by Mary Margaret Stewart, staff writer
The state of Wisconsin was looking grim in March, according to Amy Niemetscheck. A state mandate took effect rapidly in light of the COVID-19 outbreak.
“Our back office, within five days, went from not having a work-from-home policy to quickly adapting,” she said of Certco Inc., where she is president and CEO.
“We needed to do what made sense for the entire food chain, and that’s ensuring that we can continue to source product and get it in our warehouse so retailers and consumers can then buy it.
“It would have been much worse to make calls to retailers weeks ahead and say 50 percent of my buying staff has fell ill of COVID and we can’t keep up with cutting PO’s. And the same holds true with IT. You want IT to be available with any glitches, you want accounting to still pay the bills and pay your payroll. If you can do the work from home, let’s let that be a possibility.
“Staff at the warehouses, our drivers, mechanics, janitors, and the employees with boots on the ground at retail followed necessary safety protocols and continued to report to work.”
Certco employees have been diligently working to keep the industry up and running.
“We’ve rewarded all of our folks a number of times with bonuses throughout this to thank them for their hard work and dedication to the American public,” she said. “We also, with the assistance from our retailers, closed on Easter Sunday. Employees that didn’t have Sunday as part of their typical work week, we gave a floating holiday to them to use over the upcoming months.”
Reflecting on the challenges, Niemetscheck is most proud of the stretch between March 12-19.
“We were facing challenge after challenge, reacting and adjusting,” she said. “But when you look back on it now, what we were able to control in that first week was unbelievable. It took everybody…being able to have a conversation in their high stress situations. Yet, no one disrespected anyone. If anything, I feel like it made us even stronger as we tackled those challenges and found ways to do our business differently, yet very effectively.”
And adaptation to the stress was key at the store level. Niemetscheck saw curbside pickup and online grocery develop quickly for independents, which brought in a lot of new business for urban and rural stores alike.
“I think those that might not have had the robust technology to do it, they’re all considering it now,” she said. “They’re hopefully being smart with this nest egg they have from this uptick in business, and they’re holding tight to that and thinking this can be a forever thing.
“I think those that are figuring that out are going to continue to win. People love the local story. And the more our stores can continue to find those connections and local support and keep it close to home, I think that will be a win as well.”
As for what the future holds, Niemetscheck sees this pandemic life for the next 12 months. When one state recovers, it seems another tends to fall. It’s a game of “which state is hot right now.”
However, she’s interested to see when retailers start having strategic conversations about tackling e-commerce together.
“Retailers realize how much people are OK with Amazon. People are OK with any sort of delivery service. I think that will definitely be on the horizon in the next three years,” she said. “And then deciding what the grocery store looks like. The SKU rationalization and where that lands, that could be 18 to 24 months before manufacturers come back and say, here are the lines I’m going to continue to make.”
When it came to her approach on how to lead Certco through a pandemic, Niemetscheck tapped into her support system. The board at Certco is made up of seven outside retailers, which proved helpful when navigating the constant hurdles.
“I’ve leaned on the board a lot and many conversations would start with, ‘Here’s what I’m doing. Does this make sense?’ and ‘Are you going to support this? This is why I’m doing it,’” she said. “They’ve been wonderful partners.
“I talk about our Certco Village, and that goes beyond our walls here. It’s our Certco employee family, all of our retailers, our vendor and broker partners that help make the world tick. The flexibility and willingness to think outside the box and work together has been quite remarkable.”
The other part of her support system is her peers on the RODFA board.
When the pandemic struck, Niemetscheck said emails and texts flew back and forth between the CEOs. And then they started calling in for 30 minutes on Tuesdays and Fridays to talk about whatever they were facing that week.
“Sometimes we said, ‘Oh, these turn into sympathy sessions.’ But if nothing else, you felt like you weren’t fighting the fight and running the same battles alone,” she said. “It’s been great to have that group to lean on.
“We’ve all benefited so much from those relationships and the associate members that are a part of ROFDA. I just want to thank them for their support, and I look forward to many years ahead together.”