A key part of leadership at the pinnacle of a company is the ability to navigate the unexpected and visualize a path ahead, while guiding staff members into an unknown future. But there’s no amount of book learning or real-life professional experience that could have prepared foodservice equipment dealer or manufacturer CEOs for a once-in-a-century pandemic, nor for the unprecedented financial and logistical challenges that came in its wake.
We asked three FEDA-member company presidents – Mark Rossi of Avanti Restaurant Solutions in Costa Mesa, California; Dustin Bennett of NOLA Restaurant Supply & Design in New Orleans; and Megan Blohowiak of Minnesota-based beverage equipment and smallwares manufacturer Service Ideas – to tell us what they’ve learned about leadership in the past year. What were their biggest challenges during the pandemic? How did they manage to keep their staffs motivated and forward looking?
It Begins with Communication
When Rossi founded his company, he gave it a name that means “forward” in Italian. Constantly moving forward is central to his leadership philosophy, based on the underlying character traits of persistence (“getting right up again when you get smacked down”) and perseverance (“weathering storms”). But to keep his staff moving forward throughout the pandemic, he learned that the most important skill of all was communication.
During times of crisis, “everybody imagines the worst,” Rossi explains. “So the more you can communicate, the better – let staff know what’s happening, whether it’s bad or good. Have regular conversations, keep everybody in the mix. We focused on the positive and laughed as much as we could, given the circumstances.”
Those circumstances became particularly dark just two weeks into the COVID-19 lockdown, when Rossi was forced to lay off 16 employees who had been hired the year before as part of a drive to diversify the company’s markets. “That was not fun,” he says. “It was the hardest thing I ever did as a leader.”
But thanks to Avanti’s sales growth since the crisis began, Rossi has hired back seven of those who were let go, some of them in positions quite different from those they had previously held.
“Something we figured out in the midst of all this was the importance of having everyone in the right seat,” he says. “The pandemic allowed us to totally change the game. A person who wasn’t doing perfectly in one role could thrive in another – and oh my gosh, now I see he was just in the wrong seat on the bus.” Part of the reason the firm has been able to mix-and-match personnel and positions: Rossi says he hires based not on experience in foodservice, but rather on personality and character, seeking those who are “determined, genuine, and bright. You can teach people the difference between a fryer and a combi, but you can’t teach them how to persevere.”
Communication among Avanti employees became even more important when staff began working from home. “Having regular rhythms during the work week – calls, meetings, even alone time to think – helps build good habits,” Rossi says. “We started doing all-company Zoom meetings, got into a weekly rhythm. We decided on information to be presented each time, and always tried to do a go-around to check in on how everyone was feeling and hear about positive experiences.”
Rossi and the staff took advantage of the 2020 business slowdown to boost online communication in a number of ways. One was getting the firm’s e-commerce website up to speed – something that quickly became even more important as online sales took off during the pandemic. Associates also devoted time and effort to building a robust social-media presence on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and LinkedIn, posting articles, reviews, funny videos, and other content. And most ambitiously, an internal team led by COO Gary Coburn and learning and development manager Nicolette Spanner created an online platform dubbed Avanti University, open to all employees as well as vendors. “We invested heavily to create in-house learning that goes from our core values to anti-harassment training to sales techniques to energy rebates to information about exhaust hoods,” Rossi says.
Those online efforts are beginning to pay off. So are the company’s 2019 decisions to strengthen its design division, and to branch out from its customer base of chain restaurants to pursue more big-league contract business in onsite foodservice segments – a part of the industry that has continued to grow even as restaurants struggled.
The staff’s response to the crisis “reiterated that everybody at Avanti has become a tribe who share common interests and values, something that’s more functional than most families,” Rossi says. “We really are all working together to move the company forward.”
Don’t Be Afraid to Rock the Boat
“Overcoming the temptation of not wanting to rock the boat” was the biggest pandemic challenge for Dustin Bennett of NOLA Restaurant Supply & Design. “Sometimes you have to let employees or potential clients go if they don’t fit your core values or long-term goals,” he says. “Those decisions are tough for me, since I’m an avid keeper of the peace.”
When Bennett laid off half a dozen employees during the pandemic, what helped was having formally defined the company’s mission and vision, along with three-year and 10-year plans for achieving that vision.
“Determining where we wanted to go, and what it would take to get there, was a defining moment for our team’s future. Once those were established, we felt like we were striving to accomplish a big, audacious goal,” he says. “We knew we had to do whatever was necessary to get everybody rowing in the same direction. We had to let go some people who had been here awhile but just weren’t right for the job or the company culture. Once I saw that those people weren’t a good fit with our values and goals, it made sense. It was a huge lesson on making hard decisions to get where we want to be.” Now, he adds, job candidates are hired based on their commitment to NOLA’s core values, along with character traits that range from integrity to a sense of fun.
