E6: COVID-19 and Business Ownership

COVID-19 and Business Ownership


A conversation with Jessica Meyers, Owner and President, JEM Group.



Jessica Meyers 
Owner and President of JEM Group

For more than two decades, Jessica Meyers, has developed a reputation as leading entrepreneur, philanthropist and a voice for women in construction.  In 2003, she founded JEM Group, a commercial construction company.  As one of only a few women leading construction companies in the industry, she has grown JEM Group into a well-known and widely respected construction firms in Pennsylvania.  Today JEM builds projects across many market sectors including corporate, education, health care, government, hospitality and retail.


Contact Info

JEM Group

214 Senate Avenue, Suite 302
Camp Hill, PA 17011
717-238-7709
jemgroup.net

 


Transcript

Warehaus:

My name is Matt Falvey and I’m your host for today’s episode. Today, we have Jessica Meyers, CEO for JEM Group. For more than two decades, Jessica Meyers has developed a reputation as a leading entrepreneur, philanthropist and a voice for women in construction. In 2003, she founded JEM Group, a commercial construction company as one of only a few women leading construction companies in the industry. She has grown JEM group into a well-known and widely respected construction firm in Pennsylvania. Today, JEM builds projects across many market sectors, including corporate education, healthcare, government, hospitality and retail. So, Jessica, welcome! I thought we’d start off by you telling us a little bit about yourself and what led you not only into construction but starting your own business.

 

Jessica Meyers:

Thanks for that great introduction, Matt. So, I have found that there are a few ways that people land in the construction industry. There are those who choose it, who go to school for it.There are those who come up through the trades. And then there are those who have a family member in the business. And I’m in that last category. I had a family member that was in the construction business and I had an opportunity to go work for a well-known company in Central Pennsylvania for the first 10 years of my career. I had a great experience there until I started my company, JEM Group. In late 2003 when I started JEM Group, you know,  my goal was to build a strong, diverse business; a woman-owned business that had purpose and could deliver value to its customers by being creative, by being accountable, but ultimately by being a true partner in the process. That’s what we’re striving for and that’s what we’re doing today. And it’s really been a great 16 plus years in the business.

 

Warehaus:

Yeah, that’s awesome! And I think as we get into this, I can’t wait for you to share with the audience how you think about business, how you define strategy and how entrepreneurial you are. And, you hit the nail on the head! You are highly successful in a male-dominated industry and really doing great things. So, I’m really excited to get into this. So, given this current Covid-19 pandemic, in what way do you see businesses – as a business owner in the construction industry – responding to the pandemic, and this shutdown? And I guess, you can take it a step further: were there ways, opportunities for you to continue to serve your clients throughout the shutdown?

 

Jessica Meyers:

Yes, there are. Thanks, Matt. I’ll take that in two pieces. So we’ll start with how it impacted the construction industry, and I certainly will speak from my point of view. But I’ve talked to many of my contemporaries in the business, and we’ve all had a very similar experience. We found out on Thursday, March 19th at 5:00 p.m., that all projects needed to be shut down in a day. And not only that, all office operations had to cease as well. So, it was critical for us to pivot quickly to comply with the Governor’s order. But we also had to maintain continuity of our business for our clients, because while we were shutting down in the field, we still had deliverables for clients, and things to make good on. So, how do we handle that? We very quickly leveraged our protocol for job shutdowns, which in this case, included rapid demobilization. And that was making sure that all job sites were safe and securely closed. So, that was kind of job number one. Job number two was how do we carry on the work? Well, fortunately for us, we had a strong system in place for remote work, and all of our team members were able to pivot and adopt that instantly. This was really key in our ability to maintain our workflow and our service to our clients. Because while we had halted in the field, our project managers and estimators were still needed to connect with clients. And the real key for that – I’m sure you’ve heard many other business owners say this during COVID-19 – is having the right technology in place to support a remote work platform is critical. So, we used technology to interact with our clients. We presented to clients over technology. We really streamlined our processes, you know, and didn’t miss a beat. So, that’s the way that we were able to really pivot quickly during the shutdown.

