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Pandemic responses at Florida's best companies

Squaremouth

No. 17 Small | St. Petersburg

As the coronavirus brought global travel to a near halt in March, St. Petersburg-based Squaremouth, which operates a travel insurance comparison website, saw its sales volume plunge from more than 500 transactions a day to fewer than 20, a 90%-plus drop.

In response, Squaremouth dipped into cash reserves and cut costs to keep all employees on staff at full pay and got a loan under the federal government’s new Paycheck Protection Program (PPP).

Meanwhile, it became busier than ever with calls from travelers asking about coverage for their canceled flights and hotel stays. The number of claims related to the pandemic nearly tripled over the firm’s usual rate, says spokeswoman Kasara Barto. The company shifted employees around to handle the influx of customer calls and began planning for its post-coronavirus future, she says. “We had travelers whose trips were canceled and travelers who were still looking to travel and buy coverage. We were able to jump in quickly and answer as many questions as we could,” she says.

Squaremouth gets a cut of each sale when customers go on its site and buy travel insurance from a host of providers. The company says it’s working on the rollout of new products to address travelers’ changing needs, including policies that specifically cover virus outbreaks. Most policies sold through Squaremouth have not covered COVID-19 claims, Barto says. “For an event to be covered, it has to be written into the policy, and pandemics, epidemics and outbreaks typically aren’t written in because they weren’t a concern before,” she says.

Three years ago, Squaremouth bought an historic church building in St. Petersburg, hoping to create a millennial’s dream office, with a badminton court, snooker table, video games, napping couches, a bar and tree houses for meeting spaces. The company planned to move into the building once the renovations were completed. But in the wake of stay-at-home orders and mass telecommuting, Squaremouth has decided to let employees work from home indefinitely, even after the pandemic ends. The company will keep its leased offices in downtown St. Petersburg for when employees “need to get out of the house,” Barto says. “We’re not required to come in.”

The old church building is now up for sale. “Employees really aren’t looking for that hip new office space anymore,” she says. “The focus has shifted to workplace flexibility.”

 

Launch Potato

No. 9 Small | Delray Beach

Christine Yaged, Co-Founder & Chief Marketing Officer -

Economic Impact: “While we had more web traffic in general, some of our advertisers started getting cautious by the end of March. By April, we saw 50% of our advertisers drop completely out of the advertising space, not even just with us. We had a cash cushion, and we worked really hard to keep everyone employed. The thing that keeps me up at night is the thought of possibly having to lay off employees. I feel super fortunate that we didn’t have to do anything like that. With the help of a banker, we were able to get a PPP loan in April.”

Pivoting: “Prior to COVID, we had been really focused on the travel and credit-card space and were growing nicely there. By the time April came around, almost all of our credit-card issuer advertisers had pulled out of the market completely. The team really hustled to pivot our content strategy from a lot of travel and credit-card content to topics that were more interesting to the larger U.S. population — things like insurance, side hustles and gigs and money management apps.”

Maintaining Morale: “Probably around week three, people started getting a little de-motivated. I know with myself, there were some days when I was like, ‘Man, this is so different. I miss the old life.’ But that kind of thinking is not what’s going to get us through this. So we’ve done things like a daily gratitude challenge — we use Slack for all of our instant messaging — and we’ve implemented a couple of fun games that I’m pretty proud of. One of them was based on the MTV show ‘Cribs.’ We had everyone who wanted to participate take a picture of a room in their house and send it to our assistant, who would do an anonymous post in Slack with a caption, in Cribs-style, talking about the room in some verbose, fancy way, and then the team would have to guess whose crib it was. That was really fun.”

 

KnowBe4

No. 12 Large | Clearwater

Stu Sjouwerman, CEO -

Economic Impact: “We have been in hyper-growth mode for the last eight years. That has topped off or flattened out. One of our VC friends was joking that flat is the new up. We expect Q3 and Q4 to climb back to where we are normally.”

Opportunities: “We’ve hired more than 80 people in the past two months. We’re seeing this as a great opportunity to attack. We’re on the offensive and taking more market share than ever before.”

Telecommuting: “I’d rather have everyone back in the office. It’s much more effective and efficient. You can just walk over to someone and in two minutes get something fixed without having to schedule a half-hour Zoom meeting in your calendar. There is a new normal, and it will definitely be different. But does that mean everyone will work at home always? No. Tons of people want to come back because it’s way more fun to work in the office with the team. Will we be a little more flexible and let people work from home one day a week? Maybe.”

