July 24, 2020
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:
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.
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!