Navigating the Pandemic
An export management company leader’s view on navigating the pandemic
It’s been eight weeks since we suspended all corporate travel and arranged for our entire New York staff to work from home. These were big adjustments for our 24 mostly internationally based field sales managers used to being on the road and our 40 New York team members accustomed to working together at headquarters.
Like everyone, we’ve been relying heavily during the coronavirus pandemic on video conferencing to keep us connected and meet with our customers and our manufacturer clients. We’ve benefited greatly also from a document management system that we implemented over the last couple of years that enables us to retrieve and share documents electronically.
We enjoyed a solid, if not spectacular, first quarter, as many of our markets remained active through the second or third week of March, but by the beginning of April, our order activity slowed to a trickle, as almost all major export markets by then had shut down. It was clear then that we were heading into some rough months ahead.
Like most U.S. companies of our size, we applied for the relief made available from our federal government. The relief we received will help us keep our staff intact through the middle of June. After that, if our markets don’t recover, we’ll need to consider other ways to reduce costs.
In the absence of a vaccine or, at the very least, widely available testing, it is hard to predict when our New York staff will return to the office. Even less clear is when our sales managers will begin to travel again, as the safety of air travel and health conditions in many international markets will likely remain questions long after businesses re-open in the U.S.
Success containing the pandemic’s spread has varied greatly from one country to the next. A Dorian Drake sales manager based in Beijing, Tony Wang, reports that China has re-opened its economy and people there are traveling again, whereas another based in Spain, Juan Gomez, advises that the country will remain in some form of lock-down for at least two more months. Germany and New Zealand have largely contained the virus’ spread, whereas some Latin American countries, most notably Brazil and Ecuador, have struggled to contain it.
With travel suspended and global trade curtailed, we’ve been thinking a lot about what permanent changes the pandemic will bring. While the long-term implications remain unclear, for now we’ve been sending different, more frequent e-mail promotions, expanding our presence on various social media platforms, coordinating a wide range of product training webinars for our customers, and relying heavily on video conferencing to meet with customers and each other, ironically in some instances bringing us closer than we were before. And, of course, our sales managers continue to reach out to their customers wherever they are, whether via phone, WhatsApp, or LinkedIn.
So how long before things return to normal? Some medical experts think it could take years. In the meantime, we continue to live in a scary world, with more than three-and-a-half million diagnosed Covid-19 cases globally (surely just a fraction of those actually infected), more than 250,000 reported deaths, and enormous economic disruption, with more than 30 million unemployed in the U.S. alone. It is a time not only of fear but also frustration, cooped up in our homes, unable to work with our colleagues, visit customers, pursue the things we love, or socialize with family and friends.
I have talked to a few friends who have been using the time at home to clear their closets, go through the box of letters left behind by a deceased parent, read the book they had been meaning to read for years, or simply make needed time to pause and reflect. For many of us who live our lives at something approximating warped speed, perhaps the added down time imposed on us is a blessing in disguise.
My own experience with the pandemic started the second week of March. Feeling run down, I opted to stay home for a few days to recover. When a few days stretched beyond a week, and my condition worsened, I checked into a hospital, where I tested positive for Covid-19 and pneumonia. Extremely weak, my breathing labored, I was placed in intensive care. My first day in the hospital was extremely difficult—a doctor told me later he wasn’t sure I was going to make it—but with each passing day I felt a little better. I was moved out of ICU on the eighth day of what turned out to be a twelve-day stay. Seeing now the mounting fatalities here in the United States—many young, healthy people among them—it’s clear to me how lucky I am to have made it through.
During my final days in the hospital, awaiting my discharge, I found myself reflecting upon the many things that bring me joy: traveling abroad to visit key accounts or work an international trade show; distributing bonus checks to our staff after a successful year; playing a round of golf with friends; enjoying a vacation somewhere new and different with my wife and sons; walking with my wife on an empty beach near our weekend home in Cape Cod. Knowing these things would all be possible again instilled me with a sense of heightened appreciation. I will never take them for granted again.
I shared this sentiment recently with an old friend, who said, “I think we’re all going to feel that way when this is finally behind us.” I hope he’s right. Focusing on what we appreciate helps us maintain perspective and keep our lives on a positive track. This might never be more important than it is right now.
Ed Dorian Jr.
White Plains, NY
May 7, 2020