Bennett says his executive style is based on passion and persistence – passion about the foodservice industry and its workers, and the persistence entailed in “always doing what you say you’ll do.” That means following up quickly on every lead, query, or interaction with customers, manufacturers, and manufacturers’ reps to collect information and respond to their needs. In other words: “Don’t get complacent.”
While those leadership skills will always be foremost, getting through the pandemic also required open-mindedness, flexibility, and an embrace of change. “The lockdown created room for more innovation and development than ever before,” Bennett says. “Things were constantly changing with customers’ situations and schedules, so we had to get creative to recoup sales numbers and make things better. If customers could do something different that could save them money, we kept an open mind and tried to help out any way we could. We don’t always have to focus so much on the bottom line.”
The company not only re-evaluated its systems and processes, but also benefited from transitioning during the pandemic to new market segments: “We’re seeing a boom in construction in areas like c-stores and ghost kitchens, and some chain restaurants are really starting to grow,” he says.
He notes that he’s learned to be a better leader not only on the job but also by reading and attending industry conferences. In addition, he joined two groups of New Orleans-area business leaders; he values those contacts for giving him the chance to “bounce around ideas” with executives in the same market but different industries.
For Bennett, the COVID-19 lockdown offered the blessing of “room to think about things outside the box, about where our business is going to go in the next 30 years. It means a lot to me to be always looking at methodologies and ways to get to the next level of success.”
Fearlessness Means Letting Go of Expectations
Megan Blohowiak of Service Ideas says the most valuable leadership lessons she learned during the pandemic were resiliency and fearlessness. “Leading fearlessly at a time of uncertainty was a daily challenge that required letting go of all expectations,” she says. “Because data was difficult to obtain early on, decisions were made based on experience, intuition, and common sense. We couldn’t predict or control what was coming at us, but we were capable of responding to any outcome. It’s important to be open to new ideas, to take action, to keep moving, to identify what gets you stuck and how to get un-stuck – to be willing to look at things differently.”
When the pandemic hit, the company embraced its core strength: empathy for its customers, equipment distributors as well as end users. That’s based on history, Blohowiak explains: “My grandparents were restaurateurs when my grandfather began creating products to be used in the restaurant, and Service Ideas was founded. For three generations, we’ve leveraged our experience in understanding the challenges and needs of operators.”
By the spring of 2020, those operators were facing previously unimaginable obstacles. “Providers across the hospitality industry were either not able to conduct business, or were being burdened by new restrictions and compliance requirements,” Blohowiak says. “Having conversations around what we could do to help opened up opportunities to develop new products based on our customers’ new needs.”
Managing and inspiring staff members also became more challenging. Blohowiak had to learn how to “empower our people to think, reflect, react and embrace change and accountability,” all the while “balancing being a steward of the business with compassion and care for our people and their individual situations – honoring people where they were at.”
That balance, she says, was essential to building trust: “People have to trust their leader in order to trust each other, and they have to trust each other to work effectively and efficiently together.”
During the pandemic, “we shifted quickly to working virtually to maximize efficiency and effectiveness,” Blohowiak recalls. “We also considered what was essential to the long-term health of our organization.” While continuing to fulfill their regular job duties, staff were also divided into three cross-functional teams, each called on to show “creativity, collaboration, and new learning.” One group zeroed in on day-to-day execution, another on evaluating company processes and practices and identifying ways to improve efficiency; the third team focused on strategy – “how to adapt to the current climate and the ‘next normal,’” Blohowiak explains.
“We looked inward and outward, leveraging support and knowledge from employees, advisors, suppliers, customers, and industry organizations to empower better decision-making,” she says. “We made sure every decision would support our core values: staying centered on the customer, treating each other like family, operating with integrity and committing to being better. We never lost sight of why we do what we do, how we do it, and who we are. I was humbled daily by the level of commitment everyone was willing to make to navigate this unfamiliar territory.”
The new year provided Blohowiak and her staff a pause to reflect on where they had been and where they’re going. “There were some great lessons learned – the silver lining of 2020,” Blohowiak says. “With new experiences, knowledge, and wisdom, we move into this coming year with confidence, motivated and determined to be stronger and better. I remain humbled by the flexibility and commitment of our customers, team members, and suppliers to navigating this unfamiliar territory. I think it’s important to practice gratitude for everything you are given – even a crisis.”