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Editor’s note: The onslaught of the COVID-19 crisis has forced Wisconsin businesses to think on their feet, quickly shifting operations to meet new demand or simply to survive. Some have made temporary adjustments, while others took drastic steps that will alter the structure and the future of their companies, for better or for worse.
As stay-at-home restrictions lifted and businesses reopened, BizTimes reporter Maredithe Meyer caught up with a few business leaders about the operational decisions they made and initiatives they launched in response to the coronavirus pandemic and what they learned in the process.
As the coronavirus outbreak spread across the U.S., the majority of Hartland-based Batteries Plus Bulbs’ 720 retail stores remained open as essential businesses – a decision that was made not for financial reasons, but because both retail and commercial customers demanded it. Hospitals needed to power ventilators and EKG machines, while families needed help finding the right batteries for their thermometers.
Company leadership responded quickly, stocking up on high-demand items, rolling out contactless curbside pickup and installing contactless points-of-sale systems across its entire store footprint. Franchise locations adopted Centers for Disease Control and Prevention sanitation guidelines and took extra steps to let customers know stores were open and ensure in-store shoppers felt safe.
From a corporate standpoint, carrying out business as usual across 47 states during a public health crisis requires all hands on deck. But small format stores and an emphasis on local ownership helped the company keep up with rapid change, said Jon Sica, vice president of franchise development, project management and chief strategy officer at Batteries Plus Bulbs.
Sica: “Nothing can wait; everything has to be done right away to respond to the situation and that’s certainly raised our collective game here in this interesting environment.
“When customers’ expectations change, especially during this, you can’t wait to meet them. You have to make the changes and we’re very lucky to have customer feedback infrastructure in place where we can do something and we’ll hear from our owners or customers very quickly what’s working and what’s not and we can reissue, we can re-engineer, we can change on the fly and be agile to make the best experience possible for our customers.”
Responding to a short supply of personal protective equipment for frontline workers, Milwaukee-based online clothing retailer Wantable has used its crowd-sourcing technology and 75,000-square-foot fulfillment center to distribute 20,000 hand-sewn face masks to more than 50 hospitals, clinics and health care organizations since mid-March.
As of late May, 170 volunteers had contributed to the “Sew Good” initiative, sometimes sending hundreds of masks at a time. Distribution started locally, but thanks to supply and Wantable’s existing shipping platform, the effort has reached as far as New Jersey, Georgia and New Hampshire.
Although “Sew Good” was launched to address what Wantable founder and chief executive officer Jalem Getz hopes is a temporary shortage, the concept behind mobilizing a crowd to meet a community need is here to stay.
Getz: “If I look back at a pre-COVID world, I think a lot of our giving campaigns focused around taking our employees and volunteering company money or company time. … I think what has clicked with us now is lots of companies have built very diverse businesses with incredible technology or infrastructure, and those can be used and reused to help on a frontline effort.
“It’s one thing to donate $10,000, but someone has to then turn that $10,000 into the mass that’s needed, as opposed to saying ‘We are going to use a platform right now to either make masks because we’re a factory or we’re going to make hand sanitizer because we’re a distillery or, in the case of Wantable, we’re going to leverage our very unique infrastructure to crowdsource masks.’ I think that’s a lesson for us: we built things here that can be used every day to grow our company, but when needed, can be modified and should be modified to help us volunteer in new and unique ways.”
After its two taprooms closed for in-house service due to COVID-19, Milwaukee-based Good City Brewing turned to curbside beer and food service at its East Side location to keep some revenue flowing. But with virtually no access to a major part of the business – its customers – the brewer had to get creative.
In May, Good City took over a drive-thru at the former Bank Mutual building at Mayfair Mall in Wauwatosa and converted it into a curbside pick-up location for packs and growlers of its craft beer as well as hats and other merchandise.
Demand was strongest the first week, and has remained steady enough to remain open, allowing employees to come back to work. It’s also given Good City the opportunity to step into a new market, which has helped attract first-time customers as well as engage with existing customers who live on the west side of town, said co-founder and CEO Dan Katt.
Katt: “One of our values for our people is to be adaptable, so that’s come in handy, but I think the big thing is that there are no guarantees. You kind of think that you know what’s going to happen next week or you know your business is going to bring in X amount of revenue, or you’re going to sell so much beer or so much food based upon historical data, but we don’t really know.
“Nothing is certain and I think that gives us greater appreciation for how hard it is to do what we do and how uncertain it is. As we open we’ll have increased focus on customer retention and attraction and being really grateful for every single person who walks through our door and purchases beer from us, and making sure our processes and systems for that are really good, just because nothing is guaranteed.”
Business for Milwaukee-based Leader Paper Products was down 75% at its lowest point during the COVID-19 shutdown in April.
Fortunately for the specialty paper and envelope supplier, a loan from the federal government’s Paycheck Protection Program allowed the business to keep all 90 of its employees. The only problem was there wasn’t enough work for them to do.
Leader Paper Products took advantage of that downtime to show appreciation for those on the frontline of the pandemic. Through its “A Million Thanks” initiative, the company produced one million cards and envelopes that were distributed free of charge to customers, vendors, partners and others who wanted to write thank you notes to frontline workers.
The donated product was worth a retail value of $1.2 million – a demonstration of how invested the 119-year-old company is in the local community, said president and CEO Steve Hipp.
Hipp: “The biggest takeaway that I have is the employees here have just been fantastic about (“A Million Thanks”). They have really chipped in. They go do their regular job for a few hours and they jump right in any spare moment that they have.
“What we’re working on right now, the takeaway with myself and the leadership team here, is let’s keep looking into the future. Let’s not just dwell in the present. What can we do to invest in the business and retool our machinery to anticipate the future needs? As a leader, what I’m trying to get everyone to focus on is ‘What does the future look like?’ versus dwelling in the present, which isn’t so nice to dwell on right now.”