Leading During COVID-19: Brainstorms & Business Development

This week on Trusted Counsel’s podcast show In Process: Conversations about Business in the 21st Century, Managing Partner, Evelyn Ashley and Partner John Monahon lead a new podcast series on leading during COVID-19. Their first guest was Jane Gentry, CEO of Fusion, an experiential and trade show staffing company.

When the Corona virus hit, Fusion’s business was devastated as all physical events were cancelled; as well, the Company had zero sales in their legacy business for the months of April and May. Hundreds of employees were furloughed. Gentry knew that she had to pivot the Company, even if only on a temporary basis. Similar to car manufacturing plants that pivoted from producing cars to creating masks for the healthcare industry, Fusion decided to pivot and reach out to their various partners to help out during the health pandemic. Fusion submitted bids to the government and other partners that could leverage their staff for COVID-19 with temperature testing at various sites as employers reopened their offices. So while not typical work for the Fusion staff, Fusion was asked to do temperature testing in a variety of locations.

“The biggest mistake that I’ve seen,” says Gentry “is that when business goes down, CEOs and heads of sales cut their sales staff. You should do the exact opposite. This is the time to stay connected to your customers, not because you’re going to sell them anything right now, but because it’s a big relationship-building opportunity to do “care” calls and check-ins to see where you might add value to their world. Human relationships are key to business relationships – clients will remember who took the time to see how they are doing personally and in business.

Gentry joined Fusion in late 2019 as their new CEO. Her number one priority was to position the company to have a fantastic 2020, hence Fusion was aggressively hiring new salespeople, program managers and staff out on the field. The company was also moving into new markets and making some strategic choices to grow the company pretty aggressively for 2020. In addition, the company was building out some strategic partnerships to continue to add even more value to their customers. So 2020 was on target to be a really transitional and profitable year for Fusion.

During the course of the podcast, C-level executives and business owners will learn:

  • How to lead your organization during this unprecedented health pandemic – COVID-19
  • How Fusion brainstormed pivoting ideas to reinvent their business during COVID-19 to survive
  • Why staying connected to clients and furloughed employees is a good thing

Learn more about leading during COVID-19 by streaming the conversation in its entirety in the player below or download it to your mobile device via iTunes. Don’t miss a single episode! Subscribe to our show “In Process Podcast” on iTunes or Google Play to receive this episode as well as future episodes to your smartphone.

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Transcription

LEADING DURING COVID-19: PLANNING & ACTION

Trusted Counsel (Ashley) LLC. All Rights Reserved.


Announcer:

It’s time for In Process: Conversations About Business in the 21st Century with Evelyn Ashley and John Monahon, presented by Trusted Counsel, a corporate and intellectual property law firm. For more information, visit trusted-counsel.com. And now with In Process, here are Evelyn Ashley and John Monahon.

John:

Hello everyone. Welcome to In Process. We are launching a new podcast series titled Leading During the COVID-19 Crisis. We’ll be talking to CEOs and other executives about tough decisions they’re making, the need to reinvent their businesses and more about the global health pandemic. Evelyn, this has been such a crazy time. We’ve been away from the office for a month now, much like many other businesses. More than a month, actually.

Evelyn:

More than a month, yeah. We’re in week seven right now.

John:

Week seven. Hard to believe.

Evelyn:

Well, what I think is really funny, John, is you’ve identified that you enjoy working down in your basement and you probably would prefer not to come back to the office. And the rest of us are all like, “Oh my God, I hate being at home and working.”

John:

It has revealed a lot about the way certain people work, but I have that drive, which has always been so painful. And for me, being at home is an easy thing to do because I just come down and work. But that’s been about the plus side, I guess, about this whole pandemic we’ve seen.

John:

We’ve been involved, unfortunately, as legal counsel, with so many layoffs and so many businesses that have been having difficulties due to the uncertainty around how long this pandemic will last. But yet we’ve also helped and luckily been able to get PPP for a number of businesses that needed it and each day has just been a little bit unpredictable. Everything is new, new legislation, new [inaudible 00:02:07] timeline.

Evelyn:

Absolutely. And I even think that with the paycheck protection, we don’t know that that seriously ensures that any business is still going to be able to get back to business on July 1st after use of those proceeds. Because so many of these businesses have either no revenue or substantially reduced revenue during this time and it’s going to take a lot more than just people to actually get business going, which, because we know Jane so well, we know that Jane has been thinking about how to actually pull this out on the other side, which I think is such a great way for us to actually kick off this series.

