After celebrating its centennial anniversary in 2019, the future looked bright for Pittsburg Tank & Tower Group as 2020 began. With a strong economy and plenty of opportunities for construction and maintenance, it seemed like the start of another promising year. Sure, there were troubling reports out of China about a novel coronavirus, but few people anticipated a global health crisis that would rival the 1918 flu pandemic as the new year dawned.
“We were excited going into 2020, and then in February and March, we started with COVID-19, and then we watched the country come to a halt,” said PTTG President Ben Johnston.
It was a frightening few months as PTTG and the rest of the world reacted to the fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic. Ben feared for his employees’ health and for his company’s business prospects, especially during the early months of February to May as the available data and information changed daily.
March was the turning point when everything looked bleakest. During the first or second week of March, PTTG had more than $3 million worth of projects canceled. Ben and his team of executives started looking at ways to survive as the company hit a three to four-week stretch when work was either canceled or postponed indefinitely. No one knew what was going to happen.
“That was the scariest part of the whole thing,” Ben said. “It was the apex of fear of all those unknowns out there.”
By late May or early June, local and state governments realized the pandemic wasn’t going away anytime soon and began communicating long-term plans for travel and business to resume with safety restrictions in place.
PTTG never had to shut down completely. Pittsburg Tank & Tower Group is a full-service tank and tower company that inspects, maintains, repairs, and builds storage tanks, communication towers, and agricultural support structures – making PTTG an essential business that serves other essential businesses.
That meant that PTTG could keep most of its employees working instead of shutting down. Due to the nature of the company’s work, it also meant that several of his employees would be traveling to perform maintenance and construction work.
“It was really scary with all the unknowns, but at the end of the day, at least we were able to keep the vast majority of the employees working,” said Ben.
PTTG’s COVID-19 Task Force formed early on for three reasons: to make sure the company has accurate information, to gather and study data as it becomes available, and to both make appropriate decisions on how to manage the business and communicate that effectively.
“It’s worked really well,” Ben said. “I’m proud of the team.”
The team includes Eric Gardner, PTTG’s vice president of risk management, and Marilyn Brenton, chief human resources officer. Members of the executive management team have also contributed data gathered from the field, which has been crucial for strategic planning. The task force pours over the data every Wednesday, studying it to decide if the company’s Covid-19 operations plan needs to be adjusted for the upcoming week.
Ben said he’s gained knowledge during the pandemic.
“We’ve learned how to do things better and smarter,” he said. “Thank goodness, what would happen if we went through a pandemic like this and didn’t learn something?”
One of the key takeaways is that PTTG could have its office employees telecommute and continue its operations. In mid-March, PTTG sent its office employees home to work as telecommuters. While telecommuting poses cybersecurity challenges, it’s mostly worked and helped keep business on track.
Using a mix of Microsoft Teams software, emails, texts, and good old-fashioned conference calls, employees have been able to communicate effectively even though they aren’t in the same space. PTTG employees have used Microsoft Teams to share their computer screens in real-time so everyone can see what’s being discussed. Microsoft Teams has been a great training tool, allowing new employees to learn the ropes from the safety of their desks, and cutting down on congregating.
Johnston said the experience was a learning lesson for him. He’d always believed that if you weren’t in the office, you probably weren’t working. During the pandemic, he discovered many of his employees can be successful working from home. Pittsburg’s drafting department thrived working from home without constant interruptions they would experience at the office. They also can flex their worktime. Their output and quality have improved so much that they won’t be returning to the office, even when the pandemic ends. Some positions, like project managers will likely rotate working in the office one at a time for a week once a month.
Ben said he doesn’t expect many more people to return to the office by the end of the year. Each Friday, Chief Operating Officer Jeremy Dixon reaches out to department heads to ask if they want to recommend any employees return to the office. After having a skeleton crew working in the office, a few people in different departments have been brought back who are better able to perform at work than at home. As of Nov. 20, Kentucky guidelines ask that businesses limit the number of people working in an office and recommends telecommuting when possible. PTTG has less than 25 percent of its employees working inside its Pittsburg and Allstate offices.
Pittsburg has worked well with local government throughout the pandemic. Ben and VP of Risk Management Eric Gardner are members of Henderson Economic Development and the Henderson-Henderson County Chamber of Commerce. Ben reached out to Chamber President Ellen Redding and Economic Development Executive Director Missy Vanderpool to ask them to consider doing a joint survey to find out what local businesses are doing to protect employees from COVID-19. Employers filled out the survey anonymously providing valuable data. Ben said he would also like to do another survey to gather data on how companies are handling telecommunication.
Ben said he anticipates another shutdown looming as winter approaches and confirmed cases continue to skyrocket. With the holidays approaching and people still surely to gather in large groups at homes, Ben said he’s concerned about huge spikes following Thanksgiving and Christmas. It’s easier to enforce COVID-19 rules and guidelines within the office. Outside the office is out of their control.
“We’ll keep doing the things we’re doing,” said Ben. “We’ll keep learning and looking at smarter ways to do things. But it’s kind of like you’re out on an island and the water is coming up and there’s only so many places you can run before you’re swimming.”
It comes down to individual behavior. Ben said he was at a store and observed two men who walked in without masks. A cashier asked if they had masks. They did not. So, the cashier pointed to where they could purchase masks, but they refused and protested about their rights. She told them they had to wear a mask if they wanted to shop in the store.
“There is a certain segment of people even still who don’t think it’s all that bad or are not caring enough about you to be safe,” said Ben. “That’s the frustrating part to me, I don’t like this mask any more than you do but I’m going to wear it to protect you. It’s more for you than me because that’s the way we are supposed to live.”
There are more challenges ahead as the calendar turns to 2021. Industries had to reallocate money for COVID-19 that was earmarked for facilities upgrades. Some businesses have been hit hard and do not have money to maintain or repair their tanks and towers. A lot of critical infrastructure needs could fall to the wayside.
“I think we have some real challenges from that standpoint,” said Ben.