Virus Crisis: Leaders Share Early Strategies and Tactics

Michael Strmac of Universal Windows Direct and Vince Nardo of Reborn Cabinets share their business approaches in the early days of the virus crisis.

As extreme measures take hold for an undetermined period of time, home improvement and remodeling company owners and executives are keeping their troops calm, adapting their procedures and communicating to clients, trade partners, and prospects.

The challenges are many. Home shows are all cancelled. Canvassing operations face enormous obstacles. Call centers impacted by close proximity to other workers. Clients want to defer jobs. At the same time financing companies are offering lower rates over longer terms. We asked Michael Strmac, COO of Universal Windows Direct and Vince Nardo, CEO of Reborn Cabinets to provide insights into some key decisions they’ve made as the virus crisis has grown.

Michael Strmac, COO, Universal Windows Direct

Based in Bedford Heights, Ohio, Universal Windows Direct is the No. 10 contractor in the U.S. based on 2019 Top 500 listings with $105 million in installed sales. They operate nine retail locations and have 40 dealers. Strmac told us earlier this week that Universal Windows Direct is focused on health and safety first, communicating steps taken to clients and workers, and adapting operations as they go. Here are excerpts from our conversation on Monday, March 16th.

Michael Strmac: “Most of what we’re doing amounts to good, sound approaches that a business should be using during this time. We know this is going to be a long road for the industry. When this problem first emerged several weeks ago, we took the approach that, ‘this is in another country, it might come here, but it’ll die down and everybody will go back to work’. Then as it drew closer and things started shutting down, we had to start making some changes.”

Michael Strmac, COO, Universal Windows Direct

Message to Customers

“The first thing we needed to do was get a statement out to our customers. We told them that we were taking all the necessary precautions. We wanted them to know that we were following protocols suggested from the CDC and our local health departments. Based off those recommendations, we issued a statement to our employees that if they are sick, they need to stay home. To make our customers feel safe, we let them know that we would be wiping down all of our products prior to leaving our office. And then, once we got into their homes, that we would be wiping everything down with Clorox wipes or equivalent solutions. We want them to know we are taking all necessary precautions.”

Basic screening of employees

“We screened all of our employees and to ensure they have not been out of the country, and that they are not affected by this virus and are not sick in any way. It is important that our customers know we want to keep them safe. We’re signaling to all of our stakeholders, that not only are we running a business, but we’re also Americans and it’s the best thing to do for the country. If you go to our website or our social media pages, that message up there, right now. We are also asking our customers if they are experiencing symptoms. We don’t want to expose any of our employees to it either.”

Replacing home-show leads

“When home shows started cancelling, we sought to redirect those face-to-face, home-show employees. We have nine retail locations and 40 dealership locations, but we focusing mostly on our retail locations, the Milwaukee 10-day home and garden show cancelled. So did the Cleveland home show. Home shows represent 25 percent of our business. Our initial reaction was to layoff our show-related employees. We then we got creative and now our outside show and event staff are getting trained on the canvassing script. They will be going door-to-door. Additionally, we will put some of our staff into malls.”

Ramping up omni-channel tele-marketing

“One key is to keep track of all of the customers that you are going to miss during this period of time where everyone is isolated. We want to make sure that if we do not get in front of them now, that we’re constantly in contact with them, and letting them know when the time comes, we will be out to see them.”

Leadership

“Fear is driving a lot of decisions right now. Providing information is the best thing you can do for your employees and your customers. Anybody who owns a home improvement company, this is the time to show your leadership skills. Everybody is looking for someone to lead them through all of this. You have to be truthful. You have to tell them this is going to get worse tomorrow before it gets better. We’ll let them know what will be happening the next couple of weeks. It should start getting better. Eventually, those shows and events that were canceled, they’ll start getting forwarded into other months and all of this business we potentially did lose, we’re getting it right back down the road.”

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Vince Nardo, CEO Reborn Cabinets

Based in Anaheim, Calif., Reborn Cabinets focuses primarily on kitchen and bath replacement projects in six locations around California and Nevada. They ranked No. 27 on the 2019 QR Top 500 list with $49 million in revenue. Here are excerpts from QR’s conversation with CEO Vince Nardo on Monday, March 16th.