John:

I think so. And we’re very happy to introduce Jane Gentry, CEO of Fusion Staffing. That’s an experiential and trade show staffing company located in Alpharetta, Georgia. Jane is a vision caster who encourages her team to dare to be remarkable. She has had a successful career in experiential marketing, sales, leadership consulting, executive coaching, and keynoting. She is a passionate results-driven leader with a proven record of putting people first, exceeding expectations, connecting brands with consumers, and everyone wins. Her experience spans 30 years in business, helping clients create engaging, collaborative and profitable client relationships. She’s worked with the world’s most successful organizations including Home Depot, Phillips, Coca-Cola and Mercedes-Benz. We personally have worked with Jane as well and she is fantastic in what she does. Jane, welcome to the show.

Jane:

Thank you for having me. I’m so thrilled to be your first guest in this new podcast series.

John:

Thanks for joining.

Evelyn:

That’s right. Now, don’t worry. We won’t be too rough on you here, Jane, since you are the first one.

Jane:

Yeah.

Evelyn:

So Jane, you joined Fusion Staffing in 2019 as their CEO. Before we kind of get into the crisis that we’ve all experienced in the last few months, tell us a little bit about how the company was doing in 2019 and in early 2020, and why they actually decided to bring in a new CEO.

Jane:

Fusion and the sister company, Jay Williams Agency, are owned by a venture firm. The firm hadn’t owned the two companies for very long, maybe 12 months, and were looking to bring a CEO into run those companies for the organization. I came in I think August or September and before COVID we were very well positioned to have a fantastic 2020. We had done some hard work around operations to kind of shore up our operational capacity. We were aggressively hiring salespeople, and program managers, and people out in the field. We have 10,000 part-time W2 employees in the field.

So we were moving into the markets and making some strategic choices that we thought were going to grow the company pretty aggressively in 2020. We were building out some strategic partnerships to continue to add even more value to our customers. So 2020, from the perspective of the board and from my perspective, was going to be a really transitional and profitable year for the Fusion companies. And this is where you play the sad music, right?

Evelyn:

Tell us the entities, the partners, the clients that Fusion and the Williams Agency are reliant on for their business. You’re providing staffing so is it primarily conventions?

Jane:

Yes, we do a lot of work in the trade show space. That’s probably the smallest part of our business. We do a lot of work in retail. We do assisted selling in retail environments. We do experiential activations in retail environments. We do things like checking on the brand and helping big box retailers understand how to sell appliance products, right? We don’t do granny and the hair net at Costco handing out samples. We don’t do that lower level of talent. And sometimes we are the representative for our client’s brand in selling their product.

And then the third space I would say is in experiential marketing. So if you’ve ever seen any of them an activation at the Braves game or something like that where Coca-Cola is promoting a new product or Fox Sports is promoting something new. Fox Sports is going to change their name this year, so in January, 2021 they’re going to have a big rollout at the stadium about their new name. We supplement all that staff. So pretty much anywhere that a client wants to be face to face with a customer and they’re not leveraging their own people, that’s where we play.

John:

Then when did you eventually know that, “Hey, this isn’t a blip. This is going to be something that’s going to really affect our business and we need to think about what we’re going to do to address it,” because you’re deeply involved with face to face interactions.

Jane:

Yeah, other than the travel industry and the restaurant industry, both of which are kind of tangential to what we do, we are the most devastated industry that people have never heard of. Right? Experiential marketing and trade shows. So the first indication for us was a lot of cancellations in our trade show business. A lot of trade shows canceling their shows completely. That was the first indicator for us. I was kind of hoping at that point that retail would stand up a little bit through this crisis. That did not happen.

In fact, our revenue projection for April and May was $0. Zero income for the company. So our business hasn’t been diminished, our business has been decimated by this. So trade shows was the first thing. The second indication for me was we do a lot of medical models. So ultrasound companies and people that have to demo their equipment to doctors and hospitals use our people to demo their products. That was the second place where we started to see a hit. That’s pretty consistent and pretty easy business for us, so that was the second place. Then it just went downhill from there.

John:

When this happened though, and you’re looking at zero revenue for April and May, that was when you need to think about what you can do. What were some of the initiatives that you thought about, the pivot that you could do? What could come out of that? How did you address it?

Jane:

So are you talking in terms of the business, John, or in terms of revenue generation?

John:

Just in terms of the business, of ways in which you could continue to operate your business on a go-forward basis if you can’t get face to face.

