with them the stories of past generations adapting and thriving. They are stories of immigrants bringing their skills to a new world, stories of struggling companies bringing in a new generation to reinvent the business, and stories of pivoting to meet a sudden need in the market. 

Here are a few examples: IFAI chairwoman Kathy Schaefer’s company, Glawe Awning and Tents, has evolved from manufacturing horse blankets and wagon covers in the late
1800s, to repairing dirigible balloons in WWII, to being one of the first U.S. tent companies to adopt clearspan technology. Tent manufacturer Anchor Industries was founded in 1892 as a riverboat supply house. English sailmaker Joseph Loane founded Loane Bros. on Baltimore’s Inner Harbor in 1815; by the second generation, the company was producing awnings, along with tents and flags for the Union Army during the Civil War.  

Four longtime members of the North East Canvas Products Association (NECPA), an IFAI-affiliated zone organization, tell similar stories in this issue. The president of one of the companies, Jamie Mills of Wm. J. Mills & Co., credits his company’s longevity to its adaptability. “I’ve always subscribed to the philosophy that what we do is manage change,” he says. “And sometimes change is what we create, and sometimes change is thrust upon us.”

Here’s my prediction: A couple of generations from now, the president of an IFAI member company will face a challenge we can’t even imagine. She’ll remember the story of how, when her grandfather was at the helm, the business survived by making face masks to fight a pandemic. And she’ll find a way to adapt and thrive.