Processing Your Payment

Please do not leave this page until complete. This can take a few moments.

Updated: April 6, 2020

Here’s how 3 Greater Hartford CEOs have dealt with the coronavirus

HBJ Photo | Bill Morgan Sign Pro Inc. Founder and Owner Pete Rappoccio on the company’s Plantsville manufacturing floor.

The coronavirus pandemic continues to bring unprecedented disruption to Connecticut businesses, but after nearly a month of upheaval, many companies have adapted to a new norm.

There is still much uncertainty ahead, but Hartford Business Journal tried to take a step back from the chaos and share the stories of how three very different companies — North Haven-based Connex Credit Union, Hartford-based accounting and consulting firm Whittlesey and Plantsville sign manufacturer Sign Pro Inc. — have coped with COVID-19.

No company has all the answers to what lies ahead, or how to respond, but we hope your business may be able to take away some continuity-planning pointers from these firms.

Weather-related disasters prep Sign Pro Inc. for COVID-19

Pete Rappoccio didn’t specifically see the current coronavirus crisis coming, but preparations his Plantsville sign manufacturer Sign Pro Inc. made for weather-related disasters are proving sufficient for COVID-19.

“Thank god we’ve always been on the proactive side of always thinking forward,” said Rappoccio, Sign Pro’s founder and owner. “Whenever we were buying new computer systems we always bought laptops so we had the crisis control of working remotely if we had to.”

That forward thinking came as a result of a winter storm about five years ago that knocked out power around the region for nearly a week, and left Sign Pro unable to work at full capacity on orders for signage, fabrications and other work.

“How do you run a manufacturing facility and continue to meet those deadlines?” Rappoccio said. “That inspired us to come up with a disaster plan.”

The plan kicked into high gear in March when the spread of coronavirus shifted from a far-away problem, to Gov. Ned Lamont ordering businesses to shutter and residents to shelter in place.

About half of Sign Pro’s 70-person workforce has been working remotely using laptops, Rappoccio said. And while he didn’t anticipate an emergency requiring social distancing, he rejiggered schedules for manufacturing employees, staggering shifts so fewer people work on the floor at once and extending workshop hours (the first shift now starts at 2:30 a.m. and the plant closes at 9 p.m.).

At the moment, Sign Pro isn’t seeing much drop-off in business because of a backlog of already-ordered projects like signage for a Nashville airport and a Yale New Haven Hospital parking garage, Rappoccio said. Those orders will keep the pace of work running without any changes for the next six weeks or so. However, he’s seeing some national clients put orders on hold.

For example, some of Sign Pro’s university clients are now putting off fall, 2020-semester order decisions, Rappoccio said. Other sectors could experience similar delays.

“It’s definitely going to affect the economy moving forward,” Rappoccio said of coronavirus.

Family affair

Rappoccio isn’t currently concerned about having to reduce his workforce like many other businesses across the state.

He said he makes it a point to treat employees like family, but when the company started 30 years ago, the staff consisted of a 19-year-old Rappoccio working out of his parents’ house. At the time, he was working for a construction company that needed someone to paint letters on its trucks and cranes. After handling that job, Rappoccio noticed an unfilled demand for such services.

From there the business grew from Rappoccio painting signs for local companies out of his parent’s house, to a couple of people doing work for race car crews out of a garage in Berlin, to today, a business that built two of the state’s most recent visible signage projects — the New Britain Beehive bridge and UConn’s eight-foot tall individual metal fabricated sign in Storrs — out of a custom-built facility in the Plantsville section of Southington that Sign Pro moved into five years ago.

And those projects are produced and distributed by employees working from home and coming into Sign Pro’s headquarters. Rappoccio himself isn’t afraid to roll up his sleeves. He regularly works on the manufacturing floor. His wife, Suzanne, is SignPro’s vice president, and sons — Joseph, a UConn sophomore, and Vincent, a sophomore at Xavier High School — intend to join the company full time once they finish school.