Jane:

From a revenue generating perspective, we have pretty quickly tried to look at other ways that the government and brands might leverage our folks. Right? So Friday I submitted a bid to an enormous company who’s about to test every staffer, every one of their own staff, as they come in the building for the next 13 weeks. So they said, “We’d like a bid for 200 of your staffers to be in our parking lot in a mobile unit. Not doing COVID testing, but temperature testing, asking them questions about how they feel. So we want 200 people, 24 hours a day for 13 weeks to test our staff.” As long as we’ve got protective gear, I mean, that job is so big, I almost don’t want the whole thing, right? Because Monday they came back and said, “Could you do five more cities?” This is not a typical place where we would work, but it’s a place that makes perfect sense for us to work. But it’s hard to predict those kinds of things because nobody’s ever needed to test their employees in the parking lot before. Right?

But what we saw early on was what some of our partners saw the need for, mobile medical facilities and mobilizing things like the Georgia World Congress Center. And actually one of our partners who’s an exhibit producer jumped on that early on and called their competitors and they said, “Look, we all can see that this is a place for us to grow our business. Let’s right now agree on the specifications of what we’re going to build. Not that we’re going to share business, but if one of us get so much business, they can’t deliver on it on their own, the next person will be able to do that because we’ve agreed now on the specs.” Right? So we kind of slid in there with them in terms of, so once you build that building, where can nonclinical staff support those efforts for the government for brands like this one I was just telling you about? So we’ve had to pivot the way we look at our business and the places we play as a company.

The second thing I would say is we just sold a big deal in January with a big box retailer who was going to test virtual reality shopping in 50 markets in 2020, okay? Well, the chances now of people anytime soon wanting to put a big VR headset on their head are slim and nothing. So we just this week started rewriting that entire scope of work with that client to provide virtual brand ambassadors for them to start reaching out into the market with gamers and other people who already do the art so they can test their technology.

So from a revenue generating standpoint, we’ve had to one, stay connected with our customers. The biggest problem I see, and what I saw in my consulting practice, is when business goes down, CEOs and heads of sales cut their sales staff. You should do the exact opposite, right? This is the time to stay connected to your customers, not because you’re going to sell them anything especially. But it’s a big relationship-building time to do care calls and check in with your customer and see where you might add value to their world. Not necessarily that you’re going to write a contract, right?

So one, stay very connected with your customers and use your creative brain while you’re talking with them. Listen to their problems a little bit differently maybe than you normally would, because it’s out of those expressions of their problems that we’re going to see the opportunity to solve for things that just would have never been on our radar before.

Evelyn:

That’s amazing. I mean I love the pivot ideas with having the mobile staff basically outside to check people. Did that come because a company was pitching for it, Jane, or have you guys, you and your team, been strategizing this? I guess from our side, doing what we do, there’s not a lot of collective strategy that comes out of business building. That just seems so interesting as to how one even comes to the idea of the pivot.

Jane:

Well we tried to do it initially through the government, right? Because I was saying to the team, “Who has money right now? Who is spending money?” That’s where we need to focus. The government is spending a ton of money. We don’t typically do government contracts. So we went through that whole process to be able to do government contracts. It is slow moving. It is agonizing and so there we said, “Who might already be doing this where we’re a value added service?” I don’t care if somebody [inaudible 00:15:19] what we do. I just want to put people to work. Okay?

So who else might already be succeeding at this where we can add value to what they’re providing to a client? And that’s one of the ways. You guys know me well enough to know I love partnering with smart people and smart companies. So we were out there looking, who’s already succeeding at this? Who’s already got a plan, and we’re a big value add to what they’re already doing, where they’re already having success? And that’s really where this big opportunity came from. It’s from one of our partners.

Evelyn:

Amazing. You know, I know that we talked a few weeks ago and you had to make some very rough decisions once you realized that there really wasn’t going to be any revenue. But generally how did your people react to the hard part of COVID?

Jane:

Oh my gosh, Evelyn. We have such an amazing group of people. The first thing I had to do was let go of some people and I don’t know anybody else that has experienced this, but every single person I let go said, “Jane, I know this is a hard decision. I know it’s not personal. Let me tell you what I’ve been working on so you don’t drop any balls around with me gone.” It gets me choked up to tell you that. I’m firing them. Okay?

Then I had to furlough the entire rest of the company except for two people on the leadership team. Without exception they said the same thing. We have a company Zoom happy hour every Thursday at four o’clock with our furloughed employees. We all catch up with each other. I tell them how I’m not losing any of their clients for them. I’m taking care of what we do. Are talking, too, on a regular basis. I tell them what’s going on with the decisions that we’re making. So we’re very connected right now to our furloughed employees and I think it matters a lot to them that we do that.

