When the coronavirus outbreak hit Wisconsin and stay-at-home orders were issued earlier this year, Thiensville-based Shully’s Catering faced what had become an upended business model almost overnight.
The Shully family didn’t waste much time coming up with a new plan that would keep their 37-year-old, multi-generation business alive without in-person events as its main source of revenue.
“When everything was starting to hit the fan, we gathered on Saturday morning, put our heads together, worked through the weekend and had everything ready to roll that Monday, the day before the state’s ‘Safer at Home’ order went into place,” said general manager Jacob Shully.
The result was Shully’s new ‘Zero Contact Catering’ service, which allows customers to order prepared meals for pick-up or delivery that can be reheated and served at home. The company saw high demand for the service as one of the first contactless food delivery options in the area, and has since evolved to meet the continually changing climate around in-person gatherings. These days, delivery orders are being placed for small-scale private parties and weddings.
Scrambling to launch ‘Zero Contact Catering,’ which required the build-out of a brand new online ordering system, was no small feat. But the ability to get it done in the matter of a weekend is an advantage unique to small or family-run businesses, said Shully.
He leads the company alongside his two sisters Nina Shully-Darling and Hadley Shully, who serve as event planner and sous-chef, respectively. Their parents, owners Scott and Beth Shully, founded the company in the early 1980s and remain involved in most of the day-to-day operations.
“We’re a five-person committee, and that’s how we’ve operated in terms of decision making,” Jacob Shully said. “We don’t really have to go through layers of corporate approval, so we can really pivot quickly and get something up and running in the snap of a finger basically.”
For many local family business owners, the COVID-19 public health and subsequent economic crisis has presented a set of fears that go beyond the potential of losing a job or income. They’re also dealing with the potential loss of legacy, said David Borst, executive director and chief operating officer of the Family Business Legacy Institute.
“When you’re dealing with the stress levels of that, you’re also thinking ‘I’m changing future generations’ trajectory, too, if something doesn’t work out here,’” said Borst. “That’s something that’s in the back of a lot of these business owners’ minds.”
Amid ongoing setbacks and uncertainty, the Shullys relied on their close-knit relationship and honest dialog to navigate what has been the most stressful situation the business and the family has ever experienced, said Nina Shully-Darling.
“If someone crosses the line or whatever, there’s always an apology. That’s something our parents instilled in us and we take our relationship very seriously,” she said.
It’s also meant working through some differing ideas between the two generations, especially when it comes to the role of technology in the future of the business and industry at large.
Shortly before COVID-19 hit, the Shully siblings had tried to convince their parents that the business would benefit from an online ordering system. The shutdown made it a necessity. And fewer in-person events over the past three months allowed the business to focus on delivery and virtual events as untapped opportunities for growth.
“Our parents kind of stayed away from drop-off because they were worried about the Shully’s experience, so not only the food, but the staff, the chef explaining the food,” she said. “But I think we’ve done well in still creating the Shully’s experience even though it’s apart.”
Despite differences among family members, there’s value in multi-enerational perspectives and experience during a time of crisis. Borst said family members who have been involved for decades provide the business with a “repository of information” on surviving past hardships.
At Milwaukee-based Maglio Companies, a fifth-generation importer and distributor of fresh produce, the COVID-19 crisis has been an opportunity to live up to its title as a family business by showing concern for the health and well-being of its employees.
“It’s not just me and him,” said Paul Maglio, director of operations, referring to his father, company president Sam Maglio. “We are a family company about family. It really is a family environment, so we have to nurture that from the top.”
For Paul Maglio, that has meant reporting to the office every day throughout the shutdown, greeting employees at the door and taking their temperatures.
Sam Maglio said it’s allowed Paul to play to his strengths – boosting morale and managing employees through a crisis.
“Paul’s meeting every employee at the door every morning, taking temperatures, asking them how they’re feeling,” Sam Maglio said. “Showing, from the top down, that there is a leadership care and concern from the family into the ranks that are working here. We’ve been open every day. We have not missed a beat.”
The path forward from the COVID-19 crisis remains clouded with uncertainty, but Milwaukee-based Stan’s Fit for Your Feet is relying on its longevity to lead the way.[caption id="attachment_508756" align="alignnone" width="1280"] (back row from left) David Sajdak, Ben Sajdak and Andy Sajdak, (front row from left) Megan Sajdak, Susan Sajdak and Jim Sajdak[/caption]
“If you’ve made it through 70 years of business, you’ve been preparing for things like this your whole life,” said Jim Sajdak, president and chief executive officer. The family-owned retailer is now in its second and third generation of leadership. Jim’s daughter Megan and sons David, Andy and Ben all serve in director roles.
Stan’s three brick-and-mortar locations closed for two months under the “Safer at Home” order, initially forcing the company to furlough 60 employees and rely on online sales as well as curbside pick-up service.
As the stores have reopened to customers under limited capacity and employees have returned, Stan’s is balancing safety with a hands-on approach to selling shoes. The business has seen traffic increase week by week, but there’s no telling how long it will take for business to fully bounce back, said Sajdak.
Although there was no way to fully prepare for the unprecedented impact of the coronavirus pandemic, he said, the business was in good shape to react swiftly and work through whatever challenge came up.
Part of that was already having a solid succession plan in place. For years, Sajdak worked to gradually bring his four grown children into the fold. He would bring them along to operational meetings, provide mentoring and introduce them to key resources such as the business’ insurance provider, attorneys and banker.
“That all has to be in place in a very solid way for family businesses to continue,” he said. “When the stress of something like this happens, that’s a difficult time to start.”
Now, in the midst of a challenge, he is able to trust the next generation to contact the right people and make the right decisions on their own, said Megan Sajdak, director of marketing.
She said the challenges of the past four months have provided a master class in everything from applying for federal loans to navigating the emotional and mental toll of a crisis situation. That’s something she and her brothers will rely on as they take over.
“The process has equipped us with knowledge and experience to make us a stronger family business to continue moving forward,” she said. “It’s being light on your feet, really being flexible, trying to do what’s right. I think in a world of some controversy, you have to go with your gut about what’s right – what’s right for your business, for your family, for the mission of your business and really stay true to that.”