Blog | Friesens’ Response to COVID-19

July 24, 2020

Friesens’ Response to COVID-19

Chad Friesen, CEO

“Life is 10% what happens to you and 90% how you react to it” – Charles Swindoll.

I’ve thought about this quote often over the last few months. In  early  March,  when  we  accepted  that  COVID-19  would  spread  across  North  America,  our  lives  started  to  change  rapidly.  The  weeks  that  followed  were  some  of  the  most  anxious times, and at the same time the most energized. We’re  one  of  few  businesses  that  actually  existed  during  the  last  pandemic,  in  1918.  David  Wiens  (D.W.)  Friesen  had been operating a confectionery store for eleven years at that  time.  Unfortunately,  there  is  nothing  in  our  corporate  records about the impact the Spanish flu had on the business, but  it  must  have  been  significant.  While  D.W.  employed  just  a  few  people,  the  relative  impact  would  have  been  far  greater   due   to   less   warning,   slow   communication,   and   fewer  health  resources.  But  the  business  survived  then,  and  we  are  confident  that  we  too  will  survive  and  thrive  post-COVID-19. Early   on   we   adopted   a   theme   of    “keep   calm   and   take   reasonable steps.” The first priority was obviously the health and well-being of our employee-owners. The second priority was to protect the company so that we could continue serving our customers today and in the future. We focused on three areas:



3.Financial stability


In the early days, we met several times a week with key leaders to identify risks, make plans, execute, and report back. This small  team  of  talented  individuals  are  the  reason  we’ve  managed as well as we have. Prevention measures were deployed throughout the facilities. As you can imagine, this can be a challenge with more than five hundred employees working in facilities that operate twenty-four hours a day. Fortunately, we are spread out among three production buildings, and the majority of our job functions naturally provide a significant amount of physical distancing. But we did take steps to create separation in those areas that allowed for less distancing and in our shared spaces.

While we were exempt from the lockdown measures, we did ask more than 115 people to work from home. This helped us protect both the people at home and those that remained in the offices. This change was a shock to our typical routines, but was made possible thanks to positive attitudes and years of  investment  in  technolog y.  Microsoft  Teams  became  our  online  meeting  room  and  water  cooler.  This  experience  will  change how we view work-from-home options in the future. I’m   happy   to   report   that   partly   due   to   our   prevention   measures,  we  have  had  no  cases  of  COVID-19  at  Friesens,  and very few cases in the region.


We knew early on that our greatest weapon against COVID-19 was communication. Not only did we need to communicate prevention  guidelines,  but  we  realized  that  the  pandemic  would  extract  a  mental  wellness  toll  as  well.  So,  we  ramped  up the frequency and transparency of our communication to the team. We attempted to address physical health concerns, mental  health  concerns,  and  financial  health  concerns  on  a  regular basis. As employee-owners, we felt that staff needed to hear about the challenges and difficulties just as much as they needed to hear our optimism for the future. We  also  ramped  up  our  communication  with  customers.  To  take  liberties  with  a  D.W.  Friesen  quote,  “We  will  only  recover  and  succeed  if  our  customers  recover  and  succeed.”  It  is  more  important  than  ever  for  us  to  keep  our  finger  on  the  pulse  of  what  was  happening  in  your  business  and  in  your  markets.  Throughout  the  crisis,  we  continued  to  hear  from  publishers  a  sense  of  confidence  in  a  strong  rebound.  This was bolstered by retail data that showed book sales fared pretty well. It is this feedback that gives us confidence to take the  steps  that  we  are  taking  to  ride  out  the  pandemic  and  maintain readiness for a market rebound.

Financial Stability

As  news  stories  of  massive  layoffs  and  a  looming  recession  emerged,  the  focus  of  many  employees  turned  from  health  concerns to financial concerns. This fear was not unfounded, as  our  company  struggled  mightily  in  April  and  May  with  drops in revenue of over -30 percent. While we have always believed there would be a strong recovery and we are seeing orders and quote requests increasing, we could not be certain.  Because  we  are  an  employee-owned  company  that  operates  with  zero  debt,  we’re  able  to  make  decisions  differently  than  many  other  companies.  In  early  April,  we  announced  that  we  would  keep  all  employees  “financially  whole”  for  the  foreseeable  future.  By  leveraging  government  programs  and  dipping  into  our  cash  reserves,  we’re  able  to  provide  assurance to our employees and their families while ensuring we have everyone in place as orders pick up.

10% what happens … 90% how we react

A  crisis  like  this  tests  us.  It  identifies  our  strengths  and  our 11weaknesses.  I  am  extremely  proud  of  how  our  team  rose  to  the challenge. Not  only  did  we  continue  caring  for  each  other  and  our  customers,  we  continued  to  support  the  community.  The  following are two examples. Like  many  other  communities,  our  local  restaurants  have  suffered greatly. In response, we launched a “Takeout to Help Out”  campaign  whereby  the  company  provided  discounts  to   employees   who   ordered   takeout   from   participating   restaurants.   The   response   was   excellent,   and   our   efforts   helped keep some restaurants afloat. When  the  local  middle  school  had  to  cancel  their  annual  community  clean-a-thon  due  to  schools  being  closed,  over  one  hundred  employee-owners  hit  the  streets  with  garbage  and recycling bags to help tidy our town and pay it forward to others. This was a rewarding event that allowed us to spend some time together (outside and safely distanced)

The Importance of Books

Friesens  exists  to  help  other  people  share  their  best  stories  with the world. While  many  other  forms  of  sharing  have  been  silenced  by  COVID-19, the printed page remains a safe and vital source of  knowledge  and  entertainment.  Your  stories  are  more  important  now  than  ever,  and  we’re  honoured  to  help  you  share them with the world. Thank you for your business; thank you for your friendship. We will survive and thrive together!