Managing the Unexpected

It was a Strictly Business Forum like no other. There was no breakfast served, no swag proffered and no group photos taken. Instead, there were opportunities. Deena Giltz McCullough introduced us to her new puppy named Zoom. Steve Segal didn’t have to drive down from Montreal and I’m quite sure Kristy Kennedy was wearing her slippers during the event. But despite differences from previous SB Forums, one thing remained the same – the quality of the conversation. It was candid, at times humorous and, for the most part, upbeat.

Joining me for the 31st Strictly Business Forum via Microsoft Teams were:
Deena Giltz McCullough, third-generation President/CEO of Northern Insuring Agency
Kristy Kennedy, Vice President of Marketing & Business Development at the North Country Chamber of Commerce
Michelle LeBeau, President/COO of the University of Vermont Health Network at CVPH & Alice Hyde Medical Centers
Rick Martindale, CPA, owner and Managing Partner of Martindale Keyser & Company
Bill Meyers, Market Area Manager for Casella Waste Management
Stephen Segal, President of Omni Trans and Metro Customs Brokers.
Eric Zeisloft, Vice President of Operations at Mold-Rite Plastics.

After we all took a minute to admire four-month-old Zoom, we began our discussion.

How have each of your businesses fared in 2020 and how has the pandemic impacted you?

Michelle LeBeau began. “The pandemic has been devastating for us financially but the human toll is the place where I am spending the vast majority of my time right now. What we are experiencing is a lesson in human behavior – how we react in response to trauma and the crises in front of us. We have developed a 35-member crisis intervention stress management team to address our concerns about staff burnout. In addition, we have created strong sustainability plans to bring us back on track financially but the challenges of 2020 have been daunting and will persist well into 2021.”

Kristy Kennedy: “At the North Country Chamber of Commerce and Adirondack Coast Visitors Bureau we are in business for small business. When the pandemic hit, we needed to determine what our value was to our members and what they needed us to do for them during an unprecedented time. Our team stepped up and performed exactly as expected. We were all hands on deck, navigating through a tough situation to bring information to our members and lobbying for them. In that sense, we fared very well.”

Steve Segal: Our fiscal year started in November. From then until the end of March we were doing well. But then in April the world collapsed. Within seven days we had 98% of our staff working remotely, with our business volume dropping by 38%. The Canadian government quickly developed a program to keep people employed using corporate wage subsidies. This was targeted for companies whose volumes were down by more than 30%, and prevented companies from laying off employees. Since 70% of our workforce is in Canada, this was a significant help. By September, we saw a return to quasi-acceptable levels, within 10% of the previous year’s numbers.

Eric Zeisloft: We were designated as an essential service since about 90% of the caps produced by our three U.S. plants are used for products tied to the pandemic such as cleaners, medicines, vitamins, food containers, etc. It has been a huge growth year for us — close to a 40% increase. Our biggest challenge has been keeping up with demand. We’ve installed eight new molding machines this year and two more are on the way to us. We have 550 employees and are struggling to fill 20-30 openings given the very difficult unemployment rules that were put in place. We are proud to say we have not had a single positive case of COVID in the plant.”

Bill Meyers: We were in a strong position as a company going into the pandemic but our business was definitely challenged this year. We saw a 28% revenue and volume loss from our small businesses and large seasonal event work, while at the same time we saw a 37% increase in our residential collection and temporary container lines of work. We have worked hard to be flexible with customers, recognizing many of them are struggling financially. Our number one priority has been, and will continue to be, keeping our people, customers and the communities where we operate safe and healthy.”

Deena Giltz McCullough: “Northern Insuring fared better in 2020 than I would have predicted in the spring. When the pandemic hit, we promptly reduced our workforce in our offices to 20% with 80% remote. After the Ice Storm of 1998 we developed a Disaster Response Plan which helped to facilitate this approach. We are now almost 100% back in our three offices. Financially we have been impacted by the closures of business clients, less payroll and sales and employees on company sponsored health plans. At this point we are one to two percent off our 2020 revenue plan.”

Rick Martindale: “It was a rocky spring for us like everyone else but our issue was client availability, communication and getting the documentation we needed to prepare financial statements and tax returns. With almost everyone shut down it was a struggle to get work in and then to our employees working remotely. Then there were the automatic extensions of returns to July 15th which gave clients more reasons to move slowly. By now the workload that normally would have been completed during March, April and May has finally been caught up. In the end we will have held our position. However, the delay caused many complications and much angst.”

What new technology are you using and how is it helping your business?

Giltz McCullough: “We are using an app to screen our employees each day. It allows them to take their temperature at home, answer a set of questions and then sign off. This kind of self-screening is helpful not only to employers but for contact tracing if that becomes necessary.”

