Leaders Share Lessons Learned from COVID-19October 8th, 2020 by Tara Taffera
Executives from all sides of the distribution chain shared how COVID-19 has changed their business models during a panel discussion held this week amid the annual conference of the World Millwork Alliance. It was a no-holds barred look at what leaders have had to face in recent months, what they are still confronting, and how it has all changed the industry—some of it in positive ways. Among the critical takeaways are stronger communication models and redundant supply chains in order to keep up with demand.
Carl McKenzie, chief commercial officer at U.S. Lumber, moderated the session and panelists included: Mark Savage, vice president, millwork at Builders FirstSource; Chris Mercier, vice president of sales and operations at Dyke Industries; and Russ Jordan, vice president of sales and marketing at ARAUCO.
Communication Ramps Up
One of the biggest changes executives were forced to deal with includes interacting with employees remotely, and it seemed all the previous rules no longer applied.
“You couldn’t deal with anything in a broad-based way,” said McKenzie, referring to employees who had children at home, or elderly parents to care for, or other similar type situations. Each situation had to be looked at individually, he said.
The panelists agreed, though, that working remotely in many cases brought people closer together and strengthened communication. This was the case even in larger companies, where they had to rely even more heavily on local leaders.
“It went back to really counting on local leaders to work with their team,” said Jordan. “You just took a different approach to looking at employees and balancing their needs.”
Savage agreed, and said lessons learned at the local level were then shared quickly with other regions throughout the company. He said at his company regular meetings occurred before COVID-19 but this happens even more now—and panelists say employees across the board quickly adapted.
“Productivity is great,” said Mercier. “It’s amazing how people adapt.”
“There is a new rhythm of communication in our business and it now crosses all parts of our business and that will persist forever,” McKenzie added.
Panelists say that although face-to-face contact disappeared, in some ways it brought employees closer as Zoom meetings took place in people’s homes with all the craziness that comes with it, including dogs barking and kids coming and going.
“You are sometimes now closer to them because now you know they have kids, etc. You see them, you see their dog, etc.,” said Savage, and you know more about them.
Still, challenges remain as remote work continues, and that includes how to develop employees in this new environment.
“One risk of going more remote is for those folks who need to be developed … you have to watch the folks who aren’t as outgoing, who are more introverted, or less experienced,” said Jordan. “We are trying to figure out a balance to get some routine interactions in a safe environment.”
Savage agreed, adding that some hybrid schedules are happening to allow people to come in and have a sort of routine.
Meeting Market Challenges
Experts agreed that planning in the time of COVID-19 is challenging.
“You have the need to preserve cash, but you also need to keep yourself in a position to preserve your business on a long-term basis,” said Savage, who pointed out that in the moulding and millwork industry demand continued. That created a different sort of challenge, including “stress in the supply chain,” he said.
Jordan illustrated the uncertainty leaders like him were facing.
“All of a sudden in April you see a massive drop in housing,” he said. “Do you reduce capacity? “Then three months later housing is exceeding pre-COVID-19 numbers. Now I see this massive level of demand … so I think, ‘Do we need to ramp up capacity?’”
Jordan said it has been challenging, but he relies on data and market knowledge to move forward and make decisions.
Savage pointed out that prior to COVID-19 there were some supply chain challenges within moulding. “COVID just added to the mix of trying to react to that,” he said.
But with some creativity, companies are coming up with solutions.
“You need to work closely with your teams,” Savage said. “If you can’t get product, how do you provide a solution? ‘I can’t get you this but I can get you this.’”
He also echoed what was said in previous sessions during the WMA event—that different products are being specified to keep up with demand. Jordan agreed, pointing out that mouldings made of medium density fiberboard (MDF) have taken some share from fingerjoint.
“We have seen some trend changes,” added Savage. “Different species are being used for example, as companies are trying to get product to the job site and to the customer.”
Mercier said this is where expert communication is key.
“Communication became so important when it came to finding product,” he said, and that includes communication with suppliers. “There is a logistic expense of trying to deliver backordered product and the frustration from the customer. We started to gravitate to suppliers who were better with communication.”