In March 2020, as US governors began issuing stay-at-home orders for nonessential workers because of the increasing COVID-19 threat, many business owners fretted over the possible impact on their state or city. At the very least, a loss of profits could be expected; at worst, it could mean a loss of jobs or companies.
When Aneesa Muthana—CEO, president, and owner of Pioneer Service, a machining and grinding services outfit in northern Illinois—learned that her clients were deemed essential businesses, Pioneer Service became an essential business, too. This meant Muthana was not only open for business but also in a whole new territory. Business continuity management was something she had to learn quickly to build a bridge to this new, unknown reality.
Overnight, Muthana had to switch operations and ramp up production on precision parts for ventilators, portable oxygen concentrators, lab equipment, and other products needed on the frontlines to help fight COVID-19. She was tasked with fulfilling orders at dizzying speeds, retooling machines for new parts, and keeping herself and her employees safe. Here, she shares what she’s learned along the way and how these trying times have prepared her company for a more resilient future.
Describe what your business was like six months ago. What was your “normal” then?
We had lots of incoming new business as well as many promising leads and were ramping up production to meet it. The new business touched a wide variety of industries: industrial, aerospace, medical, electric vehicles, and more.
What does “normal” looks like for an essential business today?
Nothing about this feels normal, but that hasn’t stopped us from doing our part. Nearly all of our usual clients had to suspend or indefinitely postpone production. As you would expect, the urgent need for precision parts for stretchers, ventilators, and biotech equipment now dominates our production. We’re grateful for the opportunity to help those in need and keep our team working.
What pivots did you have to make to your production line?
We had to ramp up production of medical parts, which meant cross-training part of our team. Some of our aerospace, industrial, and other nonmedical contracts are on hold. We’ve retooled many of our machines formerly dedicated to making precision parts for other industries to ramp up production for medicine and biotech.
You were planning to shut down but got notice that the parts you make are essential. What was that process like?
We planned to abide by our governor’s stay-at-home order, but within minutes of the announcement, our clients in the medical industry informed us of their surging needs. As their calls and orders were coming in, we immediately started shifting machines and team members over to run their parts. It was—and still is—an all-hands-on-deck situation.
How did you change the workflow to safely follow COVID-19 distancing measures?
As of May 1, anyone who’s not alone wears a mask. We’ve deviated from normal work hours, partly so we can spend extra time sanitizing the shop floor but also to accommodate our employees, many of whom have small children at home 24/7. We’ve also taken special care to standardize work instructions, tooling, and training for the expanded production on medical parts.
How have the staff responded to the essential-business demands?
Like anyone, we’re all concerned about our loved ones and eager to return to something like normalcy. That said, the knowledge that we’re helping mitigate a shortage of critical parts lifts our spirits and has unified our industry as a whole. Having a diverse team of men, women, millennials, boomers, Gen Xers, and other demographics also allowed us to draw from varied experiences and opinions, which makes our company more resilient as a whole.
What would you tell other business owners as they prepare to reopen or consider adapting to different circumstances?
Over the course of barely a week, our goals all suddenly shifted—nobody gave us a manual. For all of our wisdom about being proactive and strategic thinking, sometimes the only play is just to react and use your best judgment. Many companies don’t have the option of keeping their doors open—at least we had a choice.
It’s okay to feel overwhelmed, to feel down occasionally, to feel like we don’t have all the answers. Stay calm, keep checking in on your employees. Ask them about their needs, their families’ needs, and follow up with them regularly. They call it “social distancing,” but a better term would be “physical distancing” because we’re all in this together. We survived the Great Recession of 2007–2009 and emerged stronger for it.
What do you think life will be like six months from now?
Every storm passes. Things will almost certainly be different than before, but I believe the change will be a positive one. Customers are telling us they anticipate the demand and effects of COVID-19 will last as long as three years. I’ve witnessed a company, overwhelmed with medical orders, refer the prospective customer to a former competitor. Companies are literally offering to loan equipment to other companies to help them meet production quotas.
The industry’s heightened visibility will get the word out about the promise and potential of our industry. The grimy “dirt-and-oil” shops are behind us; we’re a tech industry now, and we have plenty of room for those considering a career in manufacturing.