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Staying agile in the time of COVID-19

August 1st, 2020 / By: / Feature

Agility has emerged as the essential defining attribute of organizations able to respond to this crisis and chart a new, resilient course for the future.

by Jeff Moravec

Agility has always been something of a prerequisite for owning a company, and that skill set is clearly more valuable now than it ever has been. We asked business owners and a consultant about the types of agility the pandemic has required, how it has tested their business mettle and how they’ve adapted their workflow and procedures.

At Aztec Tents in Torrance, Calif., a medical partition wall system was among the products the company has shifted to during the pandemic, replacing its normal event rental products. Photo: Aztec Tents.

Plan to change your plans

We’re feeling fortunate that we’ve kept the pipeline relatively full, but in the big picture, it’s rough. There’s a small amount of work that we had pre-pandemic that’s continued, but there’s been major changes in products focused on the event rental industry. Many companies shifted gears and focused on medical needs, providing products they would traditionally use in an event marketplace to create triage facilities at hospitals. We came up with a medical partition wall system to create freestanding wall systems inside tents and other buildings being converted into medical facilities. We developed a product that utilizes existing hardware that many event rental companies already own to create fabric rooms. The fabric itself is vinyl and can be cleaned and disinfected; it has been very successful.”  

It’s not just products that have changed at Aztec Tents. Employees use face masks (left) and partitions (above) as part of the company’s implementation of safety standards. Photos: Aztec Tents.

Versatility and finding the right fit

“We were proactive to come up with the product, but as the need for medical assistance shifts and changes, what’s needed tomorrow is going to be different. Being versatile is very important. But anything new or different has to be the right fit for us; it has to fit within our general idea of what we produce. We’re not trying to totally pivot and make hospital gowns, for example; that’s not what our specialty is. Our specialty is making industrial coverings, partitions and tents, and tweaking that and providing answers to needs our customers have. That’s what we’re good at.”

Don’t get ahead of yourself

“We’ve come to realize you can’t get too far ahead of yourself, you can’t worry too much about tomorrow—because you really don’t know what tomorrow is going to bring. We’ve learned that thinking two or three weeks ahead of time is great in practice, but we’ve found the exercise needs more versatility to adjust as society and the industry change around us.”

Embrace new partners and new ways of working

This has been a bit of a challenge because we sell capital equipment—and when money starts to dry up or come into question, the first thing a lot of companies do is reconsider capital equipment. However, I am pleased with the amount of people who are still buying and growing their business. Things have been slow, but we’re lucky that we’re in a lot of different industries.”

Collaborate when possible

“One thing we’ve done in response to the pandemic is collaborate with other Northeast Ohio manufacturers to create and develop an emergency field hospital cot. We helped PioneerIWS develop a prototype for the mattress along with Seaman Corp., Snyder Manufacturing, Arise Tents and many other key contributors. More than 5,000 cots have been delivered to New York and Ohio, with additional interest from new ‘hot spots’ and distributors.”

A remote work convert

“I was a little old school about working remote, but based on what I’ve seen here, I think I’m going to change. Our sales, engineering and finance teams have all been working from home and it’s been just fine. Zoom and Microsoft® Teams have helped. The new normal may be that those who can work from home will continue to work from home. Our sales reps have been doing virtual demos, both on video and live, and it’s been working quite effectively. In the future, instead of me getting on a plane, I might just be okay with video.”

Trade show worries  

“I am concerned a little bit about trade shows. We can’t put our product in a briefcase and go see our customers. People need to come see and feel the machines. If no one is going to trade shows, the expense can be quite significant. There could be a different new normal there; I just don’t know what it might be yet.”

Make flexibility the new normal

The second week of March is when we realized we needed to get in front of this and started putting together our response plan. We quickly worked to try to figure out how to keep everybody safe and what we would do in case someone became infected. We cleared out the office, we put 30-minute breaks between our shifts to make sure we didn’t have any overlap, and we brought in a lot of PPE [personal protective equipment]. We cut out overtime—one person carrying over from one shift to the next defeats the purpose of having a break between the shifts. We were fortunate that about a year ago we implemented Microsoft Teams, so we were way ahead of the game on video conferencing. It was more luck than anything, but we’ll take it.”

Stay focused on improving operations

“We really haven’t changed our mix of business, not in the short term. We are not big enough to be able to just shift and add a lot of new products in that kind of time frame. Some of the things we thought we could have an opportunity to get into in the medical space I felt were going to be more short-lived than anything. It would eventually go away. So we have tried to focus on improving our operations and how we can better position ourselves coming out of this by adding new products that would benefit us more in the long run.”

Employees at Miller Weldmaster in Navarre, Ohio, use both masks and shields (above and below left) in the company’s production facility. Its sales, engineering and finance teams have all been working from home. Photos: Miller Weldmaster.

Employee flexibility makes a huge difference

“I would give all our staff an ‘A’ in this. We’ve thrown a lot of stuff at them; we changed how we operate in so many drastic ways. They have really taken it in stride. Some managers who were working 8 to 5 are now working third shift, doing whatever they can. It’s been awesome. We haven’t had any layoffs, as we’ve always kept a strong balance sheet and can make it awhile under these conditions. At the same time, a lot of people enjoy their overtime, and even though we’ve cut that out, no one questioned it. They understand why we were doing it.”

Pivot but stay focused on core competencies

It’s an advantage for fabricators if they are able to pivot away from their core competencies. Most all of these [companies] were in some way only two or three degrees removed from being able to produce masks or gowns. It was a pivot they could make, and hopefully keep their business afloat even if it was not as robust a revenue stream as before. It keeps their people employed, teaches them new skills, and that’s always good for a workforce.” 

Pivoting has pros and cons

“The drawback, especially in the early days, is that you’re so focused on the supply side that it’s hard to also have an eye on the demand side—and even if you have one, being able to find some reliable outlets or customers. Everybody thought that might be easy to do, but the small or medium companies have found it harder than they thought. They just didn’t have the relationships in those kinds of communities already established. It’s been a lot harder to find revenue opportunities or sales channels once they became competent at producing PPE.”

Burlan Mfg. in Gastonia, N.C., installed plastic partitions (above) and regularly takes employees’ temperatures (right) to guard against coronavirus transmission. Photo: Burlan Mfg. LLC.

Pivot from PPE to the future

“The question now is, how do you taper back to what your core competency had been and producing those kinds of products versus PPE, especially if you can’t do both? Pivoting back will be more art than science. I think there are some simple ways to get a sense of the downturn for the demands in PPE. First would be to remain current on the transition phases for states. Second would be to get a sense of market saturation with online searches for products similar to yours. Third, you could reach out to your local Chamber of Commerce and get a sense of what local companies are doing and the protection measures in place, or even the readiness measures they are taking for a similar event in the future.” 

Jeff Moravec is a freelance writer from Minneapolis, Minn.


SIDEBAR: Reaching Out

Ron Houle, founder and president of Pivot Step Consultants LLC, Burke, Va., encourages businesses to reach out to the community by donating products to neighbors and performing little acts of kindness. He says this is a win-win for the community and a company’s employees.

“The workforce feels better about itself and better about the company, and the community appreciates their corporate citizens. Companies can pivot to make masks or other things, but what else can you do as a company? Is there a cause or a need in the community that requires some volunteer efforts or manpower, or some other resources? This is an opportunity for a company and workforce to get experience with community service where maybe they normally wouldn’t, and that opportunity may not come back, at least for a long time.”