How our C Suite Award honorees are managing the pandemic

To say 2020 has been a tough year for business is a major understatement. The COVID-19 pandemic brought a seismic shift to the way we do business, as suburban companies either learn to adapt and change or become victims to the new realities.

Leadership also has been challenged. Business models collapsed and revenue sources dried up. Business owners and executives were forced to rethink their strategies and find new avenues for survival. Employees were sent home to do their work, or worse, were furloughed or let go due to the lack of business.

The 19 honorees of the 2020 Daily Herald Business Ledger C Suite Awards were not immune to the hardships, but how they reacted to this monumental challenge makes our Class of 2020 unique from previous honorees.

The sudden change from the norm forced them to react quickly to determine a path through the pandemic's obstacles, and as a result keep their organizations afloat — and in some cases thriving — during the storm.

Their efforts this year encompass the C Suite Award's recognition of suburban executives for the leadership, business and civic contributions they have made to their organizations and the community.

Our honorees discussed the challenges they faced during the pandemic. These are some of their stories.

Joy Symonds, owner and director of community engagement, Symonds-Madison Funeral Home, Elgin

The pandemic drastically changed the funeral industry. Large funeral gatherings of the past were replaced by intimate gatherings of 10 or less, and several months later, 50 or less. To overcome physical gathering limits, we created new virtual programs to allow mourners to participate in saying goodbye to their loved ones safely from home. We launched virtual visitations and funerals, created our Caring Hearts Program (a remote written condolence platform), and amped up our online visibility to educate the public about funeral options during the pandemic.

Once the shutdown was in place, we amped up our visibility online and continued investing in digital marketing. We posted more online than ever before, sharing with people about what kind of funeral service they could have, instead of dwelling on what they couldn't have. We hosted a Facebook Live event on funeral options during COVID-19 and created a Facebook series on tips for grieving together when we have to be physically apart.

We also hosted a virtual Memorial Day ceremony after local events were canceled due to the pandemic. This was a way to give back to our community and stay visible as a military family on this important day. All this visibility online resulted in increased referrals and awareness of our brand.

Daniel Yunez, CFO, Rose Pest Solutions, Northfield

Like most companies, COVID-19 has had a dramatic effect on our operation. At the forefront of that is the health and safety of our team. We established new COVID specific protocols to monitor, manage and react to any situation. For our customers, we spent additional time highlighting the importance of exterior, contact free services as well as the protocols and safety measure we are actively taking.

We have also seen a drop in service. Much of our commercial business was closed for several months. Residential customers preferred to push services. The lack of revenue and cash flow not only impacted the financial well-being of the company, but also our service professionals' pay.

Our revenue, profit, and sales budgets and forecasts all had to be adjusted and managed to reflect expectations.

When your people see that you truly care about their health and safety, they in turn are more dedicated to the end product or service for the business. We also received feedback from customers on how they were impressed by our team members wearing proper PPE when providing service. The customers stated this gave them added security that they were protected.

Scott Pauga, founder and CEO, Second Life Mac, Skokie

I was on a business trip when the news about the shut downs was announced. When I got back to the office, I immediately gathered my team so we could discuss how we thought the pandemic would impact our business and our customers. Once we were able to discuss how we felt the pandemic would impact the various parts of the business, we put the fear aside and shifted into innovation mode. We started discussing what services we could offer our customers to help them through this difficult time. I challenged everyone to think creatively and to anticipate what might happen.

We knew that if students were quarantined, they were not going back to school in the spring. That would create challenges for school districts that rely on collecting digital learning devices at the end of the school year so they can be sold and new devices can be purchased. We also anticipated that administrators would be scared to take back devices that have been in students' home and could transmit the virus.

That's how our Touchless Trade-in service was created. It wasn't about selling a new service because of the pandemic; it was a way for us to meet a very real challenge that our customers soon would be facing.

The pandemic gave us an opportunity to really showcase how our company is different from the competition. Our ability to envision the challenges that schools would soon face and to act quickly to develop an entirely new way for schools to conduct their trade-ins has really helped demonstrate the value we add. We announced Touchless Trade-in™ in April and continue to be the only buyback company offering such a service.

Jeff Taylor, president and COO, Crafts Technology, Elk Grove Village

COVID-19 affected our business by making us a stronger team! The many challenges that have arisen during the pandemic instigated our team into being engaged in a great number of creative thinking events, advanced our problem-solving skills and generally resulted in an overall improvement in the spirit of our teamwork. There were many stressors, but our team managed to work through them in productive ways.