Segal: “We have made a huge investment in platform workflows to interface with clients and for the movement of documentation between offices, countries and staff. In addition, Microsoft Teams has become our company’s new best friend.”

Kennedy: “We started our daily e-newsletter, Daily Dose, using it and our social media platform to develop strategies for effective communication.”


How will your business meet the challenges of the new year?

Segal: “We are investing heavily in new business development and increased our sales organization. We will not support the level of travel and entertainment we have in the past.”

LeBeau: “For hospitals 2021 will be a year to stabilize and try to rebuild, to be sure we have the services our communities need. It will also be a time for our teams to figure out workforce issues. How do we re-engage young people in health care? How do we make it less scary?”

Kennedy: “We will need to do something to help our hospitality businesses thrive. We need to put heads in beds. Instead of urging people to visit our area because it is beautiful and they will have a great time, we need to market it as a place that is safe, beautiful and offers great experiences.”

Meyers: “More emphasis on communication. We will be more proactive for our customers, offering them advice on what level of service they might need or plans they might not have considered.”

Zeisloft: “Right now, we are working through a large volume of orders. Customers are restocking their warehouses from the huge surge of volume they have experienced this year. All indications are that our business will continue to grow in 2021.”

artindale: “I wish I knew what the future will hold. Since the start of the pandemic, we have struggled with all levels of services that typically we perform at clients’ offices, accessing their files and having client staff interaction. How do we deliver the level of customer service we are known for? We are doing everything we can on this level but our challenge will continue to be providing a personal service remotely. That is extremely difficult for some of our services and especially so for audits of financial statements.”

Giltz McCullough: “We will need leaner expenses and solid budgeting for 2021.”

At that point in our conversation, I urged everyone to “Buckle Up!” We were going into our lightning round.

What are the North Country’s greatest challenges?

LeBeau: “Workforce. Making sure we have enough young people interested in health care careers who want to stay in the area. Closure of our northern border.”

Meyers: “Attracting people from outside the area. Training within. Finding people to fill specific positions like commercial drivers and diesel technicians and retaining them. Financial support for our small businesses. Reopening the Canadian border.”

Zeisloft: “Building our workforce. Developing and refining skills within our company. Addressing employee issues like child care and home schooling.”

Giltz McCullough: “The loss of Canadian income. Developing a more diverse, inclusive community. Remaining positive no matter what.”

Martindale: “Keeping all of our clients and businesses open and people working. Need for more middle-class housing. Our greatest concern is what’s next and who will survive this.”

Kennedy: “COVID-19 fatigue and the unknown. We must continue to be vigilant and understand the more we follow guidelines, the sooner we will have the normal we are aching for.”

Segal: “Uncertainty. Hiring and retaining the best people.”

What does the North Country need to do to create a prosperous future?

Martindale: “We have been lucky to have been somewhat less impacted by the pandemic. We will succeed if we have continued job growth at an acceptable pay level. Growth is good for business. If we continue to build ourselves as a Center of work, play, entertainment, medical, shopping, etc. we will succeed but only if we address our need for affordable housing.”

Giltz McCullough: “Continue to develop meaningful partnerships, think creatively and always, always be proactive. This is our strength. Keep setting a high and positive bar that is the model for other communities across the region and the U.S. to follow.”

LeBeau: “Seize this opportunity to introduce the country to Northern New York. We have a wonderful opportunity to advertise our strengths, how those strengths have supported us through this pandemic and why the area is such an awesome place to call home.”

Meyers: “Continue to expand our international airport and develop properties that surround it. Develop our waterfront within and around the Lake City. Invest, promote and partner with our colleges, university and technical schools.”

Kennedy: “Education and communication are going to be a big part of what will make us prosperous in the future. We must stay focused, pivot and adapt to new practices and norms. We are a resilient community. If we rise up together and do what we need to do, we will come out stronger.”

Segal: “A better connection between education and business where graduates are much more visible and easily accessible to employers.”

Zeisloft: “Continue to work together. As a community and as business leaders and owners we need to be conscious of the fact that there are a lot of people in the community who are struggling right now. Struggles with things like addiction and mental health issues are on the rise and together we need to help those people get back on track.”

Eric’s observation seemed like a good place to end our discussion. The morning had flown by and it was time for North Country Chamber of Commerce President Garry Douglas’ wrap up. For 28 years he has shared his take on the area’s problems and successes with Forum participants. (You will find Garry’s comments on page 30 of this issue.)

But before I go, let me take a moment to thank my group for their insight and their willingness to take a chance on our COVID Zoom format. Great people, great conversation! The result was everything I hoped for.