Safety: “We have a whole 60-point list of what we’re doing to keep the office safe. You walk in and fill out a short survey — ‘Are you ill? Were you around someone who’s ill?’ You have your temperature taken and get into an elevator where only two people are allowed. You go to your desk and make sure you don’t get close to other people. There’s no microwave or coffee machine because that’s stuff that everyone touches. If you go to the bathroom, half of the stalls are taped off with big yellow hazard tape, that sort of thing.”

Patel Greene and Associates

No. 2 Midsized | Bartow

With nearly 80 employees, civil engineering firm Patel Greene and Associates has offices in Hillsborough, Orange and Polk counties. It primarily designs highways and roads for the Florida Department of Transportation and hasn’t slowed down during the coronavirus, says Executive Vice President Gordon Greene. The company has been hiring employees in recent months and even hired a furloughed engineer from Disney. “We’ve always got a little more work than we can handle,” Greene says. “There’s definitely a scarcity of good engineers.”

Everyone at the firm works on laptops rather than desktops, making the transition to telecommuting last spring fairly seamless, he says. As the firm prepared to reopen its offices in June, it stocked up on face masks and hand sanitizer but gave everyone the option to remain at home. “We’re not forcing anyone to come back to the office,” Greene says. “It’s been interesting to see who is really chomping at the bit to come back and who’s nervous about it. We don’t try to judge or anything like that. We’re all getting our work done, so there’s no sense of urgency to have everyone back.”

 

Team Cone

No. 4 Large | Ocala

Founded in 1985, Ocala-based Team Cone distributes beer in 22 counties across North-Central Florida. With nearly 320 employees, it operates two warehouses in Ocala and another in Tallahassee. On March 17, Gov. Ron DeSantis ordered all bars and nightclubs in Florida to shut down temporarily due to the coronavirus, and “we had 10% of our business literally close overnight,” says company founder Doug Cone.

Around the same time, the company’s telemarketing manager began showing symptoms of COVID-19. The employee went home to self-isolate but soon ended up in the hospital on a ventilator. Like many hit hardest by the coronavirus, he had underlying conditions, including cardiac disease and diabetes. “Within five days, he passed away,” Cone says. “Obviously, the anxiety level in the office was very high.”

The company formed a task force to ensure it was following CDC guidelines, bought face masks and hand sanitizer in bulk for employees to use and hired a biohazard company to disinfect its facilities with a virus-killing aerosol. “I can’t tell you what a difference that made,” Cone says.

Given the nature of what it does, the company had to keep operating as normally as possible, he says. “Our operation has worked 24 hours a day, six days a week throughout the entire pandemic.”

Despite the negative impact to bars and nightclubs, the company saw an increase in business overall. “The one thing people will not give up in times of recession or pandemic is their beer. Even with that 10% loss of volume from bars and restaurants, my business since COVID is up 25% from a year ago. People are still buying beer and taking it home to drink,” Cone says.

The company has avoided layoffs and pay cuts and is even hiring, he says. “We have employees whose husbands and wives lost jobs. I think there’s been a sense of relief and comfort working for a company that’s not furloughing or laying anyone off,” he says.

 

Hanson Professional Services

No. 6 Large | Springfield, Ill.

Bill Bradford, Senior Vice President/Energy, Sustainability and Resiliency Principal -

Communication: “Our H.R. department has been very proactive. On March 4, they came out with the first communication to the company, saying they were monitoring developments, making recommendations for personal hygiene and promoting tele-health. They sent out seven or eight communications in March. And then in April and May, we had weekly updates from our CEO via Zoom. He’d spend about a half-hour just going over everything. At one point, roughly 80% of our staff was working from home.”

Economic Impact: “We were very fortunate because we entered this with a very good backlog of projects. Because of what we do and the clients we serve, we’ve been able to maintain that backlog. I have noticed a decrease in the amount of requests for proposal and requests for qualification from municipal governments, state government, schools, colleges and universities. And we’ve had a small percentage of work go on hold. We’re very sorry about that, but at the same time, we understand. We’ve had one furlough, and that was somebody who was devoted to a project that went on hold.”

Safety Measures: “I’ve gotten four, gallon jugs of hand sanitizer along with masks and gloves for our office’s reopening. Our president’s wife personally made 500 face masks for our employees. If you’re in an office alone, you don’t have to wear a mask, but if you’re interacting with people, you do have to wear one.”

The future: “There’s going to be businesses doing away with the open-floor plan and moving to more closed offices. There’s going to be less density per office. There are going to be touch-less water faucets and toilets. The way we deal with elevators is going to be substantially different. It’s going to change the offices of the future, and I think we’ll be better for it.”