On the business side, our sales/bookings are outpacing our sales/bookings versus last year as we are engaged in the manufacture of highly specialized injection mold tooling and wear parts for the medical/health care industry, as well as the medical electronics industry. It has been an honor to support the front line workers and to have an ongoing opportunity to work for the better good of our nation.

Mike Viso, director of marketing, MotherG, Itasca

It caused us to reflect on issues both internally and externally. We were operating at our best, where were we giving the best service to our clients, where were the cracks in the foundation? Understanding where we were deficient allowed us to set forth a plan to improve.

Where we really see the impact is in culture and what we call “organizational rust.” We believe this will be the downfall for organizations today and in the near future. The spontaneous communication lost is a huge factor in what will hurt a business. Grabbing coffee or a beer at the office sparks more ideas than you can imagine. The lack of quality time spent leads to less loyalty, more opportunities for dissatisfaction to grow into a larger issue and a variety of other issues that can spark when a simple sentence is interpreted incorrectly.

Technology is just the tool that we use to help you grow your business. We are a business partner that creates a plan to help you reach your goals. With that in mind, we looked at the challenges businesses might face. That led us to completely dive into content generation. Our webinars, presentations and resource center completely changed our business. It took the message in the first sentence of this paragraph from a nice sales pitch to reality. We were able to be a resource for businesses. The businesses were able to save valuable time, effort and money.

Kara Lineal, president and chief marketing officer, Plum Grove Inc. Hoffman Estates

When the pandemic struck, marketing campaigns and trade show events were canceled nationwide, resulting in significantly reduced sales. We pivoted our business by reinventing our organization to support the new demands for workplace health and safety. We also leveraged technology and automation to enable and empower our newly remote workforce.

The biggest change we made as a result of the pandemic was to focus on the pandemic. Instead of developing marketing campaigns for our clients, we focused on launching products that help businesses reopen safely. We created free printable signs and posters for coronavirus health and safety for the community. We also began partnering with USA manufacturing companies to develop proprietary products that promote workplace health and safety.

Tim Helenthal, president and CEO, National Van Lines, Bridgeview

Since we are involved in moving families around the country and the world, we were impacted almost immediately. Families sheltering in place or under a stay-at-home order had their plans dramatically altered. Additionally, we do a lot of work with the Department of Defense and they put out a “stop-move” order in mid-March that effectively reduced their overall volume by about 70%.

Our corporate employees were also greatly impacted by this as we quickly transitioned to a 95% work-from-home workforce with a lot of cooperation and help from the employees and our IT staff. Of course, the work-from-home had a great impact on day-to-day culture, but this experience revealed how resilient our team is in the face of crisis.

When things began slowing down in March, our sales and marketing teams used it as an opportunity to review our entire customer acquisition process to include lead generation, in-house sales process, and the sale process of our more than 100 National Van Lines agents throughout the country. This top to bottom review led to some reshuffling of employee responsibilities, new PPC campaigns, and general improvement in customer engagement processes from our sales team. As a result, we've seen our consumer business post dramatic year over year increases in June and July which was something we never expected when we were seeing volume reductions of 50% at the beginning of the 2nd quarter.

Kimberly Warren, president, Pilot Services, Oswego

Our business is down significantly. We provide IT-related services to over 1,000 communities throughout the country. Obviously, we aren't able to enter into those facilities to do the work that needs to be done. When the shutdown occurred, our team took immediate steps to cut costs and re-budget for the year. We then communicated that plan to employees so that we were all aligned with our new objectives.

We've had to adjust to other challenges that other businesses are facing such as using more technology like Zoom to stay connected. And we've had to become more flexible with employee needs while they are working from home.

We looked for other solutions that we could deliver to our client base (and even expand our current client base). We brought on a new sales and marketing team to help us launch our AI scan product line which includes temperature scanners and UVC decontamination. Our clients have truly embraced our ability to deliver them solutions that make sense for their businesses as they try to reopen.

Mary Davenport, president, TransTech IT, Itasca

It challenged us to think outside the box. We expected there to be a hiring freeze/job loss. That lead to a major part of our business being stagnant. We needed to figure out how to combat a major part of the population being out of work as companies cut cost.

We know there is/was going to be amazing talent looking for jobs. We had to figure out how to help them. What we're building now is more content that can be of service. The way in which people interview, are hired and will work has gone from a small percent of the workforce to the majority. It's likely to stay in 50/50 range as organizations look to improve their bottom line.

That's why we have developed more resources. We're posting more on social media, our team is hosting webinars and we're in the process of creating a platform for clients and candidates to share their voice.

