Arkansas Inc. Podcast - Arkansas companies innovate and thrive during COVID-19 pandemic

 August 04, 2020

In this episode of the Arkansas Inc. podcast, our host is joined by guests from two Arkansas companies, Intimidator Group and Hytrol Conveyor Company, to discuss each company's innovative response to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic

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Transcript

Introduction:

Welcome to the Arkansas Inc. Podcast, where we discuss the latest topics and trends in economic development with subject matter experts and influencers from across the nation and around the world.

Clark Cogbill:

Welcome to the Arkansas Inc. Podcast. My name is Clark Cogbill. I'm your host today. I am Director of Digital Marketing for the Arkansas Economic Development Commission. We are recording this podcast today from the studios of Lucky Dog Audio in Downtown Little Rock. Scott Minor, and the Lucky Dog team always do a great job for us. Well, the COVID-19 pandemic continues to have a major impact on the national economy. Even as the economy has improved, there are still millions unemployed across the nation.

Clark Cogbill:

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported 11.1% unemployment nationally in June. And while Arkansas’ unemployment is less than the national average at 8%, there are still a lot of Arkansans who are out of a job as a direct result of the pandemic. Today, we want to shine a light on a story that hasn't received as much attention. Through this pandemic, there are Arkansas companies that have found innovative ways to continue serving customers and retain jobs.

Clark Cogbill:

On this episode of the Arkansas Inc. Podcast, we're going to visit with representatives from two of those companies. Hytrol and Intimidator Group. Hytrol Conveyor Company based in Jonesboro, Arkansas, is a world leader in the design and manufacturing of technology advanced material handling and automation systems for a variety of industries. For more than 70 years, Hytrol has focused on creating innovative, customized conveyor solutions that help companies achieve their goals.

Clark Cogbill:

Joining us today from Jonesboro from Hytrol is Paige Carswell who serves as Marketing Manager for Hytrol. Welcome Paige.

Paige Carswell:

Thanks for having me.

Clark Cogbill:

The Intimidator Group is a family of businesses headquartered in Batesville, Arkansas, which include Intimidator UTVs, Bad Dog Accessories, Groundhog Max Disc Plows, ENVY Neighborhood Vehicles, Gourmet Guru Grills, and Spartan Mowers. Today, we're going to be talking about the Spartan Mower company and that family. The Spartan Mower mission is to offer an American-made mower that drastically changes the turf industry by giving the consumer a premium product with an all new level of performance, durability, and design at an incredible value.

Clark Cogbill:

Joining us today from the Intimidator Group is Janelle Shell, who is also Marketing Manager with Intimidator Group. Janelle, welcome to the Arkansas Inc. Podcast.

Janelle Shell:

My pleasure. Thank you, Clark.

Clark Cogbill:

I'm going to start with Janelle. For Intimidator Group, spring is typically a really strong sales period for the Spartan Mower line. And we all know what happened this spring and everything changed as the pandemic began to hit the United States and made its way to Arkansas. Janelle, you still saw demand there, but you found the prospect of hiring additional employees risky. So the company had to get creative. Tell us how you handled the situation at Intimidator Group.

Janelle Shell:

It's so interesting, Clark. This year has just been such a different year. You try to project what's going to happen and you try to predict, and you try to plan. And with this pandemic coming in, things were not normal. They're still not normal.

Clark Cogbill:

Right.

Janelle Shell:

But as you can imagine, when things start growing, when grass starts growing each spring, the Spartan Mowers division of Intimidator starts to see rapid growth because everybody needs mowers and they're out there purchasing. And so, we plan for that. But when the pandemic hit, we were just wondering, are we going to see a spike in growth? Are we going to see a downturn in growth? What does that look like for us this year? And surprisingly, we saw a skyrocket in growth. So we wondered, okay, typically we hire people in and we hire additional members of our staff in to help build and produce these mowers here in Arkansas.

