Monday, September 28, 2020

COVID-19 Response: Panel of CEOs Explain What’s Changed for Good

Mark Smith, Owner, Midas of Richmond

“It could’ve been very easy to say, ‘Hunker down, cover yourself, and let’s survive this,’” says Mark Smith of Midas of Richmond when asked about his business mindset at the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis. “I just chose to take the opposite route.”

“I just went in as upbeat. It’s a positive. ‘Yeah, this is not ideal, but there are going to be things that are going to capture market share. It’s an unfortunate way to look at this, but there are going to be people who survive this and there are going to be some who won’t. We’re going to turn it up even harder.’”

So Mark Smith bet big.


“We’ve always gone in kind of expecting success. Well, now we expect success just a little bit more.” – Mark Smith, Midas of Richmond


Smith ramped up his monthly marketing budget by more than 35%, added another TV station to his broadcast media strategy, doubled his radio spots, and hired Red Orange Studios, a Richmond, VA ad agency, to build a robust “More to Your Door” campaign – one he intends to invest in significantly. 

“So the big thing that changed for me was my mindset,” Smith explains. “We’ve always gone in kind of expecting success. Well, now we expect success just a little bit more. We’re going to go full out. We’re going to capture market share. We’re going to hire folks. We’re going to grab what we can. We’re going to do it proactively, we’re going to do it aggressively, and we’re going to do it unapologetically.”

A new “Go Big” mindset

Chris Leone, CEO, WebStrategies

How was Chris Leone of WebStrategies feeling in the early stages of COVID-19? “I think maybe some of us kind of knew that this was not going to be a short-term thing,” he says. One of his biggest concerns for his digital marketing firm was figuring out how to approach customers when selling their services. 

“It went from, ‘Um, yeah, sure – I’ll meet with you’ or ‘Now’s not a great time,’ to ‘How dare you try to call me right now?’ I mean, if you’re in sales or know people in sales, the responses we were getting were just vicious. The whole sales community is wondering, ‘How the heck do we behave right now through all of this?’”

Leone chose to focus on what he could control.


“We decided to create as much value as possible for our marketplace in the form of content and be as loud as we possibly could.” – Chris Leone, WebStrategies



“I can’t control what people are willing to give to me – their time, a meeting, a signed contract – but I can 100% control what I’m willing to give to them. So with that, our sales and marketing strategies shifted. We decided to create as much value as possible for our marketplace in the form of content and be as loud as we possibly could.”

Leone hired an additional marketing person, invested more in the content of his webinars, and tripled the amount of content on his website. Instead of asking for meetings, his salespeople offered free content – and the company has seen its first-meetings rate increase by 117% compared to last year. 

What changed for good? Leone has learned to ask himself, “When the behavior of the marketplace changes quickly and dramatically, how can we adapt? So we remain focused on the things we can control instead of wishing for things to go back to how they were. We’re driving home the importance of being seen as a trusted authority in our space. [The pandemic] forced us to find new ways to do that, and we’re going to be able to carry that forward into the future.”

Adaptability and focus on the controllable

Gwen Cooper, CEO, Patient Services, Inc.

Gwen Cooper, CEO, Patient Services, Inc. (PSI), was hired as the company’s new CEO on June 1, smack in the middle of the pandemic. To say she’s had a challenging first few months on the job is an understatement.

“We are the oldest patient assistance program in the country headquartered in Virginia. Our nurses, doctors, outreach managers and government affairs teams were working around the clock to make sure all our patients had every opportunity to get the care they needed…in their homes.”

In her new role it was imperative that she quickly understood the “before COVID” work habits versus the “current state” work habit to determine how well it was working for her new team of 50.  “[Moving staff remotely] gave us an opportunity to really look at  our staffing  needs, contracts and benefits to help us understand where we could streamline our expenses. Especially when it became clear we weren’t coming back anytime soon.“

“We’re not coming back to the office. We’re going to have a permanent flexible work schedule and work out what our remote working looks like.” – Gwen Cooper, Patient Services, Inc.


The great news is that productivity has actually increased, Cooper reports.

