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Supporting remote workers, maintaining company culture and leading by example were some of the challenges that confronted top executives during the COVID-19 crisis

Bart Cayce president, Cayce Mill Supply
Bill Donahue president, Crown Supply Co.
Cara Gordon Potter CEO, Gordon Electric Supply
Mark Kilmer president, The Republic Companies
Jeff Rogers president, Holder Electric Supply
Scott Teerlinck president & CEO, Crescent Electric Supply
George Vorwick president & CEO, United Electric Supply

IMARK Electrical Now: What was the biggest leadership challenge your company faced during the COVID-19 pandemic and business upheaval? Were there any big surprises?

Bart Cayce, Cayce Mill Supply (Hopkinsville, Kentucky): The challenge for us was the isolation of employees. In the beginning, our state required a 14-day quarantine if someone had been exposed to COVID. We tried to isolate groups of people so that we could shift employees to cover an area if there was an exposure in any department or location. Managers that were normally between departments throughout the day now had to be confined to one area. Leading by example is tough when you can't be there to be the example and even with modern technology, it's still hard to replace face-to-face interactions. The experience confirmed the abilities of our team. People who would normally fall back on a manager or senior employee when faced with a situation now didn't always have their safety net close at hand, which forced them to make decisions on their own, not just on products but on how to best service customers and address changing guidelines. Not every situation was handled perfectly, but almost all were handled professionally and reflected well on our business.

Bill Donahue, Crown Supply Co. (Providence, Rhode Island): Interpreting our federal, state and local governments' requirements, managing associates' fears, concerns, and expectations and balancing all of that with common sense given all of the unknowns was challenging. This is the first time in my 35-plus years of managing others where associate fears and individual health concerns (some involving highly sensitive information) had to be considered along with any legal consequences of our decisions. The surprise was how differently individuals responded; I was advised not to judge anyone based on their response to this highly personal and volatile situation, which was very hard for me. I also saw true leadership qualities demonstrated by some I had not expected it from and just the opposite from others. It was very eye-opening.

Mark Kilmer, The Republic Companies (Davenport, Iowa): Leadership challenges have ebbed and flowed over the pandemic, as there was so much international, national and regional uncertainty, conflict and misinformation. We greatly improved our overall communication with our team and stayed consistent with the messaging that Republic has endured the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic, WWI, the depression, WWII and the financial crisis of 2008 and that we're all in this together and, in all cases, came out a better organization on the other side. Winston Churchill once said that "a pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty." While what we are going through currently might appear to be our biggest challenge, the way our entire team has rallied together might very well prove to be "our finest hour."

Cara Gordon Potter, Gordon Electric Supply (Kankakee, Illinois): The biggest leadership challenge in this disjointed business environment has been providing a sense of support to remote workers and maintaining our culture throughout the company. The second biggest challenge has been providing reassurance to all employees during this time of uncertainty and fear, both for personal safety and employment. I've addressed these issues with weekly emails and we also had some Zoom "chats" in the early weeks just to create connection. I was surprised by the depth of many employees' feelings of vulnerability and their genuine appreciation for all the company's proactive efforts to keep them safe.

Jeff Rogers, Holder Electric Supply (Greenville, South Carolina): Early on, the biggest challenge was determining and then communicating our company policies as we processed rapidly changing information coming from health professionals and government officials. We were obviously concerned about keeping employees safe while also realizing that we must continue to service our customers who depend on us for their supplies. I'm very thankful that our employees and customers were very responsive to making everyday changes (e.g., social distancing, increased cleanliness, etc.) to keep everyone safer.

George Vorwick, United Electric Supply (New Castle, Delaware): One of the biggest challenges occurred at the end of February when we began considering the possibility of efficiently transitioning employees who were able to work remotely. Recognizing that several folks had desktop computers, which would create difficulties during the transition, we decided to purchase and configure enough laptops to ensure a smooth transition. We also transitioned our team members in waves to ensure that our systems were robust enough to handle the additional traffic. Other challenges included sourcing enough disinfectant and masks while developing safety protocols to help assure the safety of our employees and customers.

