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KK: Your situation is completely different for the majority of your staff who have such an important job collecting blood donations, and this year, collecting Covid-19 antibodies. Can you tell me a little bit about what happened in March and early April when you were up against the challenges trying to keep up with blood donations in a time when those typical ways of receiving donations were dropping off?
DG: It was, like everybody experienced, not knowing what was happening next. We saw towards the end of March, early April a significant decline actually in the demand for our core blood products, and that was primarily because hospitals decided to cancel elective procedures. It was a particular challenge for us in that the blood that we draw historically comes from mobile blood drives. As we all know, businesses were sending their employees home, schools were closing and that’s where we were getting the majority of the blood that we were relying on. So, even though we saw a reduction of about 30%, at least through that April timeframe, we saw a larger drop in supply. So, that then led us to have to engage our fixite locations for making up the difference in a very rapid fashion. Ultimately, it was responding to a situation that we didn’t anticipate. Quite candidly, our disaster plans were based on things like short period tornado impacts, response to shootings, things like hurricanes but not something that has stretched on now for nine months and likely to continue on. It forced us into a very different mode. Quick response, capturing information and making tough decisions as quickly as we possibly could.
KK: I’m sure that many other leaders can relate to you with that because this is going on for so long, and we’re still not out of the woods yet. How did you make those decisions at that time with the information you did have available to you to say, “Okay, we now have a need for Covid -19 antibodies. We can be a part of this to save more lives.”
DG: Quite honestly, the first time I heard about convalescent plasma was during this crisis. I didn’t know that this was something that could be done before even though it has been used before in a couple different situations. So, very quickly got together with my medical director to understand what the FDA was talking about with this and then we brought our team together, and we made the decision that since this was going to be the only available treatment for patients that were suffering from Covid, we were going to make it happen. In a matter of a couple weeks, we were drawing our first donor for convalescent plasma on April 8th, which is very soon after we understood what the requirements were going to be from the FDA and to this date we have produced over 75,000 doses for patient care for patients that are suffering from Covid. It’s been an incredible journey for us while we were trying to sustain our core mission or provide blood for sick people.
KK: I’d like to know a little bit more on how you acted so quickly as a leader? Did you feel really confident in that decision? Did you feel like that was something where you say, “okay lets see how it goes because this is something I’d like to see where it goes.” How were you feeling?
DG: I think it’s important during times of crisis that you get comfortable making decisions with far less information than you’re used to having. That was certainly the case here. Did I have enough information to decide to commit to producing this product? Perhaps not outside of a crisis time frame, but certainly, I felt confident that it was the right thing to do and recognized that throughout this experience, I was going to make some mistakes. In fact, when I communicated with staff I was pretty transparent about the fact that we’re moving quickly, we’re dealing with a lot of issues we haven’t faced before. Things like – our staff never wore masks during a blood drive. Now everybody has to wear masks. How do you deal with the information coming in, and oh by the way information is changing constantly. You acknowledge you’re going to make mistakes. You go ahead and make the decisions and monitor very carefully but also I feel that it’s important that whenever I was making those decisions I always explain the why. Our staff loved to understand why we were asking them to do things and why we’re making decisions. Fortunately, I have a great staff, a superb leadership team and that is primarily how we moved as quickly as we did.
KK: When it came to relaying all of this to your staff and telling your staff who is normally collecting blood saying, “hey, we’re going to change it up a little. You have an opportunity to save lives…” How did you address and give them the confidence to play their part in all of this?
DG: In the first place there has to be a level of trust that is established before the disaster ever hits. Fortunately, we have always followed a practice of always being transparent, absolutely honest and talking about not only the good but the bad as well. When we went out to the staff and we laid it out on the line – we said “Look, we have the opportunity to help patients in need and this is something only we can do.” I didn’t get pushback from the staff. In fact, they embraced this as an opportunity to make sense out of something that didn’t make sense at all. The staff really moved quickly to embrace this idea and engage with donors and draw the product, the processing. Everything fell into place really quickly because the staff were behind it. That required us to have that constant communication, and I will tell you we are communicating with our staff far more frequently with our staff before Covid, and in fact, that’s one of the things we need to continue with well beyond the Covid crisis. Once the pandemic is done, I don’t want to go back to communicating the way I used to. Doing videos and capturing the emotion I was feeling early in this crisis helped the staff make sense of their emotions because at that time everybody was scared including me and that came through in the video, but also, that I was absolutely confident we would work it out. We would figure out the solution and together we would travel this journey successfully. I hoped this would bolster them and that notion they were having that direct impact on patient care was something that was sustaining for them through the difficult times.