 

Now, the second part of your question was talking about, you know, how do we continue to serve our clients and create value? And that was one of our goals. How do we stay relevant? How do we find ways to continue to provide value during the shutdown? So, one of the questions we asked ourselves is, “What are our clients going to need coming out of COVID-19?”.  So, one area we decided to focus on was facilities, naturally, because we work in the built environment. We talked about how our facilities are going to be impacted coming out of COVID-19. How are they going to need to change? So, as a result of this, we started talking to some other partners in the business, some subcontractors, other contractors, and we ended up forming a collaboration, a consortium, if you will, that we are calling Healthy Spaces. And what our team is focused on, for our clients, is making existing spaces safer, and healthier when people return to work. So, we’re focused on things like improving indoor air quality, installing UV lighting, controlling surface contamination, upgrading restrooms and common area components with the overall goal of making these spaces safer and healthier for employees when they return to work. So, that was a unique thing that we put together pretty quickly. It’s still in the early stages of us rolling it out. But we’re very excited about that partnership and really excited about being able to provide value to our clients as we all try to rebound from this.

 

Warehaus:

Well, I’ll tell you, I love that healthy spaces concept. I think it’s very creative, very outside the box. And, it’s a very nimble solution or you are very nimble in implementing that solution. Technology, across all of our interviews and podcasts, has been a consistent theme. I mean, I think any other time in history, you know, even going back to when 9/11 happened, I don’t think technology was this adept. You’ve been in this for 16 plus years, have you seen anything like this before? Have you experienced anything of this magnitude or anything crazy like this?

 

Jessica Meyers:

I’ve reflected on that question many times. And, the only thing is – I have been in this business for about twenty four years – the most disruption I saw… of course, beyond 9/11… would have been the Great Recession. That was two years ahead. A lot of companies, you know, were hit very hard. I feel that most people in our industry that went out of business and were really hurt, those folks were already financially fragile, unfortunately. But the Great Recession was different. You know, you could respond to the market. You could scale back your business. You could cut your overhead. Right. You could make those changes.  With COVID-19, we were full steam ahead one day, and the next day we were out not out of business, but, we weren’t putting work in place. So, the answer is no. I have never experienced anything like this. And it was really, you know, a test of our scenario planning capabilities as a company. Every day we had a scenario plan because we did not know when we could start again. So, it was really a daily planning exercise that our team responded well to. But now, COVID 19 – never, not in 24 years have I experienced anything like that.

 

Warehaus:

No, no question about it! I guess going back to my technology comment, this type of technology didn’t exist not too long ago. And I think that it’s really Zoom,  Microsoft Teams, et cetera, …these platforms have really helped businesses such as Warehaus, such as JEM Group, etc., to stay relevant and in touch with clients, and even get some projects completed. So that’s great!

 

Jessica Meyers:

I will just interject there on the technology piece. Like a year and a half ago, my team came to me with a proposal to upgrade all of our technology, and it was a significant investment. And I paused. Do we really need this? Does everybody really need to have a laptop? I think that as a business owner, right, you’ve got to challenge some of those costly investments in the company. But ultimately, I had to trust my team, you know, that they knew what was needed to make this business work in a remote environment. And I’m very thankful that I did trust the team’s recommendation, and that we were ready. So, yeah!

 

Warehaus:

Well, talk about being present! And that is a credit  to you as a leader, you know.  Having your team in place and trusting that you picked the right people to be in the right positions on your team and taking their advice because it is quite an investment. Listen, if our architects and engineers didn’t have the remote technology and laptops, it would have been a different game for us at Warehaus as well. So, that’s awesome! This has been a long time. I mean, what, four to six weeks? It’s a lot of downtime that we’ve had to deal with. And there’s more downtime, you know, ahead, although it looks like there’s a light at the end of the tunnel and it’s not a train, I hope. And obviously, there are obvious downsides to the shutdown for all of us. But from your perspective, did you see any upsides to this downtime? And if you do, what were they?

