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Leadership & Crisis Management for the Ages

April 3, 2020
This article offers tips on leadership and crisis management strategies that industry leaders have used over the years. They will come in handy as we confront COVID-19.

When a magazine publishes an anniversary issue, you can usually expect to see articles about the good old days, some funny old photos, and perhaps a forecast about what the world may look like in the future. Electrical Wholesaling’s staff has enjoyed producing anniversary issues in the past, but with all that’s going on in the world over the past few months with the COVID-19 coronavirus, we knew our 100th Anniversary issue had to be different.

While brainstorming about how to handle this issue in these difficult times, we got thinking about how many massive economic or market challenge the electrical wholesaling industry has survived during the 100 years Electrical Wholesaling has been in publication. The industry got through the Great Depression, World War II, competition from home centers, attempts at disintermediation during the dot-com era, Amazon and other digital merchants, the 2007-2009 recession and direct sales by manufacturers. As we thought about these challenges, we were impressed by the industry’s resilience and how companies, big and small, publicly held or family owned, got through the tough times because of their leadership and crisis management skills.

To help today’s generation of managers and salespeople learn to how to get through the current crisis, EW’s editors surveyed and interviewed dozens of industry leaders about their leadership and crisis management strategies. In addition, starting on this page you will find quotes on leadership and crisis management from 50 famous people from outside the electrical industry, including U.S. presidents, military leaders, business consultants, authors, philosophers, religious leaders and sports figures.

We hope this article will help you guide your company through what may possibly be the biggest crisis of our business careers.

In a survey last month on the impact of the COVID-19 coronavirus on the electrical market, Electrical Wholesaling received more than 70 responses from distributors, manufacturers and independent manufacturers’ reps on how their businesses had been impacted in the early innings of the pandemic, and how they were managing their way through the crisis. A focus on regular and open communication and remaining calm came through loud-and-clear as the most commonly employed strategies. Legrand’s John Hoffman, executive VP of sales and market development, is employing both concepts. “Steady flow of good communication, sharing crisis management plans and calmness,” he said in his response.

COMMUNICATE. COMMUNICATE.  COMMUNICATE 

“Communicate frequently and clearly,” agreed Jeff Jervah, regional VP, Legrand. “Demonstrate empathy and ensure that our people know they and their families are vitally important to our success as an organization.”

Bill Durkee, president of Walters Wholesale Electric, Signal Hill, CA, is using what he calls the Dwight D. Eisenhower strategy, “First communicate. Then communicate. In between — communicate.” Added the president of a large distributor in the Southeast, “In this type of situation, tell people what we are doing and communicate daily. We cannot have consensus management in times like these. Ask, but leaders must lead decisively... Cash is king. Manage inflow and outflow daily.”

While many independent reps who responded to the survey have smaller operations than most of the manufacturer or distributor respondent, several also stressed the importance of open communication. One Philadelphia-based independent rep said he is focusing on “constant communication to ease the stress people are feeling.” “This is impacting people and their families as well as their work life. People need to feel informed and understand how to stay safe and that our company cares about its employees,” he said.

CALMNESS IN THE EYE OF THE STORM 

Many respondents agreed that if company leaders remain calm in a crisis, employees will feel more confident they can get through the challenging times. Hank Bergson, former president of the National Electrical Manufacturers Representatives Association (NEMRA), said he learned about leadership and crisis management from some of his commanding officers when he was an Army captain in Vietnam

“My battalion commander in Vietnam, William Martin, had an aura and a calmness about him that just made you feel you were in good hands and that this guy knew what he was doing. I always felt that was the sign of a good leader. It wasn’t someone doing the runaround/scream-and-shout, blame subordinates, etc. When other people were losing their heads, he managed to keep his.

“Calm guy. Very deliberate in his actions. Wasn’t a micromanager, and let junior offices like me make our own mistakes. He wasn’t one of the people hovering over you in his helicopter telling you what to do. He was an outstanding individual who knew when to give you enough rope, but also knew when he needed to jerk it short. Very much a praise publicly and admonish privately type of guy. I had a tremendous amount of respect for him.”

Several respondents agreed with Bergson on the importance of leaders remaining calm in crisis situations. Said Kenneth Maxwell, purchasing/inventory control solutions, IAC Supply Solutions, Memphis, TN, “Staying calm and letting your people know we are okay. Keeping them informed everyday as things continue to change.” Added another respondent, “Stay calm and be optimistic. Be the calm in the storm.”

George Merritt, VP of sales and marketing, Classic Wire & Cable, agreed with these strategies, and said his company’s corporate office in Florida is employing some of the same disaster recovery plans that they use during hurricanes. The company’s staff is set up to work at home or from other locations.

An Ohio distributor also likened its response to how they handle natural disasters. “We have stayed calm and referred to it like a natural disaster,” said the respondent. “We are telling people to stay engaged and remain positive. We have also taken our down time to build our product and sales skills.”

Said another Ohio wholesaler, “Remain calm, communicate and follow CDC recommendations. We are all in this together,” said the manager.

