April 15, 2020

Learning to navigate a new normal

John Vergeer and his dog Saar

By: John Vergeer

As I look out my office window, it almost looks normal. Trucks are coming and going, and employees are busy. But if I look closer, it’s easy to see signs that these are not normal times. Employees and truck drivers are social distancing, most offices are unoccupied, and there is little traffic on the roads. In these times, AFB is incredibly fortunate to be able to continue our operations, as our part of the pet food supply chain has been deemed an essential business by the government. It is great to be part of an industry that supports the health and well-being of our beloved pets. Our two top priorities are the health and safety of our employees and ensuring the continuity of operations for our customers. These are not so different from normal, but the crisis has challenged us to look at our priorities even more closely.

The first priority is to create a safe working environment for our employees. In my role as General Manager, I am responsible for asking people to come to work, which is not easy in a crisis like this. We must be certain our employees return home in the same condition they arrived. We need to reassure them and show them that we do our utmost to keep them safe. To do so, we have strengthened our sanitary and hygiene measures, changed the routing in our facilities, and adjusted breaks and shift changes to prevent co-mingling at all times. We regularly update employees about company and governmental changes that affect them, and we implemented new employee communication tools to speed delivery of important updates. We also focused on making sure employees know just how much they are appreciated. Therefore, we are financially recognizing on-site employees who are considered essential workers in our vital business. While our on-site team is thankful for the gesture, they also say they would do it without extra compensation. Their enthusiastic, positive response really demonstrates the culture of AFB. Our employees are proud of what we do and realize that what we are doing is vital for our families and our customers. We want to reassure our customers that even in tough times, we do the right things the right way.

Of course, achieving the first priority helps us achieve our second priority of continued operations for our customers. We are in regular communication with our customers, suppliers, and freight carriers to ensure continuity of supply. Our Supply Chain team is in frequent contact with suppliers, updating demand and checking availability. Our Customer Service and Sales teams are in contact with customers, monitoring and responding to changing requests, and learning how we can help. We are supported by our customers and freight haulers, who shared ways to make sure our palatants are easily accepted at the point of delivery and move quickly across borders. For example, we added lines of text to our shipping documents for products going to Spain in case truck drivers get stopped. We welcome more suggestions like this at any time!

To support our priorities, I am part of three response teams: AFB European regional, AFB global, and our parent company, EBI (Ensign-Bickford Industries). These almost-daily conversations and meetings have increased interactions between regions and business units; we can support and learn from each other, propose initiatives, and implement them very quickly.

Most of our daily meetings now occur via videoconference, especially with colleagues who normally work in the office. It is surprising how easy our work-from-home technology is to use and how fast people have adapted to it. In a sense, we are now welcomed into one another’s homes. During a recent call, a colleague’s kids and dogs were very busy in the background. It was amusing to see – we were all having a laugh – but we realize too, it may be part of a “new normal”. Employees’ cats are also joining our meetings – stepping on keyboards, trying to rest in inconvenient places. And this reminds me why we are working so hard in the first place: because our pets really are critical members of our family and they, too, must be fed.

We are not out of this pandemic yet. We still have a long way to go and many difficult decisions ahead of us. But we know that with our employees and their families, as well as our amazing customers, suppliers, and freight haulers – not to mention the comfort and unconditional love of our dogs and cats – we will persevere and come out the other side even stronger.

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