Janelle Shell:

But we worried about hiring an influx of people and then if we saw a decline in orders, we'd have to let all those people go. So we got a little nervous about that. We were a little hesitant.

Clark Cogbill:

Sure.

Janelle Shell:

And we want to launch into that. So, our owner, Robert Foster, who literally he is always thinking nonstop, and he just wondered what it might look like if we used the current workforce that we had in a different way. So what would happen if we took individuals who temporarily move them out of their department and put them on the assembly line to get us through the spike in this season? How would that look? And when he first said the idea, I think people were a little skeptical and hesitant, but then in his passion and description of how it might look, people thought, okay, what if we did this?

Janelle Shell:

And so each department made a sacrifice of an employee from that department. So we called it, the “Go Team.” And I sent someone from marketing. There was somebody sent from this sales department, somebody sent from a powder coating, someone sent from research and development. Each department lent someone from their department and meanwhile, that department took on their responsibilities. So we had additional responsibilities put on us so that we could allow that person to go help on the assembly line.

Clark Cogbill:

Wow. So really these are employees who never have worked on an assembly line and are doing completely different jobs. So, a follow-up question, even if the employees are willing, and it sounds like they were, to temporarily change their roles, how do you get those employees trained and trained quickly to work on this sophisticated assembly line? And if you haven't seen the Spartan Mowers, I mean, these are high-end, very sophisticated mowers. How does that work?

Janelle Shell:

Great question, Clark. Because you've got some people that have behind the desk jobs, who've never been on the assembly line, how does that happen? Other people had previously worked on the assembly line, which is great. But to your point, fortunately for the Intimidator Group, we'd previously worked with Arkansas Economic Development Commission Manufacturing Solutions to create an assembly operator training and certification process.

Janelle Shell:

So we already have that in play. And since the training development was already complete, the team was able to learn at an accelerated pace and begin production within a week of being selected to fulfill those roles.

Clark Cogbill:

Well, that's pretty impressive. And it's also impressive that the employees are willing to step up and leave, say a marketing post and start working on an assembly line. So let me ask you this. Okay, so they're willing to do it. They step up, they're trained. How did they do? How did they perform in those roles?

Janelle Shell:

They did great. They did great. They actually exceeded the expectations, which was wonderful. Then we saw demand for Spartan Mowers, rapidly increase. We weren't sure what to predict, but that team showed up every morning, started producing and they ended up accomplishing and reaching their goals before the day was over.

Janelle Shell:

So basically, they accomplished their assembly process at a much faster rate than was projected, which gave them time to finish on the line and come back to their normal job responsibilities and work on those a little bit as well. Which was great.

Clark Cogbill:

Well, that's very impressive. And as I understand it, throughout this process, during the pandemic, there was a new lead generation program that the marketing team and sales staff came up with. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

Janelle Shell:

That was such an exciting project. You're in marketing, so I know you can relate to this, but we were sitting around discussing how everybody's at home right now. Everyone's on their phones, everyone's on their computers, they're researching products. What we find that we hear from our dealers, people are so informed about the Spartan Mower. By the time they walk into their dealership, they know exactly the type of mower that they want. They know why they want it, and we wanted to help feed into that.

Clark Cogbill:

So a little bit like buying a car, right?

Janelle Shell:

Yes, exactly. We wanted to design a lead generation program that would help get our end user the information that they need, and then get that information to our, we call them TSMs, Territory Sales Managers. Because of the pandemic, we had no travel policy. So you've got these salesmen that are typically on the road all the time, visiting with their dealers, they were at home. And then you've got dealerships who weren't seeing as much traffic coming into their stores because of the pandemic.

Janelle Shell:

So we wanted to figure out, how do we get that end user who would normally be walking into a dealership, who's now sitting at home, what can we do to get their attention and inform them of what's going on? So we built this short quiz that pops up when somebody pulls up the Spartan Mowers website. And that quiz asks different questions and it helps the user figure out which Spartan Mower is best suited for their yard. Whether they've got trees or things to mow around, flowerbeds, whether they've what type of grass they have, how many acres they mow, how often they mow.