Kerry King, North American sales manager for Morris Products, had similar thoughts. He also added that when faced with a crisis you can’t sugar-coat the situation

“Remain calm yet realistic,” he said in his response. “Build in contingency plans and don’t panic. Be flexible to be able to change as new information becomes available.”

When asked how his company is handling the crisis, an executive from one conduit manufacturer put it very bluntly. “This is a war-like environment,” he said. “In war you have two options: Fight or hide. We have taken the attitude that if you are healthy, we fight.”

LESSONS IN LEADERSHIP

It was interesting to learn from the folks we spoke with how many of the lessons in leadership they learned over the years still apply, even after many decades.

Bob Snyder, a senior executive with Carol Cable Co. for 25 years and for many years after that a top executive with the Equity Electrical Associates buying/marketing group, said one of the biggest crises he had to manage was when a major shortage in copper forced Carol Cable to employ a tough “price-in-effect at time of shipment” policy. “This resulted in a period of time when regardless of what price was committed at the of acceptance on any copper order, when the order was shipped, it was billed at the prevailing price in effect at the time of shipment,” he recalled. “While distributors were not happy with this policy, they were happy just to get the goods.

“Obviously, during this situation, it became very difficult to manage good customer relations. At Carol, we made a commitment that there would be no exceptions period. I remember one very significant distributor told us that if we didn’t bend the rules for him, our relationship would be over. We couldn’t make an exception. The bottom line was that we didn’t bend, and in fact, lost that distributors business for a couple of years. The period during which this policy was in effect was not easy, but we had no choice because any copper rod we purchased resulted in the same policy. As I recall, this challenge happened twice in my Carol career.”

In another crisis at Carol Cable, Snyder had to help lead the company through a serious legal situation. “Several Carol executives were complicit with a major distributor who committed fraud against the U.S. government, which resulted in a major IRS/Defense Department investigation,” he recalled. “The end result was that several people went to prison and one company executive committed suicide. A tragic ending! However, during the process of the government investigation, it was my responsibility to keep the company’s reputation intact. As a result of my internal actions, we were able to maintain our position with the government as a supplier.”

He said that in these and other crisis situations, he relied on a very basic strategy. “The most significant lesson that I learned was to tell the truth. Period,” he says.

Snyder also says he learned quite a bit from working with Dick Noel and Frank Millard at the Equity buying group. “In the business world as well as in our personal lives, we always encounter obstacles, and many people just turn and walk the other way when a solution isn’t readily available. The late Dick Noel had a wonderful philosophy that addressed this type of situation. He would say, ‘If not, why not?’ As simple as this may sound, this thinking can be very inspirational.”

Bergson says one of the leadership challenges of NEMRA was servicing the needs of a very diverse group of independent manufacturers’ reps. Some were very advanced in how they managed their companies or harnessed technology, while others were light years ahead of other members in how they expanded into new market niches. He said many NEMRA reps expected the same services from the association, but that there were groups of reps who either more or less advanced in how they operated their companies, and they asked for different services and support.

“Membership was made up for the most part of independent companies, all of whom had some homogenous needs,” he said. “It was a question of which leadership model to adapt. Do you lead from the back, which is gathering your arms around everyone and push them in a direction? I found that a lot of times herding all of them in one direction is very frustrating.

“The next question is, ‘Do you lead from the middle?’ There are going to be guys out in front, but there are going to be guys behind you. For a lot of people that is a very comfortable position, but it tends not to accomplish things. So, you kind of find out that maybe you need to lead from way in the front. But you have to remember that the pioneers get all of the arrows, and sometimes they are in the back.”

Like Snyder and Bergson, Charley Cohon, president of the Manufacturers Agents National Association (MANA), has found some basic life lessons on leadership have guided him throughout his career. Before selling Prime Devices, his rep agency in metropolitan Chicago and moving to MANA, Cohon said one thing he learned as a manager was to trust employees or colleagues to do the right thing in a crisis. “If you try to micromanage and make people feel untrusted, you won’t bring out the best,” he says. “The things that the trustworthy people do to step up will far exceed the untrustworthy people shirking.”

He also likes to think about how his late father taught him how to think on his own when they worked together at Prime Devices. “One of the memories that keeps coming back over and over again was the first time Dad took me to make out-of-town sales calls. We arrived in Rockford, IL, pulled into a gas station, and as I refilled the tank Dad announced, ‘You’d better figure out how to get to the customer.’

“Dad was in the car, and he knew the directions to the customer’s office, but he also knew that the next time I went out on calls he wouldn’t be in the car. It was time to be sure that I wouldn’t be too bashful to ask for directions. The attendant pointed me in the right direction and also sold me a Rockford street guide that I carried in my car for many years.

“In the car that day, Dad knew that I needed to learn how to make sales calls on my own, but on my first out-of-town sales trip he gave me the gift of being my safety net. And then, over time, he gave me the even greater gift of guiding me to learn to work without a net.”

As you can see from wisdom offered by the distributors, manufacturers and reps in this article, sometimes the best strategies in leadership or crisis management are often the evergreen lessons learned long ago.