Scott Teerlinck, Crescent Electric Supply (East Dubuque, Illinois): At the onset of the pandemic, our team saw a tremendous need to drive both internal and external communications to clearly and consistently communicate to our associates and customers all of the steps Crescent was immediately implementing to ensure their health and safety, our top priority. This also meant articulating in an expedited fashion our strategy for continuing to provide best-in-class service, support and product delivery in a manner that minimized or eliminated direct contact as a means of keeping everyone safe. Our marketing and communications team leveraged every communication outlet at our disposal (including email, special landing pages on our website, social media, direct phone calls to customers, etc.) to get the word out regarding our new processes, including curbside pick-up and contactless delivery to jobsites.

"As this crisis continues to unfold, we’ve become more comfortable that we can accommodate a certain amount of remote work without losing productivity or impeding learning and development."

George Vorwick, president & CEO, United Electric Supply

IMARK Electrical Now: Please share an example of new customer behaviors or demands arising from the COVID-19 crisis as well as an adjustment your company has made that may evolve into a standard sales/service offering.

Kilmer: The biggest change in customer behavior, especially on the industrial side, was the total elimination of face-to-face sales calls. In-person calls to larger electrical contractors have been greatly reduced and limited to appointment-only on an as-needed basis. Our sales organization had to pivot and quickly adapt to more efficient forms of online meetings, training and customer networking and communication. We also pivoted from selling products to providing value-added resources; for example, we assembled an internal financial team to help contractors navigate the CARES Act, PPP loans and various state funding opportunities.

Teerlinck: With associates and customers alike searching for ways to interact, engage and do business from a distance, we have seen a significant increase in our e-commerce and social media engagement. We've catered to those needs by creating a key messaging campaign called "You are Essential—We are Here to Support You," which recognizes and validates how our electricians have been deemed essential workers who are supporting our country's infrastructure amid this global pandemic; we're supporting their needs through virtual meetings, e-commerce buying options, curbside pickup

and jobsite delivery with no signature required. As our economy slowly reopens, I think we are all coming to terms with our "new normal." We'll continue to look into ways to enhance our e-commerce user experience as well as provide flexible pick-up and delivery options for customers in a safe, efficient and convenient way.

Gordon Potter: We began offering curbside pick-up even before the shelter-in-place was announced. Facetime has been used to view issues and in-stock solutions and, of course, Zoom has been used for customer meetings. I believe that these methods of communication will now continue, given the convenience and efficiency.

Cayce: We experienced more calls, texts and web orders, often taking material to customers in the parking lot. A few of our smaller branches closed their sales counters due to limited space in the counter area, as we found it was less frustrating to people than limiting the number in the store. We also tried to share how we were taking every safety precaution we could with our customers in hopes that it would prevent any crazy demands and potentially secure us as their preferred vendor because we're taking all measures to avoid being the source of an exposure. Unfortunately, most of these practices will likely go away with the virus and our customers will run back to their old ways as fast as possible.

Donahue: We did everything within our power to keep our broad service offering unchanged during the pandemic and we have kept all counters and locations open. We found that this earned us business with many new customers, with some customers shifting their preferred method of service from counter to will call or delivery.

Rogers: Initially, we set up 10 outdoor bays for customer pick-up. As conditions improved, we cut back on this offering and increased safety measures in our counter area. We worked to improve the outdoor pick-up process and can quickly ramp up if government ordinances dictate. With many companies banning outside visitors and having employees work from home, our outside sales personnel worked hard to maintain relationships, increasing proactive calls and emails and pursuing creative ways to meet customers offsite where it's easier to maintain social distance.

Vorwick: Our sales team is becoming proficient at utilizing Microsoft Teams and Zoom and video tools will become increasingly useful in the future, which will minimize drive time for certain activities. We have made joint calls with our suppliers, conducted multiple training activities and have even hosted virtual happy hours with key customers utilizing this technology. I view the technology as additive, however, and don't believe that it will replace the advantages of a sales professional's physical presence at our key and target customers' jobsites and locations.