Scott Block, executive director, McHenry County Mental Health Center, Crystal Lake

In the best of times, we've known that at least one-quarter to one-half of us experience a behavioral health need. Some of the most common disorders have lifelong effects that include high costs to individuals, families, health care systems, and communities.

As we've learned from previous disasters, the need for behavioral health supports will increase and will continue to grow for some time. As a result of the pandemic, the behavioral health industry rushed to implement virtual services and revise regulatory barriers wherever applicable. Moving forward, there is widespread agreement that expanded use of telehealth and virtual visits will remain an ongoing part of the service delivery system. As a local mental health authority, the Mental Health Board moved quickly to modify internal procedures allowing for improved efficiencies in contracting and affidavit/payment processing, while supporting providers as they adapted to virtual service delivery platforms and new regulations.

Melissa Kehl, owner and president, Reike Office Interiors, Elgin

The pandemic effects were immediate. Customer orders seem to shut off like a faucet, and we shifted our office employees to work from home. Our manufacturing department had to shut down completely for approximately three weeks.

In that time, however, we successfully pivoted our business model quickly and created a new line of SafeSpace products. These products allowed our manufacturing employees and craftsmen to return to work while concurrently providing other businesses the opportunity to safely open their doors again as well.

The most important change we made was pivoting and using our entire staff's creativity to develop a completely new product line of workplace PPE to help our community return to work safely amid this pandemic. We successfully went from concept to launch in one week and received our first order that very same day. Because we have our finger on the pulse of the office design industry, we knew the open office environment was extremely popular. Because of COVID-19, we didn't believe that people were going to feel comfortable and safe going back to that.

Steve Ryan, founder & CEO, RyTech LLC, La Grange

With the immediate impact of the unknown, our business certainly felt the newfound economic reality with clients pulling back on budgets and adjusting their priorities. Fortunately, RyTech works with clients across many different industries and sectors, which diversified our firm well to weather some client attrition.

However, businesses quickly realized that this “new normal” would be around for quite some time and there was a need to invest in online marketing, websites, and figuring out a new way to interact with the customer base. Gratefully, we have continued to be busier than we were and partnering with clients on their overall online marketing efforts, redesigning websites, and focusing on conversion opportunities for their businesses.

During the pandemic and transition to remote work, we made a concerted effort to keep employee engagement and morale as high as possible with the adjustment to working from home. From virtual happy hours, 1:1 video call outreach, to theme days where everyone dressed within the theme, we focused on opportunities to connect, touch base, and engage as a full team. I know that work/life balance lines were blurred during the stay at home period and we recognize the mental health toll this has taken on our team, which is why we made it a priority to also encourage time off, breaks, and flexible schedules.

Pat Szpekowski, president of PR Strategies & Communications/PmS Advertising, Elgin

Our business was greatly affected by the pandemic. We've been working since last fall doing research and planning, as well as coordinating and placing media buys and promotional efforts for several clients' public and community events. With COVID-19 and shelter in place, obviously the right thing to do for public safety and health was the cancellation of their events. It brought all of our efforts to a complete and screeching halt.

First, by staying in contact with all clients to make sure they were in good health. And secondly, to focus on their unique public relations messages and collateral materials, as needed, to spread the word to their own customers and patients about the safety measures and guidelines they made to ensure their good health.

Kaylin Risvold, president & CEO, Naperville Area Chamber of Commerce

The most significant change we made was to transform our office and our services from an in-person setting to fully virtual. NACC thrives on connection and nearly overnight we shifted our networking events, education and programming from luncheons and breakfasts to Zoom and social media. The trick was to make virtual feel the same — welcoming, open, instructive and collaborative. In April and May, we had one to two virtual events a day. We wanted our members, and our community, to know that we are here to support them. Through June and July, we were able to use a mixture of virtual and in-person events to effectively broaden the reach of NACC. We are still working on it, day by day, but the addition of a strong virtual component to the NACC has ensured that we are able to help more businesses move their business forward.

2020 C-Suite Award honorees

Mary Davenport, president of TransTech IT in Itasca
Mike Viso, director of marketing, MotherG in Itasca
Kaylin Risvold, president & CEO of the Naperville Area Chamber of Commerce
Melissa Kehl, owner and president of Reike Office Interiors in Elgin
Scott Block, executive director of the McHenry County Mental Health Center in Crystal Lake
Joy Symonds, owner and director of community engagement of Symonds-Madison Funeral Home in Elgin
Daniel Yunez, CFO of Rose Pest Solutions in Northfield
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