“What’s changing for us at PSI is that we’re not coming back to the office. We’re going to have a permanent flexible work schedule and work out what out remote working looks like,” she says. Making that work now includes keeping an eye on staff members’ “emotional bank accounts” since she knows they’re missing day-to-day interactions with each other.

Operational efficiencies and a shift to a remote work model

JJ White, CEO/Franchise Owner, Dale Carnegie 

JJ White, Dale Carnegie CEO/Franchise Owner, is arguably the most affected by COVID-19 of our panel. “I’ve been a multi-unit franchise owner for Dale Carnegie Training for 20 years,” White explains. “Ninety-nine percent of what we’ve always done is bringing groups together in a room for transformational learning programs, bringing permanent behavior changes and soft skills, leadership, communication – things of that nature. When we started our week on March 16th, 99% of what we do ended.” 

One percent of White’s business was not affected because Dale Carnegie was, at the time, one of the largest companies in the world delivering virtual instructor-led training. “So immediately, in one day, 1% of my business became 100% percent, but the sales weren’t there to compensate.”

In July, White – and the 108-year-old institution of Dale Carnegie – had to come to grips with the fact that it was time to completely reinvent how they went to market. Everything was evaluated, and nothing was so sacred that it couldn’t be changed.

“We took our core strengths and applied them in completely different ways,” says White. “We started to shift our entire operational model to a completely different deliverable. We helped existing clients acclimate to our new offer, and we found new clients and markets. The biggest change we made was to tear down the geographical boundaries of my regional sales team.”


“The biggest thing this crisis did for us was it solved so many constraints that we had in our business for years.” – JJ White, CEO/Franchise Owner, Dale Carnegie.


In a weird twist of fate, the pandemic could be seen as one of the best things that’s ever happened to his business. “The biggest thing that this crisis did for us was it solved so many constraints that we had in our business for years, especially being a global franchise network. We didn’t need a certain mass in a certain geographical area anymore. Everything is virtual and dispersed. It’s really enabled us to tear down walls that we should have torn down years ago, but didn’t have the courage to.”

White reports that sales are up, and he has confidence that his business will be OK. 

No more artificial boundaries or constraints

How has your business changed for good? Please share with us by leaving a comment. 

Virginia Council of CEOs is a nonprofit dedicated to bringing CEOs of small and mid-sized businesses together to share experiences and to learn and grow with each other through peer roundtable groups and learning events. Learn more. 

Posted by Staff at 2:44 pm
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Tuesday, July 28, 2020

COVID-19 Update: Treatments, Vaccines, Herd Immunity, Testing +

Covid medical update

We all have questions about COVID and how to keep ourselves, our family, and our colleagues healthy and safe. Today, we find that we are providing custom advice on everything from testing and temperature checks, to what to do if you spike a fever in the middle of the night, to what are the most important things personally right now to be as healthy as possible. We’ve even gone on virtual tours of offices, providing feedback on how to improve the safety of the environment.

It’s a new frontier for healthcare providers, no doubt!

Are you in search some reliable, up-to-date medical information about the COVID-19 virus? Each week, Dr. Steven Bishop, Director of Wellness at PartnerMD, provides a COVID-19 update on Facebook Live, explaining in easy-to-understand terms the latest information related to the virus.

For example, on July 22 Dr. Bishop:

  • discussed promising vaccines from Phizer, one from Moderna, and one from AstraZeneca
  • shared his thoughts on why there is a focus on metabolic health
  • discussed testing in Virginia
  • answered the question, “Does the increase in positives indicate immunity sharing?” and more.

Listen in on that video session here:


Dr. Bishop regularly advises clients and their leadership teams on COVID and how to maximize their resilience against the virus – both as a company and as an individual when it comes to your personal health. He’ll be giving a virtual presentation to the VACEOs community on August 6 at 2:00 PM. Don’t miss this opportunity to ask him direct questions. Here’s a link to register. (VACEOs Members and Sponsors only.)

Janet Kiss is a Membership and Corporate Sales Associate at PartnerMD and is available for one-on-one and/or roundtable conversations for VA Council of CEO Members.

Editors Note: PartnerMD is a Sponsor of Virginia Council of CEOs.

