Published in Economic Development
Left to right: Bjorn Green, Tasha Blackmon, Tina Freese Decker, Rob Payne Left to right: Bjorn Green, Tasha Blackmon, Tina Freese Decker, Rob Payne COURTESY PHOTO

West Michigan executives reflect on a year of leading through a pandemic

BY Mark Sanchez, Kate Carlson and Jayson Bussa Sunday, February 28, 2021 05:10pm

After a year of reporting on the COVID-19 pandemic, it becomes increasingly difficult to capture all of the nuanced and at times discordant effects it has had on businesses. While some have thrived or pivoted, many others have struggled to hold on or closed up shop. 

We’re all familiar with the stories by now as we approach the one-year mark of a pandemic that’s claimed the lives of more than a half million Americans.

Instead, MiBiz is looking back on the past year with help from executives who have been in the driver’s seat through it all. Nearly a dozen leaders across a variety of sectors responded, sharing experiences of frustration but, above all, hope and wisdom.

The pandemic has exposed deep flaws in our system, but also opportunities to improve. For these executives, the COVID-19 pandemic has been an indelible learning experience.

As one manufacturing executive says: “When a crisis occurs, bad companies are destroyed, good companies survive, and great companies improve.”

Thank you for reading.

— Andy Balaskovitz, Managing Editor

Bjorn Green

President and CEO // TowerPinkster

More than anything, we have re-learned the importance of relationships and ‘connection’ — with each other, with our clients, and with our communities. It seems so simple, but we all have experienced a good reminder about the importance of taking life back to the basics with our relationships. We had begun to take those quick chats around the coffee pot or grabbing lunch with our colleagues and friends in the community for granted. This year, we have had to create ways to reinvigorate and reconnect in meaningful and simple ways. As we approach the year mark of the most isolating 365 days in our lifetimes, it’s easy to look at all the times we felt really isolated or alone, but the bright spots from the journey of this year that stand out are all the moments we were able to share. From virtual happy hours and pie-in-the-face bets being fulfilled to sharing memories and celebrating weddings, babies, and career milestones, we found ways to be truly together even though we were apart. Looking forward to the day when we can be back in communion with one another in the coffee bar or conference room table, yet until then we are dedicated to connecting however possible.

Mike Stevens

stevensCo-founder and CEO // Founders Brewing Co.

Last year presented some interesting challenges for Founders, but it also revealed exciting changes that could be made in the way we work. I’ve been in this industry for almost 25 years and have found that every five to seven years things change enough that we are presented with the opportunity to reinvent ourselves. 

Prior to COVID, I could feel that the time for change was coming, and the events of 2020 really pushed that to the forefront. COVID is a tragic situation to be faced with. While accommodating the regulations that were put in place, we were able to challenge our norms and standards, which led us to formulate a new business model, a holistic approach to conducting business that measures success on more than just the bottom line. 

Through this new program we prioritize performance, employee well-being and the societal impact we impart on the communities where we live and work. This has been a great change for the company and has allowed us to stay optimistic about our future during some pretty grim times. I like to think this is proof we can still find something good even in the middle of our worst days.

Dan Bitzer

BitzerPresident and CEO // First National Bank of Michigan

What’s the biggest lesson you learned in the last year?

The biggest lesson learned last year in the banking industry was the importance of our Business Continuity Plan. We were forced into reality March 13, 2020, and continue today. Every aspect of banking changed on a dime and the community banking industry excelled in the downturn taking great care of our customer base.

How has the pandemic permanently changed your industry?

The banking industry, like all industries, has gone through many changes. Time will tell whether they are permanent, (including) working from home, electronic signatures, Teams video meetings, office space needs and ongoing safety and health concerns.

How has it changed you as a business leader?

Closing in on over 40 years in banking, change has been our industry’s only constant. As a business leader, I never would have expected that I would have our industry voice heard as (we) had constant communication with our legislature as we helped pass the PPP program in Washington, D.C. I was getting up-to-the-minute texts from the House floor before votes. Our industry made a huge difference in our business community.

Tasha Blackmon

President and CEO // Cherry Health

What’s the biggest lesson you learned in the last year?

This last year, we learned the importance of removing every barrier to ‘yes.’ The transformative power of the pandemic forced the Cherry Health team into go mode. We stood up our telehealth platform practically overnight, and we began COVID-19 testing within days of the onset of the pandemic. We pushed through every barrier that would have caused us to retreat in the past. The audacity to believe that every problem has a solution, and that the solution lies within us, is the gift that the pandemic gave to the Cherry Health team.

How has the pandemic permanently changed your industry?

It cemented telehealth as a viable means of providing quality health care, and it forced payers (such as Medicaid and commercial insurance) to move away from antiquated reimbursement models in favor of full reimbursement for virtual visits. The pandemic also taught health care institutions the art of meeting our patients where they are. It illuminated the importance of addressing the social determinants of health — where we work, learn, live and play — as part of the patient’s care plan. Health equity as a business imperative has also been a welcome change that we are seeing in the field, although community health centers like Cherry Health were created to address access to care for vulnerable populations.