Janelle Shell:

So quick, easy questions that generate a good, better, best option. Gives them the information then pushes that hot lead, that's what we call it because you've got somebody actually really interested in your product, pushes that hot lead directly to our territory sales manager. He pulls it up on their phone at all hours of the night. You would not believe how many people are on our website at 3:00 in the morning, building a mower or taking the quiz.

Clark Cogbill:

Wow.

Janelle Shell:

These territory sales managers get that. Attached to that hot lead are the three closest dealers to that person based on their zip code. Also, on that same lead system, the territory sales manager's able to access that dealership’s inventory. So if you got online and you selected the RT HD was the best fit for you. I'm sitting at home as a territory sales manager, and I can look and say, this dealership is 15 miles from you and they've got that exact mower that you're looking at in stock.

Janelle Shell:

So then I, with a click of a button, can send that hot lead directly to the dealer who is happens to be sitting in their dealership, wishing and hoping that people would be walking in. But instead he's got a hot lead of somebody that's sitting at home, looking at our website, just built a mower, is excited about it, and now they can either email them, text them or call them straight from that lead generation.

Clark Cogbill:

That's fantastic. So really you had the expected demand this spring. It's just that people were not coming in and buying in person or shopping in person as often. So you really catered to that at home online shopper and really took advantage of that customer experience. And it sounds like that you jumped on that early and were able to meet demand with this innovative change online.

Janelle Shell:

Yes, absolutely. It kept everybody involved from the end user to the dealer, to the territory sales manager, to us here at the plant. It was a great opportunity to link us all together. Typically spring is a big open house season. You've got dealers hosting, open houses for people to come test drive. You didn't have that this year. You didn't have that opportunity to get people in the seats of your vehicle. And so you had to figure out how to reach them in a different way. And we thought that virtually and digitally was the best option.

Clark Cogbill:

Well, that's a fantastic story. We're going to shift gears now. I'm going to talk with Paige Carswell at Hytrol and Jonesboro. And Paige when the pandemic hit the US and then Arkansas, Hytrol really took action early. Can you tell us what the early actions were at the company to support employees?

Paige Carswell:

Yeah, sure. So safety is really probably our top priority at Hytrol. We want to make sure that everybody feels comfortable and safe coming to work every day. We've got more than a thousand employees. And so that is our biggest charge as an employer. So right out of the gate, we started hiring some temporary employees and their jobs were to continually clean the facility. We added some mobile handwashing stations, and then we also partnered with a local medical grade sanitation provider to clean our facility regularly.

Paige Carswell:

Now, when employees would enter the building, they were and are still required to pass the temperature screening. And we also implemented some universal mask wearing and have provided those masks to employees. But I think in addition to that, one of the biggest things that we knew we had to do with our employees was to communicate. This was a really dynamic environment and we were learning more all the time about COVID-19. People were afraid of this and what it meant for their health.

Clark Cogbill:

Sure.

Paige Carswell:

Yeah, and their family's health. So we started using all of our communication channels, everything from Facebook to company newsletters, to just let people know what we were going to do and to update them frequently. One of the things I think we know is that in the absence of information, people fill in those gaps.

Clark Cogbill:

Right.

Paige Carswell:

So we wanted them to have the most accurate information possible and feel the best possible about coming into work.

Clark Cogbill:

Sure. In those early days, there were so many questions. And even if you do have the safety measures in place, which sounds like Hytrol really went even above and beyond the CDC guidelines, you have to inform people. So communication is so key. And I know that, that helped retain employees that you really needed. As I understand it, Hytrol really didn't have a work from home policy prior to the pandemic hitting. But that's one of the things that you quickly transitioned to. Tell us how that went and what you did.

