Impacting an Industry: Walking the Talk – Challenged by COVID
HIS Sign’s mission statement for hiring is “We want you to work here for the rest of your career!” However, that mission was tested on Monday, March 16th, 2020, when the world shut down!
Enjoying a Vacation
During the week of March 9-13, 2020, my wife, Christina, and I were up in Maine on vacation. Things were going well, and Jen Ilgenfritz, our Finance Manager and a member of the HIS Sign Senior Management Team, had just sent us a note stating that the past two months had been the best we’d ever had.
Thursday, March 12, was a beautiful day, so Christina and I went out on a bicycle ride. We’d just stopped at a coffee shop when I received a call from Ilene Breneman, another HIS Sign Senior Management Team member. She informed me that the Scheduling Team was getting phone calls and emails canceling job requests for the upcoming week. When I asked how many jobs had been axed by then, she responded, “All of them!”
By the end of Friday, March 13th, nearly 99% of billable hours for the upcoming week were canceled. The COVID shutdown had hit, and it had hit us hard!
Feeling the Shutdown
On the afternoon of Monday, March 16th, we set up an emergency meeting for the entire company. At the meeting, we let everyone know that we would explore our options. We asked them to continue working and to pray.
Through Tuesday, March 17th, the cancellation of requests continued. Worse than that, our attempts to check when outstanding invoices would be paid resulted in many “Out of Office” responses. The return-to-office dates on many of the OOO responses were weeks, even a month, out! On top of that, we had an extremely high subcontractor payout approaching that would wipe out most of our cash reserves. Things didn’t look good!
The Senior Management Team met to discuss our dwindling options. The prevailing recommendation from our accountant and other outside resources was to shut down operations for a few months and restart after things “returned to normal.” Given what I knew—or, more so, what I didn’t know—I agreed to start moving forward with the shutdown.
Regretting the Decision
A couple of hours after the Senior Management meeting in which we’d agreed to pursue steps to shut down operations, Christina found me in my office crying. When she asked what was wrong, I told her that—for years—we had been saying our team was our family and treating them as such. We had told them that we hoped they would work at HIS Sign for the rest of their careers. Yet now, faced with difficulties, we were planning to abandon them to face the future alone! In other words, we were not walking the talk.
On the Same Page
Christina and I talked for a while, and we both agreed that the shutdown was not the path we wanted to follow. But was it the path we needed to follow? We let the Senior Management Team know that we would not be shutting down, but, instead, we should all begin focusing on what we could do to move the company forward, intact and together!
What to Do?
By Wednesday, March 18th, Senior Management determined we needed time to figure out our options moving forward. After talking with our accountant and seeking legal counsel, we agreed to “furlough” everyone and bring back essential staff as hourly employees. This small team would keep us operational while we worked on the following steps. That afternoon, we informed everyone of our decision and that they would receive pay through Friday, March 27th.
We also told them I would set up one-on-one meetings with each employee for Monday, March 23rd. I asked each to work with their family beforehand to determine how many hours they would need to be paid weekly based upon their hourly rate, then to communicate that amount to me on Saturday, March 21st. We hoped to meet as many financial needs as we could.
That Wednesday meeting was the worst thing I have ever done in my life! While I tried to sound positive, I had no idea how to move forward! The financial livelihood of 14 staff members and my family rested upon these decisions. Only through my faith was I able to have peace.
Manna from Heaven: Our Financial Position
We worked and investigated our finances as Thursday turned into Friday and Friday into Saturday. In each passing moment, I started to see the fingerprints of God and the plan He had developed for HIS Sign, for His company, for such a time as this! (Esther 4:14)
1. Line of Credit: Just 2 weeks earlier, we had signed paperwork bolstering our line of credit in preparation for a fall expansion.
2. Cash Reserves: Additionally, we had socked extra money away in the bank for the fall expansion.
3. Accounts Receivables: Our Finance Manager has always been very conservative with expenses and very good at cash flow. When we looked over the Accounts Receivables, we saw the potential for a healthy flow of revenue for the next month or two.
4. An Unplanned Windfall: Finally, an unexpected blessing was in store for us!
Earlier, I mentioned the worst thing I have ever had to do. Yet in January 2020, Christina and I participated in the best thing I have ever been part of—as related to HIS Sign.
For our annual “State of the Union” meeting, Christina and I surprised all 14 members of our staff—even 2 who had been with us for less than a month—with an all-expenses-paid cruise to Bermuda on April 6-11. Although we were extremely disappointed it was canceled due to the COVID shutdown, the trip was refunded. This surprise windfall would help us cover 2-3 months of payroll.
Balancing the Numbers
When our calculations were all said and done, we estimated that HIS Sign could operate—albeit not at 100%—through November without any income. The downside here was that doing so might require us to max out our line of credit, resulting in $250,000+ of debt.
It was all very clear. Christina and I’s decision came down to a simple dilemma:
1. Keeping our doors partially open while retaining enough funds for us to personally weather this storm out.
2. Bring ALL our staff back in some capacity and potentially accrue $250,000 in debt by November—then have to close our doors!
For us, the choice was already made. All of us helped create what HIS Sign had become, and together we would tackle the challenges that had fallen upon us!
Creating a Mantra
In the lead-up to 5:00 pm on Saturday, March 21st, I received emails from each staff member outlining their family’s financial needs. It was hard reading those notes, not knowing whether or not I would be able to fulfill those needs.
On Monday, March 23rd, I met with each employee and walked through their financial needs to support their families. I told them I could not promise they would receive everything they needed, but I would do my best to support them. Each person opened their heart and, by doing so, inspired me to do even more.
People offered to volunteer and work for free, to do work that was not a part of their job description, and to give up commissions! Everyone offered something. Christina and I felt blessed! During my meetings, a new mantra developed:
If Everyone Gives a Little, No One has to Give a Lot!
Creating a Plan
The remainder of the week was a flurry of activity with very little sleep. By Friday, March 27th, through the hard work of everyone on the Senior Management Team, an outline emerged.
1. Short-Term Goals:
a. Keep the business going
b. Brainstorm options that will support clients that move to “Virtual” (Short/Long-Term Solutions)
c. Sign up for all reasonable programs available to HIS Sign from the government
d. Brainstorm with our interpreters how we could work with them
e. Brainstorm ways to keep the HIS Sign team interacting to support moral
2. Long-Term Goals:
a. Prepare for the Fall
b. Bring everyone back on board in the same capacity as before this crisis
12 days may not seem like a long time. But between an unknown disease, a world in shutdown mode, and a company you depend on losing nearly 99% of its business, 12 days is an absolute eternity!
I didn’t know how it would go, but when the team finally met again on Monday, March 30th—the first time we’d all been together since Wednesday, March 18th—the mood was electric! I’d like to tell you more about the meeting and what happened after it, but alas, that will need to wait for my next article!
This period was one of the bleakest in United States history and world history, one I would guess was similar to what people faced during the 1930’s Financial Crisis, the Dirty 30’s!
If you have any COVID shutdown stories, questions, feedback, or ideas you would like to share or want me to share with our team, please feel free to shoot me an email at ImpactingAnIndustry@HISsign.com.
HIS Sign Interpreting: an Interpreting Services Provider and Resource for the Deaf/Hard of Hearing Community
To learn more about HIS Sign, check out our story on the website. There, read last quarter’s Impacting an Industry feature to learn about individuals making a difference in the sign language interpreting industry. Finally, if you have any “ripple” stories, questions, feedback, or ideas that you would like to share, please feel free to shoot me an email at ImpactingAnIndustry@HISsign.com.
CEO of HIS Sign