Posted by Staff at 9:53 am
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Friday, June 12, 2020

Economic Survey Continues to Improve But CEOs Want Faster Action

Although COVID-19 has forced many employees to work from home, CEOs report that productivity is “about the same”.


Read Richmond Times-Dispatch coverage >


Each quarter the Virginia Council of CEOs (VACEOs) and University of Richmond’s Robins School of Business partner to take the pulse of top executives in the region through a comprehensive Virginia CEO Economic Outlook Survey. 

For the first time ever, the University of Richmond’s Robins School of Business and the Virginia Council of CEOs conducted a follow-up to their quarterly CEO Economic Outlook Survey to determine how CEO sentiment had changed after dealing with COVID-19 for another month.  

The second edition of this special survey found that CEO sentiment has continued to improve after dealing with COVID-19 for another month, but CEOs are not happy with the pace of reopening the state.

Overall expectations for sales, capital spending, and employment over the next six months all increased compared to expectations at the end of April. Fifty-eight percent of CEOs reported that compared with their expectations for their businesses at the end of April, the last month had been “about as expected.” Nearly 28% reported it to be “much better than expected,” while about 14% reported “much worse than expected.”

Economic Index Historical Data (May 27, 2020)

YearQuarter 1Quarter 2Quarter 3Quarter 4
May 27, 202026.2
April 27, 2020-1.33
2020-18.73 (historic low)
2017108.97 (historic high)103.6399.17106.3


Says Scot McRoberts, executive director of the Virginia Council of CEOs, “I’m relieved to see that small business CEOs feel like the worst is over, and that optimism is ticking up slightly. I think it is also a good sign that few of these CEOs have resorted to layoffs, indicating a belief that business will rebound sooner, rather than later.”

“Despite the uncertainty that remains around future policies, we see a gradual increase in CEO sentiment,” said Randy Raggio, Associate Dean at the Robins School of Business. Raggio administers the survey and collects the responses each quarter. He adds,  “These monthly surveys have given us a unique look at how sentiment has inched upwards as the situation has begun to stabilize.”  

Mickey Quiñones, Dean of the Robins School of Business, says, “As companies begin the slow climb out of this steep downturn, they will have to draw upon the ingenuity and skill of their employees to discover new ways of doing business.”


  • More than 67 percent expect to continue to operate without significant layoffs. (Only 19% expect significant layoffs, while about 14% are uncertain at this time.)
  • Seventy-three percent of CEOs whose workforce has shifted to work-from-home report that productivity is “about the same.” Twelve percent rate it “much better,” while 15% rate it “much worse.”  And 42% expect that compared with their workforce in January, more employees will work from home after the crisis is over.  
  • Although nearly 37% of CEOs indicate that Virginia’s timetable for reopening the state is “about right,” nearly half find it “a little too slow” (17%) or “way too slow” (30.4%).  About 11% rate it “a little too fast,” and only 5% rate it “way too fast.”    


This month found that executives’ expectations for sales, hiring and employment improved slightly over last month. To summarize, CEOs predictions over the next six months include:

  • 56.1 percent expect sales to be lower over the next six months (an improvement from 77% last month). 42.7 percent expect the decline to be more than 10 percentage points (compared 66 percent). 
  • About 32 percent expect sales to increase (vs. 13 percent), while 12.2 percent expect sales to remain flat (vs. 10 percent).  
  • About 52 percent of CEOs expect capital spending to decrease (compared with 73 percent last month)
  • Nearly 10 percent expect capital spending to increase over the next six months (no change).
  • More than 38 percent expect capital spending to remain flat (vs. 17 percent).  
  • Twenty-seven percent of respondent CEOs expect employment to decrease over the next six months (down from 37 percent last month).
  • 51 percent expect employment to remain flat (vs. 53 percent), and 22 percent expect an increase in employment (vs. 10 percent).  
  • 82 CEOs responded to the survey, which was administered May 20-22. 
  • Multiple industries are represented in the sample, including construction, manufacturing, finance, insurance, and retail.
  • The average company whose CEO responded to this survey had about $21 million in revenue for the most recent 12-month period.
  • The average employment was about 47.


The Robins School and VACEOs jointly conduct the quarterly survey, which regularly asks about expectations for sales, capital spending and employment, plus other relevant issues, helping Virginia companies anticipate business conditions and plan for growth.