For the moment, Rappoccio said, Sign Pro’s disaster planning has panned out, as operations run smoothly, and orders remain on time. Further, Rappoccio credited the Lamont administration for clearly communicating with businesses like his, and leading them through the COVID-19 crisis.

“Everyone has done a tremendous job,” Rappoccio said. “We as a community have to stand together, and we really have to show that we’re willing to support our local [businesses].”

• • •

Whittlesey’s ‘professionals’ help make work-from-home a routine

Photo | HBJ File
Whittlesey Managing Partner Drew Andrews said his Hartford-based accounting and consulting firm has adjusted well to a work-from-home policy.

It was Tuesday, March, 17, and the 165 employees at Hartford-based accounting and consulting firm Whittlesey were preparing for something they’ve never tried before: A full-scale work-from-home policy that would kick in the next day.

Access to the firm’s 25,000 square feet of Class A office space at 280 Trumbull St. would be restricted, as would any in-person meetings with clients. Employees’ new cubicles would become their living rooms, kitchen tables or private studies.

Three weeks earlier, the firm’s Managing Partner Drew Andrews said he began reading the tea leaves as the coronavirus was causing widespread disruption in Europe and China. He started hounding his IT staff multiple times daily to ensure his company could work remotely if the COVID-19 strand impacted Connecticut in a similar way.

“A couple of people in my office thought I was crazy, but I guess it’s my job to think about these things and look at worst-case scenarios,” Andrews said. “I always try to think ahead with everything I’m doing in life.”

By March 17, Andrews was confident Whittlesey had the infrastructure in place to support a remote-work environment that would allow his entire staff of accountants, managers, partners and administrators to access the firm’s network and accounting software at home. In preparation, they moved certain key programs to a faster server and upgraded their network’s memory.

But there were two key risks in the back of Andrews’ mind: they never tested work from home on a full-scale basis, and if things did go wrong, it would be at the worst possible time — less than a month before the original April 15 tax deadline, Whittlesey’s busiest time of year.

They also needed clients to send financial information digitally, so their accountants could get to work on audits and tax returns.

“I was very positive and believed it would work, but when I went home [that Tuesday night] I kind of said to myself, ‘I really hope it does work,’ ” he said. “Then I woke up Wednesday morning and said ‘Oh man, this better work.’ And actually, it did, and I was surprised how smooth it went.”

Other than a few employees having trouble connecting to the company’s network, Whittlesey had few issues and they’ve been working remotely ever since, using email, instant messenger, phone calls and videoconferencing — through Microsoft Teams — to communicate internally and with clients.

And the business has been strong. Whittlesey went into this period with a backlog of work so no staff cuts have been needed. Seventy-percent of Whittlesey’s business comes from client audits and tax returns. The federal government’s decision to extend the April 15 tax deadline two months provided some extra breathing room, Andrews said.

Clients have also been good about sending their financial information digitally, he said.

What’s more uncertain is the firm’s special project work, which makes up about 30% of its business and includes a technology division. They’ve been getting calls from clients for advice about the new $2-trillion federal stimulus program and how to handle layoffs and other cost-cutting measures.

Whittlesey would be negatively impacted if clients go out of business, but that hasn’t happened yet.

“In my mind the biggest concern is when this ends,” Andrews said. “I don’t think anyone has an answer for it.”

Changing habits

Prior to this crisis, Andrews said Whittlesey employees didn’t do much remote working, though he’s advocated for more of it recently.

“I thought for the last year-and-a-half that we ought to be able to work more remotely, but everyone told me ‘no,’ ” he said. “But now we have a crisis and are seeing how it works. As I’ve been talking to my other partners and managers, everyone is kind of adopting. It’s like a routine. You build that routine and get used to it and it gets easier everyday.”

As more companies test the remote-working waters, some say it may become a more prominent and permanent part of the work landscape.

Whittlesey’s lease still has another five years remaining and Andrews said he wants to see how the work environment evolves before he makes any decisions on future real estate needs.

He said he hears from younger workers that they like being in an office environment, which is why cities have been so attractive to Millennials.

