four steps to business continuity after coronavirus


By: Vanessa McGrady

Most businesses try to expect the unexpected such as a fire or theft—that's what insurance is for, after all—but what happens when the entire global business community goes off the rails?

The Coronavirus pandemic resulted in plummeting employment and untold economic devastation. As in any disaster, however, resilience and the human spirit take the reins, and businesses of all sizes are shifting to meet the moment: Witness the pivots of high-end designers such as Christian Soriano who turned his attention to sewing masks; tractor manufacturer John Deere, which shifted to protective face shields for the medical community; and restaurants that turn into pop-up grocery stores.

Town Hall Brewery, a craft beer brewpub chain, has three locations in Minneapolis. Founder and President Pete Rifakes realized pretty quickly that he needed to change up his business or go bust when he saw an immediate 80 to 85 percent dip in revenue mid-March. He temporarily shuttered one location, furloughed hourly workers, and kept salaried employees. “We shifted our management people so we can fill the holes on each of those places. The biggest change that we made is that we're really doing an emphasis on to-go beer," he says.

This move was more critical in Minnesota than it might be in other states because the law doesn't allow breweries such as Rifakes' to sell their products in grocery stores or liquor stores.

Beer has a limited shelf life. Before the pandemic, it was mostly on tap to customers in the restaurant and bar. Now, he had to ramp up production to get the beer into 750 ml cans while it was still fresh. He'd run through his existing stash of canning supplies immediately, and the time to reorder and get delivery of new cans was four to six weeks out, so he tapped another brewer for blank silver cans and had a label designed and printed quickly. “We've gone through four thousand cans in the interim of the stopgap," he says.

Rifakes explains how the crisis has brought other industry issues into sharper focus—raising the minimum wage, sanitation practices and shifting to new models of ordering and service are all being tested in real time. I think restaurants are going to get healthier," Rifakes notes. “Every restaurant that reopens is going to have even more policies in place to make sure that people perceive the restaurant is clean, whether that's using disinfectants or wearing a mask and gloves and things like that."

Planning to Be Surprised

Scott Page is a John Seely Brown Distinguished University Professor at the University of Michigan and an expert in social science and business administration. He likens the multiple parameters that affect today's business climate to a “20-dimensional ping-pong table."

“You want to keep things in two dimensions. You want to keep the ping-pong ball on the table," he says. So that could mean there's a little wiggle room for debt ratios and inflation to rise a little. But when all the measurements of a business go off, that's when it's tough to keep the ball in the air. “When you've got a big event like this, an appropriate type of resiliency planning and thinking boils down to really monitoring your environment: act, sense, react, re-sense, react, re-sense, repeat," Page continues, adding that business operators need to take into account their suppliers, employees, communities, customers and shareholders.

Whether your business is rebounding from a recent crisis, or if you're planning for future resiliency, Page simplifies it by breaking down the continuation strategy into four steps:

1. Maintain function. Can you keep doing what you've always done? Or do you need to pivot? And how will you do that? Litty Mathew owns Greenbar Distillery in Los Angeles with her husband, they did two things differently when they realized they needed to shift their business model in March. The first—similar to Town Hall's—was to ramp up manufacturing of their craft cocktails in cans and get them into stores such as Whole Foods, as their wholesale business to restaurants and bars dried up overnight. The second was to start producing hand sanitizer at the bequest of Los Angeles' mayor—it wasn't a major moneymaker, but helped those who needed it most.

2. Keep employees and communities safe. What safety programs do you have in place to mitigate future disasters? What will you do if safety is on the line but you need to keep operating? “We have a strong safety program that works," Mathew says. “We have to because of what we do. The fact is, [a distillery is] dangerous and things can blow up. Because of that, we have a plan that is based on the safety of employees and neighborhood safety."

3. Retain a sense of purpose for your workers. Whether you're manufacturing widgets or making movies people love, how do you create a culture of meaningful work? According to Gallup, a whopping 62 percent of workers are now telecommuting, which can lead to feeling disconnected. And even in the best of times, just 23 percent of employees say that they are incorporating their company's values into their daily work. Gallup suggests trying to address the universal needs of hope, trust, stability and compassion, even if you need to figure out new ways to do so.

4. Communicate clearly. Finally, a clear communications strategy before, during and after a crisis is essential. Regular contact with employees, clients, board members, shareholders and others who have a stake in your business need to know the plan for crisis mitigation and continuity. “This is the moment where you find what you're really made of, what's really important to you," Page says, “because now, suddenly, the system is under stress, and you may have to make some tougher calls than you had to make before. How do we make people know they're valued? How do we re-instill our core values? How do we communicate clearly what we're trying to do here?"

Finding a New Normal

Nearly everyone is looking forward to the day when life goes back to normal. But “normal" probably won't look the same for many of us. “There's no way we're back to business as usual after this, for two reasons," Page says. First, the economy needs to climb out from under the rubble and ramp back up, especially if there are still shelter-in-place orders, shuttered businesses and new regulations in play. Secondly—and this is a good thing—the pandemic was a huge opportunity to learn what could be done. When are in-person meetings essential? Who can work remotely? What are the new efficiencies and innovations we've discovered?

Page likens it to a car breaking down, with a three-month wait for a new part. You'll figure out other ways to do things: sometimes you'll catch rides from other people, you'll stay home some days, you'll get groceries delivered. And when you get the car back, you're going to realize you didn't need it as much as you thought you did.

Town Hall's Rifakes says he's sure all four of his restaurants will survive. “At the beginning, I was scared, and I've been in business for 23 years now. The uncertainty is the biggest thing, and there's still some uncertainty now."

Mathew says that Greenbar will continue to strategize for the future. “I think the big thing is how can we stay flexible," says Mathew. “How can we see opportunity where sometimes things look dire? And how can we offer a fair price, but still make some money so we can keep the lights on?"

One thing that won't change is the importance of relationships with your bank, insurance company, employees, vendors and customers. Rifakes' first call was to his banker, who helped him restructure his finances.

“I think you have to be loyal to people and expect loyalty out of people," he says. “I've got a great staff, and, some of them have been around for over 20 years. Be honest with your people and let them make decisions to help you through this stuff. Loyalty is extremely important."

Vanessa McGrady is an award-winning journalist, social media strategist and communications professional. But wait, there’s more! She’s also been a playwright, actor, producer and voice-over artist. She can sing “Home on the Range” in Yiddish, which is apropos of nothing.

She is the author of Rock Needs River, a memoir.