Business During Crisis Lessons Learned

Early in the pandemic, the guidance was to avoid contact and take temperatures. We did not yet know about social distancing and airborne spread of the virus. Photo courtesy of Tad Jacobs.

Usually I’m asked to speak or write about business efficiency in operations. This time we’re going to talk about my personal experiences in business during 2020, a year like no other.

I’ve been in business for 33 years, and at the outset of 2020 I was in kind of a comfort zone. I had good systems in place. A lot of my team members have been with me for 20 to 30 years. We were all comfortable with our roles. We had a great client base, had good trucks. And as far as day-to-day operations go, I really found myself on autopilot.

My 2020 really didn’t start until late February. I like to go to TCIA’s Winter Management Conference (WMC) every February, and in 2020, we had a great WMC in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. For those who attended, I think you would concur that it was probably our best winter management we’ve ever had.

A year into the COVID-19 pandemic and after all the other challenges faced by small-business owners during 2020, Tad Jacobs can still crack a smile. Photo courtesy of Tad Jacobs.

When I get back each February is usually when my year really starts, with all the tools I’ve picked up and a plan for changes I want to implement in the coming year. Fortunately and unfortunately, when I came home last year, I got a little preemptive COVID-19 intel from friends and clients Emily and Jim Hughes.

I started working for the Hughes back in the ’90s, when they had the dubious honor of spending around $75,000 with me for tree removals, which at the time was the most a client had ever spent with me.

Emily is with the Department of Health and Human Services, and she foresaw this COVID-19 disaster that was then in front of us. She felt the U.S. was not prepared, and she let me know to expect that we would be broadly shut down and sheltering in place for six to 12 weeks.

I really thought we were all going home for an extended vacation, and that it would all be going away and everything was going to be better. We weren’t getting anything in the media other than things in Wuhan, China, being in bad shape. I just made sure we were safe at home.

I’ve been through many challenges in 33 years. I had been through Black Monday. I survived the dot-com crash. The day after 9/11, I remember the phones just stopped, and in 2007-08, there was the Great Recession. We’ve weathered key employees leaving as well as a few significant injuries to employees in 33 years. I’ve made a few mistakes on equipment purchases.

With COVID, I felt like we were ahead of the game. And then California shut down in early March.

It was frightening. In March of 2020, Governor Newsom’s office predicted there would be 1.5 million deaths over the next 90 days in California. We had massive unemployment overnight, and every industry was hit. The movie industry, travel, construction – I mean, that’s who we are in California.

The CARES Act came out, and the first thing they said was any company with fewer than 50 employees and owned by a guy named Tad Jacobs in California was going to have to pay everyone 12 weeks of salary and maintain all their benefits – if they had COVID, if they knew someone who had COVID or if they could spell COVID. It was crazy. I did not know what was in front of me.

I was concerned that all my receivables weren’t going to pay, and I immediately laid off half my staff. I wanted them to get on unemployment right away and start being able to take care of what they needed to take care of and be ready for what was in front of them.

I started my business with a plan and I’m a TCIA-accredited company, but there was little in all that planning that could inform my actions now. I was reminded of a quote from Winston Churchill, “Never let a good crisis go to waste.” How could I take this crisis and make my company stronger?

The Bay Area was closed. My friends in Southern California were working but not talkative, being fearful their businesses were going to get shut down at any time. At that point we had no one in the office. Everyone was completely freaked out. I was scared just opening mail.

Then, within a couple of weeks, authorities allowed us to start doing large-tree removals, then plant-healthcare services. But everything was heavily policed in our area, and we were questioned constantly about what we were doing out in public.

Fortunately, help was on the way. Immediately, TCIA started reaching out and putting together resources for all companies to navigate these uncharted waters. Member roundtable meetings started up. It was helpful and reassuring to have different companies from around the country conferencing together and sharing their challenges, and talking about new protocols they were putting in place for safety and to become effective and productive through these times.

But while California was experiencing a lot of shutdowns with high COVID case counts, for many of my friends throughout the Midwest and over on the East Coast, it was just business as usual – if anything, they were busier.

I was just waiting for that next bomb to drop.

I turned to social media as a solution. The roundtables were great, but they addressed specific topics at an assigned time. I needed to look for answers to my questions when it fit my schedule. I started connecting with the people I’d met through TCI EXPO and having one-on-one conversations with those individuals. I went onto Facebook and joined some tree-care-specific groups. I found people asking questions I didn’t even know to ask, and was seeing a variety of answers. If I found someone whose answers were aligned with my situation, I was able to reach out and have one-on-one conversations with them about the challenges presented to both of us.