 

Dorcey Law Firm

No. 8 Small | Fort Myers

When hiring an attorney to write a will or trust, most people still prefer to meet face to face rather than through a webcam, FaceTime or conference tools like Zoom, says Joshua Dorcey, founder and managing partner of Fort Myers-based Dorcey Law Firm, which specializes in estate planning. The firm’s revenue plunged more than two-thirds in March from the previous few months as the coronavirus kept clients at home, he says. “They’d rather not deal with someone virtually. Almost every new in-person appointment we had on the books either canceled or rescheduled for later in the summer,” he says.

Dorcey used savings to avoid layoffs and pay cuts during the first two months of the shutdown and then received a federal PPP loan in mid-May, just as he was starting to run out of cash reserves. “Luckily, with the PPP money and the stay-at-home orders coming to an end, we didn’t have to take pay cuts or furlough anyone,” he says.

The firm, which employs about 30, is now adjusting to the new normal, he says. In-person meetings between attorneys and clients have resumed, with safety measures in place to try to prevent the spread of COVID-19, including air purifiers for conference rooms, frequent cleaning and disinfecting of high-touch surfaces and masks for everyone entering the office. The firm’s revenue also is on the rebound.

“We’re nowhere close to where we would have been, but at this point, it’s more about surviving than thriving,” he says. “Just in terms of our staff and culture, it’s taken us a long time to get where we are, and I wasn’t willing to lose any of that just because of COVID-19. I’d rather dip into our reserves and keep our team intact. In my mind, this was an anomaly. The market was good; the economy was good. I figured at some point we’d pull out of it, and I wanted to have the same teammates with us.”

Hunton Andrews Kurth

No. 1 Large | Richmond, Va.

With many businesses thrust into remote working by COVID-19, the workplace might not ever look quite the same. For the Hunton Andrews Kurth law firm, which employs 58 in Miami, the pandemic has shown that telecommuting can work well. During the coronavirus shutdown, employees enjoyed not having to commute to work every day and remained just as productive, if not more so, says Juan Enjamio, managing partner of the firm’s Miami office. He says remote working and video conferencing also have led to cost savings for the firm due to lower travel expenses.

“People have adjusted and have done the things they need to do to make sure we look out for one another and also continue to provide service,” he says. “In the legal profession, I think you’ll see clients and lawyers more comfortable doing things remotely. A lot of face-to-face meetings that involved travel may be done remotely now by video conferencing because we have seen that it can work.”

While Enjamio sees fewer in-person meetings and more flexible work arrangements long term, he doesn’t expect the office to disappear. “Obviously, some things can’t be done remotely,” he says. “I just think the new equilibrium will be tilted a little more toward remote work and not getting on a plane to do face-to-face meetings all the time.”

Besides the benefits of telecommuting, he says, the shutdown has shown the importance of social interaction. “People have a need to reach out and touch and communicate with each other,” he says. “I don’t think that will ever go away.”

 

First Florida Credit Union

No. 8 Midsized | Jacksonville

Brent Lister, President & CEO -

Avoiding Layoffs: “Although the COVID-19 pandemic forced us to change our operations, we did not furlough or lay off any employees. With our strong capital position, we knew it was critical to do everything we could to ensure that our employees could continue to take care of their families and retain their benefits.”

Communication: “Roughly 25% of our staff began working remotely in mid-March. Our leadership team has put a major emphasis on communication during the pandemic across all segments of our business. We surveyed those employees working from home to ensure they had the technology and support necessary to complete their work. We also have made a concerted effort to stay connected through video conferencing to foster that face-to-face contact that our remote employees are missing from their regular routines. So far, we’ve been pleased with the productivity of the work being completed by our remote employees.”

 

GunnChamberlain

No. 1 Small | Jacksonville

Jacksonville accounting firm GunnChamberlain already was busy with tax season when Congress passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act to help small businesses hurt by the pandemic. Within days, the firm’s accountants were hosting hourlong webinars for dozens of clients seeking information about new business loans.

“We took a couple of team members out of our cloud-based accounting services division and created what we called our federal Paycheck Protection Program task force,” says co-founding partner Marshall Gunn.

As the firm’s workload increased, some employees also found themselves at home juggling their jobs and child care amid school closures and social distancing. “They had a second job given to them called teacher,” Gunn says. “We would see a surge in people working online after regular hours. It was the craziest tax season I can ever remember, and I’ve been doing this a long time.”

Gunn, who describes himself as old-school in his views on telecommuting, says he’ll be more open to allowing employees to work remotely in the future. “It honestly worked well for us. I was a little surprised,” he says. “The productivity of our team stayed up, and as long as that’s the case, I’m happy whether people are working at home or in the office.”