The Inside Scoop

Surviving and Thriving in a Pandemic: One Leader’s Story

Juliana Choy Sommer
May 17, 2021
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2020 started out just like every other year at Priority Graphics. With a fiscal year starting on the first of the year, January kept our team busy with ongoing signage projects from San Francisco’s new administrative offices at 49 South Van Ness to a new Terminal opening at SFO and a slew of proposals and bids for future projects. We were also investing in a 2-year process improvement initiative at the company designed to help us scale efficiently as we continued to add larger and more complex projects. Our team had expanded to over 30 project managers, estimators, fabricators and installers and we were looking forward to growing our topline and bottom-line results in 2020.

Then came the pandemic.

Initially, as the first shelter-in-place shutdown took hold in San Francisco, we sharpened our focused as a business for both our clients and employees. How could we continue to serve our clients optimally while keeping everyone safe? We made all the types of changes many other manufacturing and installation businesses did. We divided our team into remote and on-premise teams, adopted a strict set of company COVID sanitation, PPE, ventilation and social distancing protocols. We built upon a robust work from home infrastructure and remained engaged with Microsoft Teams and Zoom calls.

The pandemic was the type of radical interruption in operations and pipeline growth that all CEOs dread. But I began to realize, once the initial “emergency” procedures were in place, that COVID also represented an opportunity for Priority. We had already been able to juggle our existing client workload with a simultaneous internal focus on business process improvement, assisted by some outside consultants we brought in to help us scale as a company. It would have been a simple decision for me to put these initiatives on pause as we witnessed our pipeline growth flatten with many public sector projects stalled as a result of COVID-19 impacts.

But that would have been the wrong decision.

Instead, I decided that this was the time to double-down on Priority’s process improvement investment. As a result, in 2020, we ended up launching 10 innovation-inspired Kaizen events across the company aimed at a diverse set of targets – from company database development to our estimating process for projects to communication handoffs across our team within projects. Kaizen is a team process improvement framework which incorporates five elements: teamwork, personal discipline, improved morale, quality circles, and suggestions for improvement.

Change management is hard, as all experienced leaders know.

Some of our team members responded well to the changes, flexibly adapting quickly as we began to implement the Kaizen recommendations. Some, not so much. This was important input to me as a leader, but I will be honest, it was sometimes difficult and disappointing to witness within our closely bonded fighting force at Priority. Ultimately, we had to make some tough decisions, but I believed that they were necessary for the long-term future of the company.

In 2020, despite the pandemic, our topline actually grew at Priority, surpassing 2019, the year we made the San Francisco Business Times Fast100 List. Flash forward to May of 2021. Our collaborative work ethic is now firmly ingrained and part of our company culture at Priority. Our process improvements have improved our efficiency and productivity at the project level. We are now able to take on larger, more complex projects and juggle more of them simultaneously than in the past.  We are poised to build signs that intersect with art for the best clients in the world.  We will do this with collaboration.

The foundation is now fully built internally at Priority to enable us to meet the external objectives of our strategic growth plan. As we closed out 2020, I know that we never appropriately celebrated our 25th anniversary at Priority Graphics. I intend to right that wrong in 2021.

In April 2021, Priority Architectural Graphics was awarded “Minority Enterprise Business of the Year” by ASIAN Inc.

Serving over 20 Northern California counties with offices in San Francisco, San Jose, Oakland and Fresno, ASIAN, Inc. is a non-profit technical assistance and research organization assisting communities with physical, economic and social development and encouraging them to reject dependency as a permanent unalterable condition. The organization empowers Asian Americans and minority communities and reduces dependencies that block their access to opportunities in business development, housing and financial education.

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