How has it changed you as a business leader?

With strong faith and a revised perspective, I now embrace change differently than I have in the past. I’ve never been resistant to change, but I now see the value of leaning into it. During the pandemic, I had to adjust my leadership style to accelerate change. The challenges we faced over the last year forced a level of growth and resilience in me that might have taken many years to achieve. Witnessing the courage and tenacity of the entire Cherry Health team, coupled with their undying commitment to serving the underserved, has given me profound joy and a great sense of pride.

Tom Benson

bensonCEO // Fluresh LLC

Like many cannabis businesses challenged by COVID-19, the Fluresh cannabis store pivoted to 100 percent curbside and delivery, forcing our teams to lean on our operational efficiencies and solidify our understanding that innovative technologies are key. We revamped how we manage pickup and increased our use of technology to allow mobile payments, streamlined ordering and clear communication. We also improved our inventory process to better align with the faster pace. Inside the store and at our grow facilities, our teams were given (personal protective) equipment, daily health checks, and navigated rearranged, socially distanced workspaces. When work from home was not possible, our teams were trained to do multiple jobs, thereby increasing their skills and creating a more flexible, agile workforce.

Without the in-store service customers were used to, our team quickly amplified the digital experience. We increased our consumer communication efforts through digital advertising, social media and online customer support/engagement to find innovative ways of communicating with consumers. Additionally, we’ve lowered prices and increased deals and promotions to make our products more affordable to those hard hit by the economic impact of the pandemic.

Finally, I believe COVID-19 reinforced the importance of Fluresh’s community involvement. It is clear that local businesses have been dramatically impacted by COVID. We’ve undertaken a number of different programs to support these businesses through free meals for the community, discounts to customers, and partnerships with local restaurants. While this hadn’t been an initial pillar in our community impact plan, we now believe we are well positioned to partner with and support these local operators.

Eric Erwin

ErwinPresident and CEO // FloraCraft Corp.

Like many other companies, we were nervous after being shut down in March 2020. Our leadership team worried about lost revenue and customers finding alternate suppliers, and our team naturally worried about losing their jobs. I learned communicating regularly and honestly with our customers and employees was critical during this time.

Our team did more regular check-ins with customers, which strengthened our relationships and led to new opportunities. We also made a focused effort to provide frequent updates to employees on the steps we took to keep everyone on the payroll with full health care coverage and benefits intact.

During a time when we couldn’t control much, our response to this crisis was one thing we could control. As a family-owned business, we pride ourselves on being a close-knit team. How we communicated was key to us getting back to work safely. People knew what to expect from us and what was expected of them. When we returned to work in June, we had record production runs, which continue.

I’m a firm believer that when a crisis occurs, bad companies are destroyed, good companies survive and great companies improve. Through this pandemic, FloraCraft has been growing and improving.

Tina Freese Decker

President and CEO // Spectrum Health

What’s the biggest lesson you learned in the last year?

As a system, we’ve learned a lot of lessons in this pandemic, but if I could choose only one, it is this: to both over-communicate and over-listen. COVID-19 made it vitally important that we communicate effectively and transparently with our teams and with our communities. But, at the same time, we had to listen intently to people’s thoughts, ideas, hopes and fears. And, it was especially essential that we be attuned to the emotional well-being of our team members. If we did not hear them and care for them, they would not be able to care for others.

But all of this communicating and listening was dependent on one thing: being real. COVID-19 was a raw, humbling experience. We were all in it together. And if we were going to get through it, we needed to be real with each other. And to be real with others, we need to first be real with ourselves — to be willing to ask, ‘Who am I and what do I stand for?’ Once we look in the mirror and give ourselves an honest answer, anything and everything is possible.

How has the pandemic permanently changed your industry?

Overall, this pandemic has caused us to say, ‘We must do better and we must be better now.’ We have not only been slow as an industry to change, as a society we have been slow to acknowledge how health impacts so many facets of our lives. Most of us are now more aware and engaged in our health and the benefits of being healthy. We are also more focused on addressing barriers to health and realizing health equity. This will require strong community partnerships, innovation and commitment to personalized health.

How has it changed you as a business leader?

I think the various crises we have faced over the past year — not just the pandemic, but issues related to systemic racism and health inequities, economic distress, social unrest — have helped us achieve greater focus and respond with greater agility, courage and compassion. There was no playbook. It crystallized the value and importance of our mission, of our vision, of our integrated health system and of developing trust through two-way communication.

As to how the pandemic has changed me personally, it has focused me on the importance of joy. COVID-19 brought a great deal of pain, suffering and loss. And this has given me a greater appreciation of the joyful moments of life. I valued my time with my family before, but this year added quantity time that was also quality time that I relished. We must make sure we are embracing the things that matter and living every minute. We need to experience joy … and give joy.

Mike Novakoski

NovaPresident and CEO // EV Construction Co.