I had been in TCIA’s peer-to-peer group, and I reached out to fellow peer-group members. I found myself preparing them more for what was in front of them, because I had already experienced it.

By this point, we were all working remotely in my company, and we weren’t really set up for that. In the first few weeks, there were 500 emails going back and forth, with a sales team that was only keeping track of emails on their mobile phones and iPads. It was challenging to say the least.

We had to invent new ways to do business – from sales to production to office work to maintenance – and then get the team to buy in, because there still wasn’t a strong belief that this virus was real or that individuals in our area and those working outdoors were going to get it.

A lot of my workers are from Mexico, Guatemala and El Salvador, and at that point there was almost no reported coronavirus in those countries. I found myself trying to explain to them that this was real when everyone in their family was saying this was just a big American hoax. The conflicting messages they were getting in the media made it difficult to get everyone to buy into new safety protocols which, if violated, could be justification to be completely shut down.

All the cities and Cal/OSHA started throwing around big fines and different threats of being shut down permanently. While I was taking on that load, my team really wasn’t getting it. They would wear masks in front of me and want to take them off later, or they would gather closely for lunch. Meanwhile, clients were home, sending pictures back to us saying our team working across the street was going to bring coronavirus into their homes.

Stress levels were high among my workers and, in a sense, as the boss it felt to me as though I was viewed as the source of their challenges or frustrations.

Then America went into further turmoil with the George Floyd tragedy. It really was a new challenge for society to understand why people were protesting and how it was going to affect all of us. We wondered what we could do personally to make a change for all those affected, whether it was my police-officer friends and the local police force that needed the support, or the people protesting who were feeling like they were on the other side at that time.

Being a business owner in Marin County, I am just across the Bay from San Francisco, Oakland and Berkeley. There was intense protesting going on in those areas, so I was beginning to wonder, “Is my shop going to be attacked? Will someone set a fire here?”

Speaking of fires, here in California fire season usually starts around October, but this year we had lightning strikes in early August. California and, in fact, the entire West Coast were literally on fire. Here was another challenge we really weren’t prepared for. The air was filled with smoke. The skies were orange. It was apocalyptic.

We had dealt with wildfires before, and the pressures of working in the smoke in years past was enough to short circuit my clients as well as my team. Now, with fires heaped upon social unrest during a pandemic and associated economic uncertainty, it was next to impossible for my team to focus on the job at hand. We work in a high-risk industry that requires our full attention, whether we’re working on a tree or working on a piece of equipment, and stress levels were at 100% when I would show up.

“With wildfires heaped upon social unrest during a pandemic and associated economic uncertainty, it was next to impossible for my team to focus on the job at hand,” says Tad Jacobs.

And that’s where reaching out to my fellow arborists, and them reaching out to me, really became what helped me personally get through it all. Getting into “solution mode” with a few close colleagues helped us all figure out how to navigate what was in front of us.

The next big step for me, on the advice of all these different arborists I was working with, was to just get back to what I do best. That was getting out and meeting with clients, serving them, doing some estimates and doing some work with the team. Being part of those jobs and seeing what it was like to work with a mask on for the entire day, and to disinfect a truck before and after driving it – that’s when everything really came back together.

I wish I’d done that back in March, because that’s when my team really reconnected. Instead of me trying to stand back from the situation and be a leader from afar and help direct everyone on what the best direction to go was, the solution for me and for us was to get out in front, to work with the team and be a visible part of that solution.

It seems to go against the paradigm of working on the business rather than in it, but for me, being out there with my team in very unsettling times brought back unity, support and cohesiveness.

In hindsight, I sometimes wonder if I might have been overreacting in some situations. I’m reminded of something Mark Twain said: “I’ve lived through some terrible things in my life, some of which actually happened.” But I justify my response to crisis this way: In our industry, we really need to focus on all the things that could happen. When I look at a tree, I assume the tree is dangerous before I prove to myself it’s safe. When I look at a job, I assume someone could get injured, and then we go through all the processes to eliminate the hazards so that no one gets hurt.

Through this crisis, I kept on anticipating the worst that could happen – like everyone in my company getting sick, losing members on my team, having clients not be able to afford services any longer. We became a better company by preparing and going through all the different processes and working with all the different people I work with, to deal with current challenges and be better prepared for future challenges.

I say cheers to 2021 and beyond. If you were one of the many who supported me through this process, thank you for all your help, your wisdom and the advice you gave me.

Tad Jacobs, CTSP, QCL, is president of Treemasters, an accredited, 13-year TCIA member company based in San Rafael, California, and a member of TCIA’s Board of Directors. He also is a former member of TCIA’s Peer-to-Peer Networking Group. This article was excerpted from a presentation he made during the TCI Virtual Summit ’21 in January.

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