In terms of crisis management, Andrews said the coronavirus has taught him that companies must have a contingency plan. Whittlesey implemented its plan just in time, though Andrews said he would have liked to test his firm’s remote-work capabilities before they went live.

“What I really learned, and what amazes me is that everyone just pulled together and acted like professionals, which I always thought they were,” Andrews said. “It really shows they are all doing what they can do to make this work. I can’t say enough about that. It’s a testament to our team, which we are very proud of.”

• • •

Photo | HBJ File
Frank Mancini (far left), CEO of North Haven-based Connex Credit Union, said federally regulated financial institutions are required to have detailed disaster plans in place.

At Connex, plenty of planning mixed with the unexpected

When it comes to planning for pandemics and other threats to business continuity, banks and credit unions are typically among the best prepared, perhaps not far behind hospitals.

Financial institutions have honed their pandemic protocols through numerous outbreaks over the decades, including SARS in 2003 and the H1N1 “swine flu” in 2009.

Their written plans contain multiple ways to communicate with staff and critical vendors (including cleaning companies); they’ve tested their phone systems for reliability and higher call volumes, and ensured there’s enough cash on hand for customers; and planned for scenarios in which a significant portion of staff members either fall ill or cannot otherwise report to work.

Even with that level of preparation, the COVID-19 coronavirus represents a significant test for the industry, said Frank Mancini, CEO of North Haven-based Connex Credit Union, which has $713.9 million in assets and 61,222 members.

Mancini said he was surprised at COVID-19’s speed as it moved from China to the West Coast and onto New York and Connecticut, calling it “much faster than anticipated.”

“The sheer widespread nature of the global impact on people and resources has made it a challenge, and the uncertainty has fueled fear in some places, and uncovered lack of planning in others,” Mancini said. “So the impact on the stock market, hospitals and almost every business in the country all at one time has been enormous.”

While Connecticut unemployment claims skyrocketed to well over 100,000 in March, Mancini said his 140-employee credit union, which has eight branches and is the fifth largest not-for-profit cooperative in the state, has had no significant staffing-level changes. (Credit unions were deemed essential by the state, so they’ve been allowed to stay open.)

Most of Connex’s employees are working from home, except front-line branch staff.

The credit union has also reshuffled employee roles, shifting workers to handle increased call volumes and drive-through teller lanes, make outreach calls to credit union members and tackle a list of internal projects.

“We’re course-correcting every day and shifting people around,” Mancini said. “We’re trying to be thoughtful and efficient so that when we come out of this, we don’t say ‘Oh, I wish I had done this when we had time to do it.’ ”

Staff reached out to many Connex members, with a general aim of staying in touch and checking what assistance they might need with loans or other financial offerings.

“The connect rate has been astounding since most people are home,” Mancini said. “More than six in 10 calls we make have resulted in a conversation.”

Customers seem to appreciate the personal touch, he added.

Connex also recently created a pool of paid sick time for its roughly 20 part-time employees.

Helping hand

Many banks and credit unions have rolled out programs meant to assist customers facing coronavirus-related financial hardship.

Connex has waived the $25 fee and added a second skipped payment to its skip-a-payment auto and personal loans program. It has also rolled out a three-month student loan forbearance period, introduced a low-interest $2,500 personal loan with no payments for 90 days, waived certain charges and late fees, eased electronic money transfer limits, and is working with borrowers who request loan modifications.

Some of that will hit Connex’s profitability, which could also suffer from an anticipated period of low demand for auto loans and mortgages.

Mancini says he isn’t worried about it. Connex, which booked $4.7 million in net income in 2019, has plenty of capital and he anticipates any financial hit to be short term.

“We could earn nothing this year and still be fine,” he said.

What’s more important, he said, is ensuring the well-being of customers and staff, though there’s plenty of uncertainty over the length and severity of COVID-19’s economic impact.

“I am happy that my staff is healthy and coming to work everyday, and I am proud of my organization and how we have all come together during this challenging time,” he said. “I certainly wouldn’t have wished this coronavirus on anyone, but we will get to the other side of this.”

Sign up for Enews


Order a PDF