Faced with the adversity of conducting business during COVID-19, local small family business owners found added importance in their roles as leaders.

Sometimes, that meant not only setting an example for employees at work, but outside the workplace as well.

"I knew our employees were safer with me than they were at home because, at home, what kind of training were they getting," said Barry Schlouch, co-founder and president of Schlouch Inc., a Maidencreek Township excavation company.

"We trained in early March of last year for how to go the grocery store, how to go to Wawa, and we actually took the time to tell them why."

Schlouch was joined by Jamey Maack, president and co-owner of US Anodize in Bern Township, and Missy Wilson, co-owner and manager of Setter Ridge Vineyards in Greenwich Township for the Kutztown University Entrepreneurship Week family business panel on Friday.

All three panelists agreed the health and safety of customers and employees has been a top priority throughout the pandemic, but also stressed the need to educate and project positivity.

"You just keep pushing forward and you push forward as hard as you can," said Wilson, who operates the winery with her parents and four siblings. "Whether it's for the rest of your family or it's your employees, which basically in a family business, your employees are your family, too.

While the coronavirus dominated the conversation, many of the lessons the panel shared about their experiences could be relevant during any time of crisis.

"You need to make sure you can at least give them the confidence that we will all succeed," Wilson said. "Somehow or another, we will make it through this."

Finding positive results

The panel also found opportunities from some of the changes COVID forced upon their businesses.

At US Anodize, a third-generation aluminum finishing company that recently rebranded from Industrial Metal Plating, leadership got a chance to see exactly how the operation's processes were working.

"The top management of our company said, 'We're gonna go out on the production floor and work right beside our employees and do everything they do,'" Maack said. "To show them we don't expect anybody to do anything we're not.

"You see things you're super proud of, and you see opportunities where you can maybe do something a little more lean or more efficient. We were certainly able to find those and say, 'Why are we doing it like that?' Somebody said, 'Well, we always do it like that,' and that's an immediate change order for me."

At Setter Ridge Vineyards, it was a chance for Wilson and other family members to step into bigger roles and test those succession plans that were previously discussed.

"Both myself and my brother got to take two steps forward quicker than we would have," Wilson said. "With my dad being older we didn't want him to be around the general public on a regular basis.

"We're kind of at a point now where we have both taken that primary role and my father has taken some steps backwards. He's there, he still enjoys coming into work on a daily basis, but not having to have the responsibilities he had a year ago."

U.S. Rep. Dan Meuser, a Republican who represents parts of Berks County, delivered opening remarks for the roundtable discussion held on Zoom.

Meuser reflected on his time both as a former business executive and Pennsylvania Secretary of Revenue, acknowledging the value of learning about every facet of the business.

"It's very important in a small business, if it's three employees or 25, everybody should know what the mission and what the goals are," Meuser said. "I would go around the Department of Revenue — there were 2,000 employees — and asked people what do you need to do your job at a higher level of excellence or the excellence level you want to do it.

"And they would tell you. Sometimes they would take a little bit and think about, 'Gee whiz, I don't want to get myself in deep water here,' but they would tell you and your job is to provide them that to do that work."

Taking care of others

At Schlouch Inc., there was almost an inherent sort of preparation for the pandemic.

Being a construction-based business, safety was already top of mind — Sclouch himself is one of 13 board certified safety professionals in the company. The feeling was it made setting protocols and guidelines

"That gave us an advantage over everybody," said Schlouch, who co-founded the business with his wife, Deb. "We're mitigating hazards every day whether it be power lines, trenching and so on, so we are very in tune to setting standards, process, accountability."

Schlouch touted a near-zero COVID incidence rate in the company, noting the company's 285 employees and immediate family members didn't record a single case until Thanksgiving.

He observed that whether people were concerned themselves about the pandemic or not, it was all about taking the time to explain the situation.

"You can't mandate what people think and you can't mandate what they do, but what you can do is set standards and educate them up to those standards," Schlouch said.

Maack also stressed the critical nature of the jobs employees at US Anodize are doing, as many of the parts being manufactured are for medical equipment such as respirators.

"We had to really communicate to our employees how important what we do is, not only to us, but to all of our customers," Maack said. "It was a really good opportunity to show how our product affects so many other people."

While safety concerns were ever present and every employee coped with the stress differently, the experience hasn't been all bad.

"I think we allowed our employees to really know we're one big work family here and that we're in it together," Maack said. "So, there were certainly some positives in a terrible situation."

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