"As this crisis continues to unfold, we’ve become more comfortable that we can accommodate a certain amount of remote work without losing productivity or impeding learning and development."

George Vorwick, president & CEO, United Electric Supply

IMARK Electrical Now: What's the biggest lesson that you, your company and/or the electrical distribution industry learned during the COVID-19 crisis?

Donahue: Keeping our wits about us and not panicking was of great benefit. We began to monitor our finances and the results of our planned actions on a weekly basis and learned how much we rely on manufacturers, supplier reps and group associations as well as which activities of ours and theirs really mattered. Clear, brief and focused communication appeared to be appreciated and was a skill that we had the opportunity to hone. I don't think that we are done adjusting to this upheaval yet. There is much more to be learned that can be uncovered in chaos or downturns. We may have learned the value (or lack thereof) in many of our current activities, employees, divisions, or relationships and should capitalize on what we've learned to this point. As an industry, we are considered essential and should compare our offering to others like home centers or peripheral players in our industry to ensure that we can strengthen and promote our "essential" standing.

Kilmer: We gained a heightened sense of appreciation for our employees and customers and learned the importance of communication during this time. NAED stepped up bigtime and provided the electrical industry with several excellent resources and webinars that have greatly benefitted our team. To help promote camaraderie and the genuine feeling that we're all in this together, we created several internal contests, including the "IMARK U Bracket Challenge," which was a double elimination NCAA bracket look-alike contest where staff competed against each other for the highest number of IMARK U classes taken that week. It ran over a six-week period and our IMARK U class completion numbers were off the charts! A second challenge was our LED Scavenger Hunt, where the entire team competed by driving around at night and identifying LED lighting upgrade opportunities. During a third fun challenge we offered, which was called "Name that Republic Remote Office," staff took pictures of their work areas at home and we ran a contest to match the work area to the employee.

Gordon Potter: Our biggest takeaway is an appreciation of the resilience and team spirit of our workforce and the importance of diversification of our customer base. This was also a significant test of the decision-making capacity of our newly formed executive team. It was further confirmation of the importance of corporate financial resilience. Once again, I was thankful to be a participant in a strong, essential industry.

Vorwick: As this crisis continues to unfold, we are learning that it's possible to accommodate team members who may enjoy working remotely more regularly moving forward. We've become more comfortable that we can accommodate a certain amount of remote work without losing productivity or impeding learning and development. If we continue the practice post-pandemic, as I expect we will, it will be essential to adjust our productivity measures while guarding against the possibility of implementing measures that are overly intrusive.

Rogers: We learned that you must be prepared to implement changes quickly when presented with major disruptions. Your current circumstances can change overnight, so be very thankful when the economy is strong and everyone is healthy. While some days seemed overwhelming at the time, we're thankful that as an independent entity, we could respond quickly to the changing conditions and serve our customers well.

Cayce: Technology is great, but our customers still want personal interaction. While we are fortunate to have embraced technology within our company, it's more apparent now than ever that this is a relationship business. While electronic orders have increased, they are often followed up with calls from customers wanting to explain their situations or request solutions. As an industry, it is imperative that we develop tools for customers to interact with us in any means they prefer, but we can't forget what built our businesses—great people, quality products and personal customer service.

Teerlinck: We have discovered just how valuable effective, consistent communications have been to our associates and customers during this crisis; in my opinion, it's impossible to over-communicate during times like these. The high-level messaging from our leadership team has helped reassure our Crescent community that we had a strategy to effectively support them during the pandemic and that we'd be with them each step of the way to deliver the level of support they've come to rely on from us. Moving forward, the mechanisms we've put in place to communicate with our customers along with our ability to be nimble in adapting to their changing needs are some things we certainly plan to continue even beyond the current pandemic.