How to Parlay a Pandemic

Originally in the November BPD and Merchant Magazines.

By Morgan Wellens, Sales and Marketing Manager—Trading Division, Nicholson & Cates and Member of the NAWLA Board of Directors

COVID-19 changed the building materials sector. Countless lessons have emerged as the pandemic has unfolded and evolved. Two years into the public health crisis, business is gradually returning to normal, but it won’t be the same as before. We’ve learned too much about who we are and what we’re capable of achieving. In my experience at Nicholson & Cates (N&C), three takeaways in particular come to mind:

  1. We, as an industry, were more prepared than we thought we were.
  2. Sometimes, saying ‘no’ is just as important as saying ‘yes.’
  3. Building materials really are essential.

Ready, or Not?

It really wasn’t the least bit funny, but we at N&C joked (in a laugh-to-keep-from-crying kind of way) that our experience at managing a business during a pandemic amounted to ZERO. We were pleasantly surprised, however, at our readiness to confront the challenges thrown in our path. Building products companies aren’t known to be advanced on the IT side, but collectively we had some systems that performed very well. Some of our suppliers and competitors, for example, are using live microphones in everybody’s home office. It’s turned on at the start of the work day—although it can be muted as needed—and the whole team can talk and interact just as if they were in the office. It’s almost like being there.

While those early adopters were a little bit ahead of the curve, most of us in the industry came to rely heavily on videoconferencing. For N&C, there was a realization that we had been somewhat non-inclusive pre-pandemic in terms of looping in some of our remote sales staff on meetings. If anything, widening the use of video calls out of necessity has helped us to liaise and communicate with those workers more efficiently today.

While building materials is very much a people business, videoconferencing, live mikes, and other technologies helped the industry to see that it still could thrive in an environment without onsite customer visits, travel or trade shows.

Just Say ‘No’

Setting up staff to work from home may have been the easiest part of N&C’s pandemic response, but learning to say ‘no’ to employees—for the good of the company on one hand and for their own personal safety on the other—may have been the toughest.

N&C, and the rest of the industry, was fortunate to experience exceptional demand this spring as public lockdowns kept people cooped up in their homes and anxious for an outlet—such as renovations. The reversal was a welcome change from the onset of the crisis, when every commodity was crashing and the company was taking orders at a loss. But the challenge was in getting our salespeople to change gears. The makeup of a salesperson is to never tell a customer ‘no’ if it can be helped. If we can’t provide what they need right away, we’ll quote when we will be able to fill the order. Because of the extreme demand, however, a firmer stance was warranted. Customers were willing to wait weeks for something from the mill, but we had to coach our sales team to STOP SELLING so that we could catch up. Not to mention, with the cost of raw materials going up so fast, taking orders for, say, 8 weeks out was going to be a money-losing move. That was really tough for the sales team. If there’s an order on the table, they want to take it—that’s the nature of the job.

Meanwhile, for our employees in the mill and distribution settings, who were not able to perform their functions from home, N&C had to say ‘no’ when those workers started feeling the fatigue from wearing masks during their entire shifts, having their temperature checked every day, sanitizing and other pandemic safety protocols. The pushback was strong, with some mill staff even threatening to quit. To help them feel safe and comfortable, we took measures such adding evening and weekend shifts and paying overtime so that we could split people up and avoid overcrowding at any one site at any given time. While there was a bit of staff turnover nonetheless and some older people at the mill did elect to stay home, N&C was able to maintain staffing levels. We actually pulled in some folks from the food and beverage industry—not too many, but enough to compensate and avoid a huge labor shortage—since restaurants and bars were shut down.

‘Essentially,’ a Win

The government didn’t classify restaurants and bars as essential services; and for a moment, the status of Canada’s building products firms was up in the air. Local government officials had advised us to assemble lists of essential services that they then would review. As we began to look at our customer base and do a little more analysis on the supply chain we support, it became increasingly clear just how vast the reach of lumber products truly is. It can support everything from the food and the pharmaceutical packaging industries to nuclear energy to refrigeration—which, as we know, was critical for vaccine distribution.

It was a rewarding process to learn a little more about some of our customers and why they warranted an “essential” label. Not only that, it was a great opportunity to convey to them the importance of N&C remaining open in order to continue its support of essential supply chains.

Not only has the industry proven to be essential, it has demonstrated that it is adaptable.  There are certain areas that we still don’t know how well they’re going to work when business returns to normal; for instance having to hire and train people remotely is one of the little obstacles that I’m not sure we’ve managed to overcome yet. But certainly we have managed to overcome all the other ones, so I think that we will.

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