BSCs Reflect on Challenges, Inspiration in Light of COVID-19
It's safe to say that the country and the building services contracting industry haven't faced a crisis quite like the coronavirus pandemic. But in times of great emergency, leaders step up and step forward. We talked to four such industry heads from different parts of the country to see how they are handing the pressures and challenges posed by the outbreak.
No one is being more challenged right now than those BSCs in the New York metro area. Stepping up to the plate has been Michael Marrazzo, Principal at Summit Facility Solutions. With his region being one of the epicenters of infections in the United States, his firm's phones have been ringing off the hook with calls for help. The challenge for Marrazzo in the early going has been to implement strict protocols to keep his cleaning crews as safe as possible.
"We're responding as a company to confirmed cases," he stated. "We're going in in full biohazard attire. Full suits, boots, hoods. We're wearing complete face masks where there is no skin exposure at all. We’re duct taping all of the seams, like where the gloves meet the suit. And we're decontaminating at the end. I was a firefighter once upon a time. So, I know how to come out of a fire suit and properly decontaminate."
Also being tested to her limit is MSNW Group LLC President Terell Weg. MSNW is based in Ferndale, Wash., a state that was the earliest hit by the virus.
She remarked, "The biggest leadership challenge for me has been just the unknown of every day. When the pandemic first came to Washington state in the last week of February, we didn't know the answers to questions like 'Is this going to affect us?' and 'Should we be buying all of the toilet paper and supplies we can?' We've been evaluating the risks every day and making sure we have contingency plans in place for every scenario possible."
To date, Illinois hasn't been hit as hard as those two locales. But ESS Clean Inc. President Paul Taylor, like so many other industry pros, is preparing for the worst.
"I believe the biggest leadership challenge is knowing what to communicate and when," he stated. "I feel anxiety about the future of our business, the availability of labor to get the work done, the continuity of work for our customers, and subjecting our team to great risk in performing the work. My most important job right now is to communicate confidently and well, even when I don't know what tomorrow will look like."
He continued, "There are opportunities during most crises. Where are the opportunities for BSCs in this one? I think our greatest opportunity now is to take care of our customer and employees well in the midst of a crisis. If we do this well, we will secure long lasting relationships and build trust that will pay incredible dividends down the road."
Weg agreed, adding, "For my company specifically, we have had a lot of new business come to us. We're providing disinfectant services for people that haven't been our clients, and that gives us an opportunity to make them clients once COVID-19 is eradicated. We're looking at that as a positive to increase our portfolio in that regard. Additionally, this is really a new service line for a lot of our commercial clients, and I don't think that's going to go away. Our commercial clients who previously didn't quite understand what disinfecting was and didn't necessarily understand the importance of it every flu season, now they are hyper-aware. I think they're going to be more willing to do those additional services each year as a preventative measure."
Another state that, as of press time, some are forecasting will see a jump in infections is Florida. The Sunshine State has a large senior population. And recently it was put under the harsh national spotlight with all the footage of college-age Spring Breakers enjoying the various beach towns and resorts.
Arely Castellon, President of Boca Raton-based SparkleTeam, is leaning on her colleagues in the industry for support and planning ideas for what lies ahead.
She noted, "We're part of a BSCAI peer group and we've been having weekly calls about what we are facing and learning from each other, which is really great. We're four companies. One is in Texas, one is in Virginia, another is in Ohio, and we're in Florida. We've been having monthly meetings, which are now weekly meetings."
Castellon added, "The challenge has come in the corporate-owned facilities and multi-tenant buildings where management has decided to have employees work from home, that's an automatic, bottom-line impact for us. Just this morning, in a 200,000-square-foot building we service, 18,000 square feet has been closed up. So, no cleaning there. And another 52,000-square-foot [client] is asking just to have occasional trash removed, with occasional employees using the space. We've found that there are still people who are coming into the building and working in that office. Property management is telling us, 'Don't go in there. No cleaning.' We take orders from them, but then the tenant complains."
So far, every one of the executives interviewed for this article has had his/her own "horror story" to relate. But what is a horror story to one is a tale of triumph for another. Marrazzo's team survived one of the most daunting.
"There was a 40,000-square-foot food retailer here on Long Island," he related. "We got a call around 11 p.m. that one of their workers tested positive, and this person had worked throughout the store. I'd had two vans running all day doing large-scale decontaminations. We ended up re-assembling again to get on the ground by 1 a.m. We worked all night to sanitize that store. This was for Saturday morning business, too. Then, the next day, they announced the New York state shutdown. So, everyone was going to be going to the store and buying food. We had to make sure that store was safe and ready for all of the people who would be coming. That was boots on the ground, dragging guys out of bed. We couldn't let these people down."
Weg relayed an equally intense story. "This past Monday," she said, "we had seven confirmed cases in a call center for a client that is part of the financial industry. So, a part of the essential infrastructure. They really can't close this center down, but they had to. We had essentially 12 hours to go in, disinfect the entire property, and leave. This happened in eastern Washington, where he have a somewhat small footprint. We don't have quite as many team members that we can call on when emergency services are needed. We ended up sending a team from our Northwest Washington branch to Spokane to assist. It was really a team effort to get it knocked out in the small time frame that we had. Those four team members were willing to do the six-hour drive. Round trip, that's 12 hours in a car! They were willing, able and rallied around our customer and got it taken care of in a timely manner."
Mostly, though, the coronavirus crisis has cemented for these pros why it is they got into this business in the first place and how important the work they and their staffers do. According to Taylor, "Our customers are dealing with their own crises. They need their BSC partners to help them transition to enhanced or reduced services. They need to trust their provider to know how to best deal with infection control so they can go about their business. In many cases, I have seen their appreciation in the trust that they offer us. They let us handle the problem, and they move on to another issue they have to deal with. Long term, customers will put more value on the professionalism and sustainability of their provider, relative to the cost of service."
Weg chimed in, "We're being viewed, more than ever, as experts. It's been nice having our clients come to us for recommendations and allowing us to help them be safe and their facilities are disinfected properly."
Looking ahead, there is obviously going to be a lot more work that will need to be done. But the coronavirus won't be with us indefinitely. And when it is eradicated, there's no telling where everyone's financials will be. Anticipating the need for a new revenue stream, Marrazzo has plans to reach out to residential cleaners who will need BSCs' command of science and chemicals to clean coronavirus-infected homes.
For Taylor, the prospects that lie ahead are more abstract. "In the short term," he concluded, "there are opportunities for us to learn new methods for infection control, to rescue our customers, and to make extra money to sustain our business through the crisis. Looking to the future, there are opportunities to learn and better prepare for the next crisis."