Paige Carswell:

Sure. So we knew right away that one of the safety measures that we needed to prevent the spread was to transition those who could work from home to do so. So we had about a 150 employees who were able to do remote work. A large portion of those were in engineering. And those engineering employees had a challenge to increase their output while working from home and show that it really is a viable option to have remote work, even when it's not required to protect people's health. And so engineering did a good job of really gamifying the work and ended up increasing their output by several percentage points because of the remote work.

Clark Cogbill:

Wow. So they not only said, "Hey, we can do the work, but we can actually even challenge ourselves to improve while working from home."

Paige Carswell:

Yeah, absolutely. I think one of the biggest factors in working remotely is to define the parameters so that people can be successful. You can't gamify something that doesn't have a goal. And while our goal at Hytrol is always to continue to be more efficient and better in processes, working remotely really allowed us to focus on hitting those stretch goals and really exceed those stretch goals.

Clark Cogbill:

That's fantastic. Hytrol like Intimidator Group, interesting situation, demand was there. Demand was actually high as the pandemic hit. And part of that reason for Hytrol is you manufacture products that are part of the supply chain, including a wide range of conveyors, as well as software and accessories. So your demand increased. What did you do to keep up with the increased demand, even as you were putting in all these new safety measures and moving people to remote work, how did you handle that increased demand?

Paige Carswell:

Yeah. One of the interesting things at the beginning of this pandemic was how many people were really starting to shop online almost exclusively. And so our demands rose quite a bit. So, first, I guess we took some proactive steps to obtain the essential services designation. So that if there happened to be a statewide shut down, we could continue operating and continuing to provide those services that people needed.

Paige Carswell:

So we did that. We also wrote letters for our component suppliers to help them gain that same designation. One of the biggest issues that we identified right away was the potential disruption in the supply chain. In our own supply chain. Our materials department did a really good job ensuring we had the product that we needed to build our equipment. They grew stock levels for crucial components, should the worst happen.

Paige Carswell:

And they made sure that we are prepared for what was coming. As far as safety measures, we do have a very large facility that allows for social distancing measures to take place. We looked at options to improve our flow in different areas. But one thing that we have found is that the mask implementation has really been working for us. Any COVID diagnoses that we've found have actually been traced to outside of the workplace, which means the measures that we were able to implement have been effective.

Clark Cogbill:

When you're working as an employee at Hytrol, you can rest assure that things are as safe as possible.

Paige Carswell:

Yeah, that is definitely our goal. And the leadership at Hytrol has been so good at, like you said, looking at the CDC guidelines, but also looking above and beyond what is our next step to make sure that our employees are safe, that they feel comfortable coming to work. But also, they've done several other things for people who suddenly found themselves without childcare.

Clark Cogbill:

Right.

Paige Carswell:

People who suddenly found themselves with symptoms. We were not part of the government mandate to provide leave to those people. But the leadership got together and decided that this was important to be able to support our employees. So they actually implemented a COVID Leave Policy so that people could take leave and be safe and take care of their children and still get paid.

Clark Cogbill:

Wow, that's fantastic.

Paige Carswell:

Yeah.

Clark Cogbill:

If the pandemic wasn't enough of a challenge for Hytrol, in late March, the Jonesboro community was hit with another monumental setback as an EF3 tornado struck the heart of the city's commerce sector. It caused major damage to multiple businesses, thankfully, no lives lost. And Hytrol, thankfully, avoided damage, as I understand it. But tell us about how your employees reacted to that. You're in the middle of this pandemic, you're in the middle of increased demand. What did your employees do after this tornado hit?

Paige Carswell:

Oh yeah. March was such a wild month. We had put out tons of communication about COVID and then, and I think it was one Saturday afternoon that the tornado came through. We didn't receive damage to any Hytrol facilities, but we certainly had employees who were impacted and people jumped in to help them. We had folks helping with cleanup in the community, the day after the tornado. We were able to offer a hanger to Air Choice One. Community and family are two of Hytrol’s core values. And it was really evident why that is in the month of March.