 

Jessica Meyers:

Yeah, thanks. First, you’re right. Four to six weeks is a long time, and I don’t think I’ve realized that more than now. So, one of the things  with having a lot of downtime is that, you have to realize that half of our employees at JEM Group – and this is probably the same situation for other contractors out there – are field employees. So, when you can’t go to your job site, you don’t have work to do. So, we had to get really creative and find ways to fill that time. The first thing that I wanted to focus on was ask, “How can we build better teams, and be stronger when we come out of this thing?”. So, we already had a great training platform, but we kind of put that thing on steroids. We really pumped that up very quickly. And to the credit of my team, they came up with 60 hours of available online training that anybody in the company could take. These were soft skills training, technology training and of course, technical and safety training, because that is the world that we live in. And so to me, that was a huge positive that we were able to train people, enrich them and educate them so that when they come back to work, they’re going to be stronger and better. So, we’re really excited about that. The other thing that we did is we focused on our purpose and our purpose at JEM group is building to improve lives. And we talk about that a lot there. So, we drew on that and said we need to give back during COVID-19.

 

So we came up with a concept called – someone else came up with the name … I wish I could take credit for it – ‘Team for good’. Again, we had field employees with available time. So, what we decided to do is offer their time at no cost to a select group of clients that were in that life sustaining category. We offered free labor to handle miscellaneous projects and maintenance needs to help their operations during COVID-19. An example of that is Central Pennsylvania Food Bank. These folks are distributing 5000 boxes of food per week. To put that in perspective for you. They usually do ten thousand a month. So, we are helping them with a variety of things to keep their facility strong, and running and offering them our team for good. So, that’s something unique that we decided to do, as a way to use our team’s time in a way that would help our clients and our community. And the last thing that I thought about that we did – and not to keep beating on the technology drum – but one of the challenges in construction and other industries with scattered sites is communication. Really keeping in touch with people can be a challenge. Well, this has been a big upside for JEM group during this whole thing. We’ve communicated in a variety of ways. But every Friday at one o’clock… we just had our meeting not that long ago…we have a full staff meeting via video conference, and we keep the team apprised of all developments. We’re very transparent. We bring in guest speakers.

 

We had John O’Brien from the Keystone Contractors Association with us today talking about the things that are happening in the industry. Next week, we’re going to have someone come in and talk about 401k, because, let’s face it, people are thinking about their financial futures right now. We also have an open forum for Q&A. And we’ve also had some fun. I’ve had people dress up. We have kids poking in the meetings, pets on the call. So, communication has been great, but it’s been very humanizing, and it’s definitely made us closer as a team. And that’s sort of a softer thing that’s come out of all of this. But definitely a positive during the downtime.

 

Warehaus:

I love that. And, you know, perhaps sometime  down the future here, I’d love to do a leadership podcast, and get your leadership philosophy and just focus on it. I think about what you just said, and how that must make your team and your employees feel. We had a saying when I was going through the Army ROTC program a long time ago, but it applies to a young leader coming into the military. And it’s called People First, Mission Always. And I love what you just said, because that’s the crux of it right there. Talk about talk about keeping your employees sticky, and what I mean by that is , keeping them on board and loyal, and really wanting to continue to be a part of your team. It’s great! I love it! I made the comment about how there is a light at the end of the tunnel … it looks like there’s light at the end of the tunnel and it’s not a train! What does ‘turning on the faucet’ when the time is right look like? What challenges do you see? And then, what opportunities or new themes do you see maybe emerging as best practices?

 

Jessica Meyers:

Yeah, thanks, Matt. So, as it relates to trying to turn the faucet back on,  literally the day after we got shut down, we started making plans to restart our projects again, not knowing when we were going to restart. We needed to be ready. Our number one priority with all restarts is the health and safety of our workers, not just JEM workers, but every person that steps on our job site. So, from day one of this, we’ve been proactively adapting our current safety policies and procedures to deal with COVID-19. We’ve been updating those weekly as information’s been coming out from the CDC. We’ve been collaborating with stakeholder groups to gather information and develop those best practices that you asked about for safety. We’ve sent our plans to owners to get their feedback during this process, and to get their approval. And we’ve also engaged our subcontractors to review them and get ready for compliance. They’re certainly going to be a lot asked of them and all of this. And as of just last night, as a matter of fact, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania came out with their guidelines and what they will require for us to operate. And so now we are layering in their requirements, within our safety plan. The other thing, as we get ready to mobilize and turn this faucet on is, we’ve been purchasing PPE cleaning agents.

