Fast 25: Virus forces fast-growing firms to retool on the fly

Keywords Fast 25

In the back of his mind, Formstack CEO Chris Byers has always known how useful his company’s products can be in helping other businesses solve problems.

“But most days,” he said, “we don’t feel it.”

Then the COVID-19 pandemic set in. Formstack helped an ice cream shop convert from a physical environment to selling online, and “they got to stay in business because of that,” Byers said. Hospitals used Formstack’s online forms to streamline patient screenings for the virus.

(IBJ illustrations/Brad Turner)

“So when you see how people can be innovative with our product, it really reinforces the importance of what we do,” Byers said. “I hope I continue to hold on to that lesson and remember that, not only do we build a great product, but we really enable people to get their jobs done more efficiently.”

The pandemic has changed business in ways great and small, and it’s required companies to adapt quickly. We asked the CEOs of this year’s Fast 25 what they’ve learned during this period that could be useful going forward. Their answers were as varied as the products they produce and services they offer.

The CEOs said they learned to appreciate the value of communication and the health of their personnel. To adapt on the fly. The need to be flexible. The importance of cybersecurity. The importance of loyalty.

For some, like Ivan Barratt of Barratt Asset Management, which owns and manages apartment communities, the pandemic confirmed that the company’s prices and business approach are right. “We’re up in occupancies and up in revenue,” he said.

For Chris Palmer of SupplyKick, which helps companies build their presence on Amazon.com and other online outlets, the pandemic has sped up his company’s efforts to refine various processes. “This has been a fast-forward button on our innovation and change as a company,” he said.

Several of this year’s Fast 25 companies had well-established policies for working at home. The ones that didn’t figured things out quickly.

“COVID is an accelerator for remote work in general,” said Dave Nevogt, CEO of Hubstaff, which makes software to track employees’ time and workflow—and has always allowed employees to work remotely.

“The remote work trend is a larger one, and now that people have been forced to work from home, forced to work remotely, that trend is going to continue. The employer sees that people can be productive and they can hire people from different parts of the world; the employee can find jobs in different parts of the world.”

Wes Steele’s company, Steele Insurance and Financial Services Inc., already had work-from-home policies in place, so the impact on that part of his business was minimal. What changed, he said, was service delivery. Steele Insurance provides health care benefits, and Steele said employers are not going to be able to do open enrollment the way they have previously.

To help, the company is running an instructional series for 12 weeks over the summer and inviting employers to learn about how they need to change their processes in light of the pandemic.

“We’ve got a lot of the school corporations and governments in Indiana that will be learning how to react to that,” Steele said. “What we’re going to find is, they’re going to be digitizing a lot of their communications and there’s going to be some things that are popular that are going to come out of that. If we look forward two to three years, even after the threat of the pandemic has passed, open enrollment communication is never going to be the same.”

Working from home forced Professional Management Enterprises Inc. to fundamentally rethink how it did business. The firm provides staffing and recruiting services. That includes call centers, which are built around having everyone in the same location.

The company found that some home-bound employees didn’t have the technology they needed or even the internet. PME equipped them with laptops and cell phones and set up a virtual private network to ensure information remained secure. As the employees returned to their workplace, PME spent $17,000 on personal protective equipment to keep them safe.

The goal was “to make sure the overall mission never failed and the employees know that their health and welfare was always first,” CEO Danny Portee said.

When you’re in a business that thrives on face-to-face interaction, being forced to keep your distance can be a challenge. Lamont Hatcher, CEO of Apex Infinite Solutions LLC,
which provides IT services, said the pandemic taught his company to be more flexible.

“From a sales perspective, we’re relationship-driven,” he said. “It’s forced us to learn how to market and network and create relationships in a totally different fashion. We’ve done more webinars and team meetings—probably 10 times what we’ve
done before.”

Customers, too, have learned to be flexible, Hatcher said. Before the pandemic, he had clients who were skeptical about cloud technology. Now, they’re reconsidering that as well as the need for cybersecurity.

“With everyone working from home or working remotely, cybersecurity is now a lot more front of mind for more organizations,” Hatcher said. “And we’re glad about that.”

Kevin Hammond, CEO of DB Services, a software development and consulting business, said the pandemic has driven home the importance of human contact. He said it’s been difficult for staff “who enjoy the positive energy of their co-workers in the office or have little ones to take care of in their home. I have learned that most people early in their career really enjoy working in the office.”

Hammond also has come to appreciate the use of webcams. “It sounds small, but just seeing another person’s face and being able to chat that way brings humanity back to the work-from-home experience and allows you to connect despite social distancing,” he said. “COVID-19 is a time that we will look back on and appreciate the things that were once taken for granted.”

For the past two years, Bill Vincent, CEO of this year’s Fast 25 leader, Genezen, has been traveling between Iowa, where he lives, and Indianapolis, where his company is based. Those trips ended in early March when the pandemic shut down most everything, including two conferences he planned to attend.

“It’s forced me to start thinking about, how do we interact more?” said Vincent, whose business manufactures therapeutic agents for companies working in gene therapy. “In the weeks I wasn’t there, we would do a quick conference call. We got into using Zoom meetings—I think everyone has gotten into using Zoom meetings—and realized it’s an effective way for us to interact not only with each other but with clients.”

The lesson for Susan DelPriore, CEO of Magnolia Boutique, which sells budget-friendly women’s clothing online, was how to adapt quickly. Magnolia had just launched its spring collection, all of which focused on vacations. Suddenly, no one was going on vacation, no one was going to be buying dresses for weddings.

Magnolia changed its focus to show what the employees were doing from home and what their workspace looks like. They posted recipes. They remerchandised and photographed the clothes in different ways and were able to sell them at regular price rather than having to liquidate.

“I learned that we have the ability to do that,” she said, “and how important that is.”

Dave Worthington, president of Metazoa Brewing Co., which has its brewery on College Avenue just south of Washington Street, said the lesson that should come out of this is the importance of loyalty. Metazoa chose not to lay off or furlough employees during the pandemic. Worthington said he took the 10-week average of the pay the servers were getting and guaranteed them their pay.

The result: Metazoa lost no one.

“We built this business on loyalty,” Worthington said. “We have a great team, we have great people; we don’t want to lose any of them. What we learned is, we’re going to gut it out, we’re going to do whatever we have to do, but we’ll survive. We’ll be stronger. We have great people and a lot of loyalty among the team. I’ve never felt better in business.”•

Check out more of IBJ’s ranking of Indy’s fastest-growing companies.

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