Clark Cogbill:

What an incredible challenging month that was. People step up in really difficult times and certainly the Hytrol employees did.

Paige Carswell:

Absolutely.

Clark Cogbill:

So now a question for each of you, and I'll start with Janelle. Both the Intimidator Group and Hytrol, it's apparent that both companies have a unique culture of expecting excellence, that foster innovation and creativity. Janelle, how did the culture at Intimidator Group help the company manage and adapt during the pandemic?

Janelle Shell:

That's a great question. I feel like here at Intimidator with all the companies that we have, we are continually trying to improve. So it's this idea that we're always trying to improve on our quality. We're always trying to improve on the products that we produce. And it just seemed like as an employee base during this time of uncertainty, there was just this positive attitude among everyone. Even though it could be so uncertain, there was this positive attitude. This team of people came together and met daily and would listen to the governor's speeches on the pandemic and the numbers.

Clark Cogbill:

Right.

Janelle Shell:

And we would assess the situation. I mean, it was a daily change and we would continually assess the situation. And first and foremost, we wanted to make sure, like Paige who was saying, people felt safe coming to work.

Clark Cogbill:

Right.

Janelle Shell:

And so we did some similar things here, just making sure we took temperatures and masks and different things. And so it's this idea of making sure you feel safe when you're coming to work, making sure your employees needs are being met. We have this overwhelming feeling of being completely blessed that we were not among those businesses that had to be shut down, or were forced to close. So that gave us all this appreciation that no matter what department you're in, or no matter what you do for our company. It was an all hands on deck type, whatever is needed of me, I'm going to do it to keep this going.

Clark Cogbill:

Fantastic. And so I'll ask the same question of you, Paige. At Hytrol, how did the culture help the company get through this pandemic? And it's continuing to help you to get through the pandemic. How did culture play a role?

Paige Carswell:

Yeah, so some of the guiding principles that we've used to manage and adapt during the pandemic are actually the Hytrol values. So we identified faith, family, empathy, commitment, gratitude, and community as our core values at Hytrol. And when you have to decide what the right thing to do is during a situation like this, it's so important to ask, does it align with our values? Are we showing that we care about our employees, our community? Is this part of a commitment to excellence? Does it align with long-term goals?

Paige Carswell:

The neat thing about those values is they're not top down. We didn't identify those values as part of the leadership. They were identified by a cross functional team at Hytrol, from different levels and different departments. And I guess, because we had so many people living up to those values every day, we've been able to keep up with the demand and weather the storm so far.

Clark Cogbill:

Well, it's great to go back to those core values and rely on those things, to help guide you through really difficult challenges. So, a follow-up question for each of you, and I'll go back to Janelle. Are there new processes or operational efficiencies that Intimidator Group started during the pandemic that you're going to continue to do when all of this is over?

Janelle Shell:

Well, we've definitely taken a new look at trying new things and not being afraid to think outside the box. And I think it's given us an awakening, I guess. It's opened our eyes to the fact that you can't always do things the way you've always done them.

Clark Cogbill:

Right.

Janelle Shell:

So it's almost an opportunity for us to look at things in a broader and broader perspective. Instead of the things that we had originally planned and where we would originally be taking assessment on a daily basis and figuring out and being comfortable with pivoting and adjusting to our plans that we had put in place. Thinking outside the box and not being afraid to try new things because we were in this unchartered territory. I think that given us a new perspective on that. And then plan, plan, plan.

Clark Cogbill:

Right.

Janelle Shell:

It's been effective for us to think about all outcomes of all possibilities and plan for those various outcomes and looking ahead and preparing for next steps. That's something that we have really anchored onto these days.

Clark Cogbill:

And Paige, what about Hytrol? Anything that you've started during the pandemic, a new idea that you're going to carry on when this is all over?

