“We showed ourselves what we’re made of”

By Laura Jajko, President, American Frame
 
September 2020
 
2020 has been a master class in crisis management I never wanted to take. We started the year with big growth plans. Then COVID-19 hits, and with it comes all these questions. What is this virus all about? What will the Ohio governor do? What do our employees need? What will we, as a business, be mandated to do? To further complicate things, my father, the founder of American Frame, was gravely ill.
 
I’d been really sick for a few weeks. In mid-February, I’d traveled to see the Edward Hopper retrospective at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. The friend I traveled with had just returned from China, so the coronavirus was part of our conversations. Is it a thing or isn’t it? I’d never been so sick. Maybe it was COVID-19 or another flu that had been going around.
 
I wanted to get tested. My doctor also happens to be my walking partner and friend. She said she could test me but she didn’t want me to have a false sense of security because it was hard to determine how long the antibodies last. So I wasn’t tested. I guess I’ll never know what it was.
 
As a company, we went into COVID-19 backlogged. We had a really good January and a double-digit February, so we were running a little behind anyway.
 
We took COVID-19 seriously from the start. On March 5, we had an all-employee meeting. We told everyone that we’re going to assume this all is very real and that we need to protect each other. We established new cleaning standards. We didn’t require masks at the time because the CDC didn’t recommend them. We established social distancing rules. When greeting vendors or customers in the showroom, no shaking hands. Not long after, we closed the showroom and made it by appointment only.
 
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Later in March, the governor closed all non-essential businesses. Now what do we do? We were a bit behind on orders so our teams were working weekends. We wanted to give them a break. We decided not to work one weekend, and work the following weekend instead. We guessed wrong. Our team pulled together on the 23rd. Some came in as early as 6 a.m. and didn’t leave until 8 or 10 that night. They were so committed to getting the orders out to the customers. It was amazing.
 
That day, my sister Dana (CFO) and our HR manager, Jennifer, and I were sitting in Dana’s office asking ourselves, What do we do? Do we lay people off? Do we furlough them? What’s best for them?
 
We laid off almost our entire workforce. Here I am, building a company and we’re laying people off, not knowing if they’d ever be back. We kept a skeleton crew, basically for customer service. They worked remotely. We also had a few in the plant, since the state of Ohio’s directive allowed certain essential personnel to protect inventory, make sure the operation was secure, and handle essential operations. As owners, Dana and I were also able to come into the offices.
 
They said the mandate would last two weeks. One of our biggest customers thought otherwise. He told me it was going to be more like 6 to 8 weeks. We closed March 23rd and expected to reopen on April 6. On April 3, the closure was extended to May 1.
 
At the same time, my dad’s health continued to decline. Fortunately, he was at home, in his own house, so we were able to accompany him on his journey. Dad was a news junkie. He always read the major newspapers every day, and watched a lot of the news. He understood the issues deeply. But one day, we visited him in the middle of the day. “What are you two doing here? Why aren’t you working?” Dana said, “Dad, we had to close the business.” He thought we were finished. Big misunderstanding.
 
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Dad always said, “Never panic in business.” He never lost a night of sleep worrying about work. But after the shutdown was extended to May 1, I panicked. I wondered, Why are certain businesses considered “essential?” Why are golf courses “essential?” Staples could stay open because they enable businesses to work from their home. It’s essential. We’re enabling artists to run their business from their home, but we’re not essential? I started looking at the types of products considered essential and comparing them to what we offer. Three things stood out. One, business-to-business supply. Two, printing. And three, we were selling acrylic/plexiglass screens that many businesses – banks, grocery stores, and others – needed to install as a safeguard against COVID-19. They’re called spit screens. On April 8, I stayed up all night writing a letter. The next day, I called the mayor of Maumee (Ohio, where American Frame is headquartered). He said if you want to reopen, I’m not going to shut you down. I didn’t just want the mayor’s blessing, I wanted him to take that to the governor. I didn’t want the health department marching in arresting us and shutting us down again. When the rules are unclear or unfair, you have to question that.
 
We got the blessing to reopen. We ran a minimum operation. As a nonessential business, we ramped up beginning May 1 and reopened May 4. What we didn’t expect was the kind of backlog that we got. The problem was our supply chain for materials and products was shut down. Nobody was shipping us what we needed to fulfill orders.
 
At the same time, many of our customers and some of our competitors had been doing business all along because the rules in other states were different. It wasn’t a nationwide shutdown. Politicians seem to think that it was a level playing field. It wasn’t. North Carolina shut down later than Ohio so one of our competitors never had to shut down.
 
When we laid off all those employees, my biggest fear was losing them to other jobs or losing them forever. We have a company Facebook page for our employees only. Generally, if someone leaves the company, we remove them from that page. For COVID-19, it became a way to communicate with our employees while we’re shut down.
 
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It was scary for a lot of our people. They didn’t know what was happening with American Frame, if we were going to survive this. Dana (Laura’s sister and company CFO) immediately pursued the PPP loans. We got that loan and another small loan for equipment and  infrastructure. I’m really thankful for those loans. They allowed us to keep operations going. We re-opened without the revenues that we budgeted for.
 
Dad always said, “Out of crisis comes opportunity.” Because of the risk of Covid, you weren’t supposed to touch your mail for two days, and our production process was really dependent on paper. So our plant team started eliminating as much paper as possible, and we invested in programming low-tech solutions for moving orders through the plant. We also eliminated tables and started using carts.
 
Dad passed away on April 13, at 3 in the morning. Later that day, I conducted an all-employee meeting. That was tough. We had to talk about the changes, the state of the company, the fact that we had lost over 60% of our business. We were bringing people back slowly. Some positions were eliminated. Some were created. Some were reorganized. Some were at different pay scale. We were reinventing the company. We set expectations with everybody.
 
One day at a time, one problem at a time. That’s how I’ve been running 2020. Try to stay focused, control the controllable, don’t panic over what you can’t solve. Always keep the customer in mind. Our systems aren’t built for long lead times. They’re built for bringing orders in, taking payments, making the orders, and shipping them. With the backlog, none of that was working. Customers were upset because we had their money and it was taking longer than normal to deliver their product. We did our best, and kept communicating.
 
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But the fall is almost here. We’ll see what happens.
 
This kind of challenge, you show yourself what you’re made of. There’s no running away from the difficult decision or the difficult conversations or the apology you have to make to your customers. There’s been a lot of personal growth that will make us better professionally. To know that you can get through crisis with a cool head. You can be creative when things seem like they’re falling apart. You can still have fun and dig into the problems in a creative way. You can reinvent yourself as a company. We’re focusing on tech and operations more now than ever. There are new channels out there that weren’t available before. We’ve had this opportunity to hire.
 
When you’ve worked with a parent like my dad, logic says no, but vision says yes. He always said “You can’t go back. You have to keep moving forward.” That’s the risk in business. We made the decision to keep moving forward. In one of the last conversations I had with him, he said, “Isn’t business fun?” We could lose everything, but we’re confident. We have a legacy, a culture and a vision. This is where we want to be and this is who we want to be in the next year, 3 years, 5 years, 10 years.