The Robins School adapted the survey from the Business Roundtable, an association of CEOs of American companies that conducts a similar survey nationally. Randy Raggio, associate dean at the Robins School, administers the survey and collects the responses each quarter. The survey has been administered quarterly since 2010.

Read Richmond Times-Dispatch coverage >


The Council continues to expand the survey beyond its members, offering any area business owners whose companies gross at least $1 million in annual revenue the opportunity to participate. If enough businesses participate, the Council will provide survey results by industry. Participation is free, and all participants will receive copies of the survey data.

Business owners and CEOs who would like to participate in the next survey should contact Scot McRoberts at



The Virginia Council of CEOs is a nonprofit association whose mission is to connect the CEOs of small and mid-sized businesses for learning and growth. The Council is led by a volunteer board of directors, advisory board and a small staff. Currently, there are more than 200 CEO members, mainly in Richmond and Charlottesville. Learn more at



The Robins School of Business is the only fully accredited, highly-ranked undergraduate business school that also is part of a highly-ranked liberal arts university. U.S. News ranks the Robins School’s MBA program #35 in the country. The school’s executive education division offers open enrollment courses and customized leadership development, training and consulting to area businesses.

Posted by Staff at 8:23 am
Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Road to Recovery

As a business leader you are at the tip of the spear making significant decisions that affect real people. It is a lonely place to be most days. The stakes could not be higher, and as business leaders, we have great responsibility and opportunity as we navigate our way through this crisis. Over the last eight weeks, you have been inundated with articles and guidance on the things that you need to be doing, right now…PPP, loan forgiveness, cash flow modeling, layoffs, furloughs, rehires, open, close, PPE, testing, screening,…the list goes on and on.  

We also know that leading an organization is often a thankless job, particularly when faced with making hard decisions that may put employees in tough positions. Now is a good time to step back and reflect on the accomplishments. Allow us to take a moment to simply say THANK YOU for your leadership during this health crisis, business disruption and preparation for the economic challenges we will surely face even as COVID subsides and the business disruption lifts.  

We’ve seen this cycle happen before and we know will be stronger as a business community and nation. But it is painful, right now. But don’t lose heart, a business leader and friend of mine said it so well at the onset of this crisis, “the work that we are about to do will be the most important work that we will likely ever accomplish in our careers.”  So again THANK YOU for leading, and congratulations on having the guts to make critical decisions in rapid-fire succession to protect your businesses and the families that it supports, and for persevering.  

As we navigate situations that are new and unfamiliar, I encourage you to establish your absolutes….define them and write them down. If you don’t, you will risk deviating from what’s most important to you, your business and your people. Share them with others that keep you accountable and use them as a cornerstone as you continue to solve problems, evaluate risks and make decisions.  

We have been forced into opportunities to make critical decisions but the work we are doing right now will set us up for the future. We need to be quick to react or face the realities of running out of time. Paraphrasing Peter Drucker, I leave you with this, “in turbulent times we can’t act with yesterday’s logic.”  We all can benefit from fresh material, broad insights, objective candor and the ability to press into hard decisions with counsel from others.  

You are members of the Virginia Council of CEOs because you value outside perspective, just like we advise because we value helping companies and their leaders make and execute on key decisions at critical points in their journey. We are here to help you find your straightest path forward.

About the Author

Chip Bowman is a Managing Director responsible for developing Fahrenheit’s business in Virginia and providing clients with customized strategies for solving their challenges and growing their business. He is skilled in leading operations and finance functions across numerous public and private industries including banking, healthcare, family business, education, manufacturing, and real estate development. He has a demonstrated ability to drive growth based on strategic vision and management of daily operations through process improvement, performance management, systems building, financial initiatives, and policy design and implementation. Chip also has experience in turnaround situations for middle market clients.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Image and content provided by Fahrenheit Advisors. Fahrenheit Advisors is a Sponsor of Virginia Council of CEOs.

Posted by Staff at 7:29 am
Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Rent-the-Help Rebrands, Young CEO Embraces Today’s Challenges

It is a gap in the labor market that ultimately birthed two businesses, and the young CEO at the helm is embracing the pandemic challenges he now faces. 