 

We’ve even been building our own handwashing stations to ensure that we are prepared and ready to maintain healthy, safe sites. This is not business as usual for construction companies. Construction is a safe business. By nature, we’re regulated by OSHA. This is all, you know, baked in. But this is a whole other layer. So, again, it’s going to be a significant change. We are required to have a pandemic-assigned pandemic officer on site that’s responsible to make sure that all these things happen.

So, the faucet is turning on slowly. I say, it’s going to be a trickle, but we are going to be moving not quite as quickly as we normally would. We’re going to go as quickly as we can, as long as we can keep people safe.

 

I think the other thing as we turn construction back on is, you know, “what’s the bidding climate going to be like?”. And there’s a lot of speculation about this right now. I read an article last week that said that now is really the best time for owners to push their projects forward to get the most competitive pricing. There’s a theory that says that people are putting things on hold, therefore there’s going to be pent up demand in the future whenever that pent up demand is cut loose. The market’s probably going to be hit pretty hard with a surge of work. What happens when the surge of work hits? Well, labor gets tight. Not as many subcontractors available. Harder to get your hands on products, longer lead times and ultimately possibly higher prices for owners. We’ll have to wait and see how that that plays out. But I know that timing of projects, you know, is a concern for owners and a concern for us, too. Absolutely.

 

Warehaus:

Yeah, no question about it. That’s a great point. It sounds like you were gonna say something. Did I interrupt you?

 

Jessica Meyers:

No, no, no. I should say those were just a few of the things, you know, as I think about turning on the faucet. What’s going to happen really from a field perspective in our industry with safety, and then certainly future work in building and developing projects.

 

 

Warehaus:

Well, certainly. It certainly puts a new sense of urgency or adds a paradigm shift to business planning and business continuity planning, doesn’t it?

 

Jessica Meyers:

Absolutely. Yes.

 

Warehaus:

So I guess what I’d like to do is ask you, if there is anything that maybe, I didn’t ask or something you’d like to cover that you’d like to leave our audience with today before we sign off?

 

Jessica Meyers:

Yeah, I’ll leave a couple parting comments. I think the business continuity comment you made kind of plays into some of my thoughts. If you don’t have a business continuity plan, now’s the time to get your house in order and have one. I think, if COVID 19 has told us anything, it is that we need to be ready for anything and everything. Quite frankly, until about six months ago, JEM Group didn’t have one either. We had an RFP that we were responding to that required us to have one. And so, we did it. So, these technology and remote work scenarios that I talked about? The reason it went so smoothly for us is because we had this plan ready. You can hire a consultant to do it, or there’s really simple online tools that can take you through how to do a basic business continuity plan. So, I would just say take that step. It’s definitely worth it. And the other thing I would say is, you know, look for opportunities as a result of COVID 19. I’m not suggesting that we look for ways to capitalize on people after an event like this. Not at all. I’m just saying, let’s look at ways that we can help our customers. Let’s anticipate needs. Let’s look at ways of how we can accommodate them. And one of the ways that we’re doing that is through Healthy Spaces. And we’re going to keep looking for more ways to do that. So, I think looking for those opportunities are going to help our businesses grow. So, yeah, those will be some of the thoughts that I would like to leave everybody with.

 

Warehaus:

Well, that’s awesome. Very forward thinking. Very relevant insight. Very relevant thoughts to share with our audience. And why don’t you share with the audience ways they can find your company, your website and so on and so forth?

 

Jessica Meyers:

Yeah. That’s great. So, our Web site is www.jemgroup.net. That’s J.E.N., the word group dot net. That’s the easiest way to find us. All our contact information is on there and you can learn more about our company.

 

Warehaus:

Fantastic. Well, listen, this has been great. I can’t thank you enough. I really appreciate your time, Jessica. And thanks for coming on. So, this was awesome.

 

Jessica Meyers:

Thank you, Matt. I really appreciate the opportunity to be included in your speaker series. I’ve really enjoyed it. And I look forward to hearing more of your episodes.

 

Warehaus:

Awesome. Talk to you soon.