Paige Carswell:

Yeah, there are a few things. So one of the most effective efficiencies that we've already talked about is the remote work policy. People are being more productive. They feel more trusted. It's just a good thing all around. But a couple of other things are sort of this move to digital. Just like Janelle's team, we had essentially a no travel policy put in place.

Paige Carswell:

And so we were having to identify new ways to connect with our partners across the world and potential customers. And so we identified better ways to connect with them, whether it's been through video or changing some of our training opportunities to digital ones. And so I think those things will continue to be implemented because it's just a really, really good and effective way to get information and to get support to the people who need it immediately.

Clark Cogbill:

One final question for you both. I'll start with Paige this time. This still continues to be a very difficult time for many businesses across the US and across Arkansas. What advice would you share with businesses that are struggling during this economic downturn, during the pandemic?

Paige Carswell:

Yeah, there's lots of advice out there about how to strategize in this climate, which seems to be changing every day. It's so dynamic. I would say for us, one of the most important pieces of advice is to be transparent, especially with your employees. What are the struggles that we're having? What are the accomplishments that we've made?

Paige Carswell:

Establishing open communication and trust with our employees has been really imperative and it's allowed us to make those quick adjustments that we've needed to make by talking to employees and then by listening to their feedback.

Clark Cogbill:

And Janelle, what about you? What advice would you give to businesses struggling during the economic downturn?

Janelle Shell:

I completely agree with Paige. Having those open lines of communication is so important. Being able to really, truly listen to your employees and then being able to look at the market and assess what everyone else is doing and how people are being affected. But not being driven by your competition, but staying focused on your goals as a company. And staying focused on the direction that you need to be going, but not blindly going full blown ahead, but taking in everything around you, that's going on.

Janelle Shell:

It's just very valuable to do that and then assess on a daily basis. During this pandemic, with things changing so rapidly, you have to pay attention to what's going on around you, and then you have to be ready and willing to make those adjustments.

Clark Cogbill:

Great advice.

Janelle Shell:

Well, I will say this. When we created the lead generation system, we should have done that a long time ago. It shouldn't have taken a pandemic to get us to realize that people are purchasing online and being so into their phones and into their computers in the digital era. That lead generation system has really skyrocketed our growth in getting information into the end user's hands. That's definitely going to be something that we continue to use and develop. And then also, as far as the efficiency goes, we used to gather on a daily basis to have a production meeting every morning.

Janelle Shell:

Well, we have two campuses and although our one campus is just right around the corner, that takes up time for those employees to get from one campus to the other. And since the pandemic came into play, we started meeting virtually using Microsoft Teams. We've continued that and where we used to feel like, “Oh, no, we need to get together. We need to be able to look into each other's eyes.”

Janelle Shell:

Meeting on Teams and doing that virtually, has become so efficient that we've done that with a tremendous amount of our meetings. And it's just proven to us, we don't have to always be in person. It's just outside of the box thinking because of our situation that has made us more efficient at something that we're continuing to do.

Clark Cogbill:

Well, it will certainly be interesting to see all the innovation that comes out of the pandemic that companies like Hytrol and like Intimidator Group have created out of need that carry on into their operations, beyond the pandemic.

Clark Cogbill:

Well, I'd like to thank my guests who have joined us today on the Arkansas Inc. Podcast. Janelle Shell, Marketing Manager with Intimidator Group in Batesville, Arkansas and Paige Carswell, Marketing Manager with Hytrol out of Jonesboro, Arkansas. Janelle, Paige, thank you for joining us today.

Paige Carswell:

Thank you very much. It's been a pleasure.

Janelle Shell:

Thank you, Clark.

Clark Cogbill:

You've been listening to the Arkansas Inc. Podcast. My name is Clark Cogbill. I'm Director of Digital Marketing for the Arkansas Economic Development Commission. To learn more about Arkansas Economic Development Commission, visit arkansasedc.com. Thanks for tuning in.