KK: Let’s talk more about that communication with your team. You’re putting out those videos and that’s something you did immediately, but also, your staff has the opportunity to communicate with you directly. So they have a website they can go to and interact with you at any time?
DG: It’s kind of an email setup. It was the brainchild of our communications director. She came up with the idea… It allows any employee to communicate directly with me and they do. A lot of the ideas outside of the pandemic. CEO Dave was put into place when I first came into the role as CEO, and it has served me well. Not only to gain ideas on how we can do things better but to get kind of a sense or pulse of what’s going on with the employees at a given time. So when we make a policy change of any sort. I hear about it. It’s ultimately through that mechanism that I feel I have the connection with the employee.
KK: What are some of the things you’ve learned from your employees during the pandemic? What are some of the things they’ve taught you through those communication opportunities?
DG: Certainly understanding what the donors were saying when they were donating blood. What concerns did they have? The staff were very good at learning that and capturing that. As we made schedule changes, I learned what worked and what didn’t work. Also, opportunities on how to streamline certain processes, how to make things simpler. Those ideas come from the people who do the work not the people who look at the venn diagram and flow charts. I don’t want to minimize the roles those people play, but I think it’s important for them to take the information from the front line, process what the front line is saying and really improve the process for the others whether it’s during a pandemic or not.
KK: How have you found any sort of break from all of this information you’re processing as a leader during this time?
DG: It’s important, at least once a day, to disengage. I do that at night, and I do it through reading history. I absolutely love history and right now I’m reading about Chamberlins experience during the Battle of Britain. It does a couple things for me. Number one, it’s not about the pandemic. I think not focusing on that thing that you have to focus on during the day is crucial. The other thing it does is afford a sense of perspective. Much as I feel pressured throughout the day to make tough calls, to make some very unsavory decisions, I never faced anything like Chamberlin did. It’s that perspective where I can say, “I know it’s a tough time but it’s nowhere as tough as what many other people have faced throughout history.” It will be okay. It does give me a sense of sustainable confidence that if I make a mistake, it’s not going to be a mistake that’s unrecoverable, and ultimately, allows me to keep that sense of where I sit in the scheme of things.
KK: What have you and your team done in this period of time that you think will last forever and benefit Vitalant in the future?
DG: I think that’s a great question. I think that’s what business leaders all across the globe are wrestling with right now. I think in our case, certainly the communication that I mentioned. It’s really refreshing for us to have as much information about how we are doing from our employees as we have. I think that we will sustain that communication that we have, the multiple touch points and I’ll certainly continue to leverage the video. Our direct donor engagement that we were forced to do where prior to Covid, we were drawing most of our blood through mobile operations… We were forced to adjust. We leverage our fixed sites. That required us to have a direct 1-on-1 relationship with donors, and we intend to build on that relationship and leverage that for the long term. I think direct donor engagement will be absolutely critical. The final thing we are going to sustain long term is that sense of transparency will continue, but we’re going to step it up a little bit. There’s a lot going on in the world right now, and I think we need to have even more open candid dialogue within an organization about what’s going well and what’s not going well. We’ve had that far more in this crisis. I don’t want to lose that. I want to continue that in the long term because I think all employees, including me, feel more connected and more engaged, and the more engaged the employees are the more successful the company is.
We are in 28 different states and our employee base is around 4,000. We support 900 hospitals and that’s just the blood sector piece of the organization. We also operate a research institute with one in San Francisco and one in Denver. We have a specialty pharma company that distributes all throughout the United States. We have a joint venture testing laboratory that tests 75% of the nation’s blood supply, and we have an offshore insurance captive in the Cayman Islands. It’s certainly an interesting company in terms of lots of different things coming together, and as CEO, I find it energizing to figure out how to leverage those different components for the good of all the pieces throughout my role as CEO.
KK: Moving forward, what role will Vitalant have in the way we learn more about pandemic and look back and continue to gain information on Covid-19?
DG: We have been collecting a lot of information throughout this crisis. The lead organization through this process is our research institute. They have been commissioned by the NIH to conduct a survey on the progression of Covid throughout the United States. They’re working in collaboration with our blood center as well as other blood centers across the country to collect the data to learn how the disease progressed, nature of the neutralizing antibodies that are critical in dealing with Covid patients and understand how to better deal with a similar crisis because as much as none of us wanted this to happen, we all need to be mindful that something like this will happen again. The better position we are based on the lessons learned from this experience, the better we’ll be positioned to deal with the next one.