We’ve also had town hall meetings on Facebook Live with our field staff, and in much the same way I am as transparent as I can be with these folks because this whole industry is living in a just unbelievable state of anxiety. I think that one of the things that causes and exacerbates anxiety is a lack of information, and so the more that I can be frank with them about what’s going on, what my personal view of the future is, what are the choices we’re making. You know, I get so many positive comments back even from the Facebook town hall where they said, “I just appreciate that you care about us, that you care about us enough to do this and talk to us and answer our questions.” We took live questions on the Facebook Live and I think those things go a long way.

This is a time to stay connected to your customers and connected to your furloughed employees. No doubt. And if people aren’t doing that, they’re missing a big opportunity.

Evelyn:

I think that’s a tribute to your leadership style though, Jane. Really excellent. Really excellent. What would you say to any of the business leaders that are listening to the podcast? Any final thoughts on what they should be thinking about? What they should be doing now in addition to what you’ve already talked about?

Jane:

Yes I’ll tell you what we’re doing, and this is a lot of what I shared in the town hall with our field staff. Number one, we’re not buying into the doom and gloom. I mean in our industry, you can find a lot of people who will tell you, “This is never going to come back. We’re never going to be the same.” You know what I mean? There’s a lot of just negativity. They’re writing the death certificate for our industry and I don’t believe it. I believe that brands always will need to be face to face with their customers, and so I’m very optimistic about our industry.

So that’s the first thing. We choose to not be negative and not be paralyzed by what’s going on. We are not on a staycation, the leadership team of our company. What we’re doing is we’re addressing things that we would have loved to address, but we were too busy. Things that will make our company better so when we all come back, we’re in a better position to serve our clients. So we’re working as hard or harder than we were working when we were generating revenue.

So that’s one thing. Look at your business now and ask yourself, “What did I think was important for us to do, but I didn’t have time to do it because I was too busy delivering for my customers? What are the things that will make us better when that business comes back?” So we’re making organizational structural changes. We’re building out training that we didn’t have time to do. We are developing our furloughed employees by offering them online classes. I mean these guys always want to be developed, right? So they’re sitting at home with not a lot to do. We’re using that as an opportunity to develop those employees with online courses.

So I would say don’t let this paralyze you. I told the people in the field, I hate that John said I’ve been doing this for 30 years because that indicates like how old I am. A lot of the people in the field that work for us are young people. And I said to them, “When you get to this age you will have experienced a coronavirus-ish situation three or four times in your career.” It’s an unusual situation because of the magnitude of it. But you guys and I, we’ve been through 9/11. We’ve been through a recession.

There will always be something like this that will come up. And the question is, do you choose to be paralyzed by it or do you choose to leverage it as an opportunity to improve your business? We think we’re going to be better. You do have to make hard choice. For us, I think a lot of our competitors won’t come out the other side of this. And right now for me, cash is key. I have to make smart choices and our employees keep saying … You know, I just told them Friday, “I’m not bringing you back May first.” I think it would be a mistake. We’re more like June 1st unless we get this big job, in which case everybody’s coming back immediately. And they all said, “Do what you have to do, Jane, for us to have a company to come home to.”

Evelyn:

That’s awesome. Thank you Jane. We really appreciate you taking the time. We know from talking with clients that are going through this that you can work 24 hours a day right now, because everyone’s sheltered in place and they’ve got a lot of stuff to focus on. But we really appreciate that you would spend a few minutes with us and I think it’s amazing what you’re doing. Bravo.

Jane:

Well, you know I would do anything for you guys and I just appreciate you asking me.

Evelyn:

Tell our listeners how they can find you. Jane,

Jane:

You can find me on LinkedIn, Jane M. Gentry. You can reach me through email, jane@thefusionteam.com. I stuttered because we’re changing that, but for right now you can get me there. You can get us at fusioneventstaffing.com. We’re all over the place. We’re on Facebook. Everywhere that you are, we are. Please connect with me. If you’re a CEO, connect with me on LinkedIn. I think this is a time where we have to put our collective heads together. For me right now, there are no competitors. I’m on a weekly call with CEOs of my competition talking about the industry and what we’re doing. This is a time where people kind of come together and that whole competitive situation looks a little bit different, and I think that’s great.

Evelyn:

Terrific.

John:

Thank you, Jane.

Evelyn:

Thank you so much.

Announcer:

This been In Process: Conversations about business in the 21st century with Evelyn Ashley and John Monahon, presented by Trusted Counsel, a corporate and intellectual property law firm. Are you interested in being a guest on our show? Email our show producers at inprocess@trusted-counsel.com. For more information on Trusted Counsel, please visit trusted-counsel.com.

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