“One of my favorite parts about being a business owner is being faced with challenges and then formulating different strategies to overcome them,” says Corey Divine, president of Candidate Source and a member of VACEOs. “The past six weeks have presented unique challenges for my employees, clients, and vendors and together we have had to make adjustments. It is important to realize that everyone is dealing with this pandemic and the only way we can survive is to support each other and work together.” 

Corey Divine’s initial business, Rent-the-Help, opened in 2012. The business model filled a gap he saw in the residential labor market. It gave homeowners a place to go for help with odd jobs, like cleaning out a shed or helping with yard work.

Says the Charlottesville native:  “In the eight years we’ve been in business, we’ve probably helped 5,000 people move or do an odd project, whether it be stacking firewood, setting up for a yard sale, or move to Florida or Texas,” he explains. “But as we got into more staffing and long-term placements in warehouses and administrative settings, the Rent-to-Help name just didn’t fit fully as we grew,” he adds.

Noticing the new niche, Divine developed a business designed to attract quality candidates and clients who were seeking long-term placements. And in 2020, Candidate Source was born.

Divine reports Candidate Source currently employs six different individuals to recruit and market his business.

“I’m really excited about the rebrand and how it positions us. I think that our team, most importantly, is excited about it. They all feel more confident telling people, ‘Hey, we’re with Candidate Source.’ They feel better. And what’s cool is that they’ve all been here, all my senior folks, who’ve been here for five plus years. So they’ve seen the evolution of the company grow and then they can enjoy this change as well,” he explains.

About the new challenges he is facing, he adds, “Since our team spends the majority of their days interviewing candidates, we have had to significantly adjust our operation to ensure we can continue to deliver our clients the people they need. While expanded unemployment benefits have made recruiting more challenging (applications have dropped by 90%), our team has gotten creative and has been able to deliver what our clients need. During these difficult times it is a privilege to continue to service our clients and we look forward to building even stronger relationships with them in the months to come.”

“Having my roundtable has been a blessing throughout the pandemic. The relationships I have built with roundtable #13 over the past few years have proven to be a solid rock during an otherwise unstable time.” – Corey Divine



Corey Divine joined the Council in 2017, making him a relatively new member. What motivated him to join? “Because I wanted to invest in myself and make my business better by making myself better,” he tells us.

Adding, “I always joke that you might walk into your roundtable meeting or walk into a Quarterly Lunch and you’re just super-stressed or struggling with an issue in your business. And I can’t think of a time where I walked out more stressed than when I walked in. I always feel calmer. And I think that’s just because it provides an education and a confidence as you go about your day. You look at all these folks, at what they are doing and how they are impacting our community in a positive way. I want to do more of that. It breeds a growth mindset, which is really exciting.”

Members within the VA Council of CEOs are placed within confidential and highly-structured peer groups. A safe haven, where members share what is going on in their lives and in their businesses. The Roundtable experience sharing is about addressing the CEO as a whole.

Corey and two of his roundtable members enjoy golf together.

“Having my roundtable has been a blessing throughout the pandemic. The relationships I have built with roundtable #13 over the past few years have proven to be a solid rock during an otherwise unstable time,” says Divine. “We have spent many hours sharing resources, giving feedback, and just having simple conversations. Having fellow CEOs on speed dial who are navigating similar challenges is something that dollars can not buy. It has been great to see what so many VACEOs Members have done for our community and I look forward to continuing to work together in the months to come.“

True to his character, Divine is an active member, showing up at almost every event and even volunteering as chair of the Membership Committee. He’s quick to encourage his fellow members to become active in the VACEOs community as well.  

“I encourage members to go to Council events. You won’t regret it,” he says. “The education is great and I feel like the more you invest in the community, the more the community will invest in you, and you will get more value from your membership. And I can speak firsthand because whenever I join organizations, I get in the weeds and try to help improve in any way I can and serve in any way I can. And it’s always benefited me in a positive way. It’s a good investment.”

Ready to invest in yourself? Virginia Council of CEOs has developed a special no-cost membership in response to COVID-19. Visit VACEOs Community Membership page to learn more.


Posted by Staff at 7:23 am
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