We have an elevated appreciation for the incredible culture we’ve watched blossom over the decades. ‘Together’ means everything to us. Early in the pandemic, a great concern of mine was the negative impact a remote workplace structure would have on our team’s mental health. Isolation may be welcomed in short bursts but prolonged, physical isolation from others is unnatural. As hard as we’ve tried to use technology to recreate or replace that invisible ‘energy exchange’ that occurs between people who are physically together, we simply have not come close enough.

We have all likely used the statement ‘it’s virtually impossible’ before. In our case, this statement takes on a whole new meaning. EV Construction has learned that although we are making the best of the situation from one day to the next, it’s impossible to virtually replace many of the elements that define our great culture using technology. We are ready and anxious to celebrate the day when we can resume living in the cultural norms we find so appealing at our company. Norms which involve physical proximity and meaningful connections. I for one will never take a hug or a handshake for granted again.

Randy Rua

RuaManaging Partner // NuVescor Group LLC

What’s the biggest lesson you learned in the last year?

I learned that you can sell a business in any economic environment if you have a buyer who believes they can grow the business after they acquire it, and that buyer has access to the capital they need to make the acquisition. Given the level of stimulus in response to the pandemic and indications of returning demand, most buyers and sellers agree that the business revenue will return to prior levels and beyond. Currently interest rates are very low, and buyers have record levels of cash that they are trying to get a return on. Other factors that increase the motivation to complete transactions even in difficult times are taxes. Sellers and their tax advisers believe that we currently have the lowest tax rate sellers will see in potentially a very long time. This is motivating business owners to be flexible with their terms to get a deal done now before taxes increase.

How has the pandemic permanently changed your industry?

Our industry has transitioned to completing transactions virtually. We have always worked with buyers from all over the world, but our selling clients like to be within a few hours drive so we could meet them face to face. Buyers would travel to the seller’s location and we would meet them there to visit the manufacturing facility. Now buyers want to limit travel and sellers do not want the exposure, so we are doing all meetings virtually. We film a 3-D walkthrough of the manufacturing operation and can have the seller give an online tour allowing us to stop and answer questions just like an in-person tour. The time savings to all parties involved is significant, so I do not see this part of the process going back to the way it was. This allows us to successfully serve selling clients all over the United States, not just the Midwest.

Changing to a virtual versus a face-to-face industry drastically changes the competitive landscape for M&A firms. Sellers are no longer using geographic location as a major decision factor for deciding who to hire to help them sell their business. Now sellers are much more focused on finding an M&A adviser who has a proven track record of selling similar-size businesses in their industry. That is why we have decided to focus on our manufacturing core competency as we provide our M&A services at a national level instead of just regional or local.

How has it changed you as a business leader?

I used to have a strong belief that I needed to lead our team of 10 employees by going over what they were doing every morning and then give them direction and guidance on how to move things forward. This required that I check in with them throughout the day by visiting their office. Our team has been working virtually and we have a morning online team meeting, but it is not as easy to just stop in their office and check up on their work. Instead, I focus my attention on making sure the team is trained and equipped to follow the processes we have developed and ensure we can measure and track their activities using a customized CRM software package. The software allows us to track all the activities needed to ensure a successful outcome for our clients.

Rob Payne

CEO // R.A. Miller Industries Inc.

think everyone would agree that 2020 was a very challenging year. We quickly had to learn the art of flexibility and adaptability. Policies and regulations seemed to be changing on a regular basis, there was confusion, employees were nervous and we still had to meet customer delivery demands. We recognized the value of open and honest communication with our employees and worked hard to keep them informed on the actions we were taking to keep them safe. 

Our goal was to be proactive and we worked quickly to implement new safety policies. Throughout all of this, we wanted to make sure that our employees felt safe coming to work. 

Responding to COVID also meant that we had to adapt to remote work for many areas of our business. 

Working remotely was something that had been countercultural at RAMI in the past. Our teams quickly learned the value of technology and realized work can still be accomplished even if you are not in the same room. Even though we are mostly back to in-person, our employees now feel comfortable exercising flexibility when needed.

Stuart Ray

stuartExecutive Director // Guiding Light Mission

During the pandemic, I learned several key things that guided our actions.

If you have the courage to set a high bar and provide the resources, people will generally follow. When Michigan went into lockdown in March 2020, I saw my primary responsibility was to keep everyone safe — our clients and our team. We educated ourselves and put into place very stringent safety protocols. I’m relieved to say none of our clients nor our team contracted COVID — and many of those safety protocols are still being practiced without any prompting from me.

In the face of the pandemic, people needed and wanted a fairly high level of communication that is credible. It was harder than I thought to find good information and resources that people would believe.

You can’t assume everyone is in a safe mental place — and you can’t ask just once. While our clients had resources they could turn to for spiritual and mental health care, these were not readily available to our team initially. We began providing no-cost, no-questions-asked counseling sessions for everyone. I made a concerted effort to check in with our team regularly throughout the past year.

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