Events, Leadership

Vince Nardo, CEO Reborn Cabinets

Vince Nardo: “First-and-foremost, our primary aim as owners and CEOs is to stay ahead of the panic that our staff might feel. We have to be a calming voice. We’re really staying in contact with our teams. We’re staying in contact with our subcontractors, reassuring them that we’re still here. We are reassuring them that we’re putting plans in place, making sure everybody’s safe. If you’re ill, stay at home. Don’t show up for work. We are trying to set the right tone.”

“Obviously, we’ve seen face-to-face events unravel. We did have a face-to-face event this last weekend in Las Vegas. Surprisingly enough, it had good attendance and we were able to capture some leads. Sam’s Club has pulled everybody out of their stores. We’ve not seen that with Home Depot yet. So our event-based marketing has been affected.”

Reassuring customers

“We’re still receiving inbound leads, and we only had two installs try to cancel this last week. We spoke to them and just explained our precautionary measures. We send out gloves. We send out masks. We have our people sanitize their hands. Ultimately, they let us continue with their install. It is very important to reassure our customers that we’re taking the necessary steps to protect them.”

“For customers already in process, there’s a question of how do we assure them that they are being protected? With good communication we can gain their confidence. Our type of industry doesn’t need the client in their home in order for us to do the work. We already do lockboxes and we do unattended work, so they don’t have to worry. Those are steps we have to point out to clients, so they feel comfortable.”

Government closure of businesses, shelter-in-place concerns

“Among a group of home improvement and remodeling CEOs, some of us have been on the phone every day, texting every morning and getting a pulse on the country. We’re really concerned about this notion of closing nonessential businesses. That’s probably the biggest threat right now. If that comes, the government will need to step in and provide relief, paying people for time off. That is obviously a big concern.” (On Wednesday, March 18, 2020, the Families First Coronavirus Relief Act, became law.)

“For myself and our leadership team, we’re staying in constant contact. I’m making sure that we’re staying in front everything, that we are sending out information to our customers, our current jobs-in-progress, letting them know that we’re here and what steps we’re taking to protect them.”

Call-center backup plan

“We have a backup plan to allow people in our call centers to work remotely from the call center, to do it from their homes, with the equipment they need. That plan is ready to roll. Our concern is if someone in the call center gets ill, everyone will have to go home and self-quarantine. We’re preparing ourselves for that situation because they’re the closest group of people to one another for physical proximity.”

Video appointments with customers

“We now ask customers who are canceling their sales appointments, if they would be interested in doing interactive video or online-video type of meeting. We’ve tested it and we’re preparing ourselves to view this as an opportunity that might exist. Over video, we will be prepared to do a full presentation. And we’ll be prepared to price it for some of our products. Eventually, we’ll have to go in and measure the project. Video will give us an opportunity to at least be able to present our products. What we’re finding is that there’s a lot of people at home and there’s a mentality that I’m not locking myself in my house, they want to move forward.”

New finance options

“We’re seeing support from our financing companies. Consumer-finance companies are stepping up with new incentive programs, offering great opportunities for consumers to get in. Some are offering some very long-term, 24-month, financing options. These are programs that allows the consumer to take advantage of very low interest rates. If there’s any sunlight, it’s the fact that interest rates are down, lending is getting easier, and the cost of money is getting cheaper. If there is an opportunity to get your project done, this is probably the time to do it. And we’re seeing with the big, national financing companies. They are launching programs this industry typically would not be able to afford because they’re usually too costly. Historically, these programs have been out of reach for most residential remodelers, but they’re bringing those programs in at very, very aggressive rates to help us out.”

Ultimately, I think these new financing products will trickle down to smaller remodelers. I’m sure the size of the company probably does make a difference for being able to offer these programs. As we see this play out, I’m sure if they see results with the larger remodelers out there, that’s going to trickle down to the smaller remodelers as well.

Proactive

“Business owners in this environment need to be proactive. We can’t be reactive. We often don’t realize the position we’re in. We really don’t appreciate the way our team looks to us for guidance. It’s the time for CEOs to rise up and be the leader that we’re supposed to be and be the common face for the staff and be the common face for the customers and our trade partners to simply reassure them.” QR

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