With more than 100 years in their brand portfolio behind them, Wall Family Enterprise is no stranger to handling crises. Guided by a mission to advance learning at all stages of life, the enterprise focuses on three markets: library and civic institutions, early learning, and education—all of which were greatly impacted by COVID-19.
The pandemic threw many businesses across the world into crisis control. Wall Family Enterprise was no exception, but their challenges were compounded by another set of unprecedented circumstances. At the time, both WFE and Demco, their largest company, were respectively, without a CEO and president, and sales had dropped dramatically. So many things were happening at once and the family had to act quickly. With the help of their family owners and Board, and guided by the values instilled by the late patriarch, John Wall (G1)—to be good stewards of the family and the business—they began to form a plan.
The family turned to Jim James, Wall Family Enterprise’s Board Chair, who offered to step in as interim CEO under one condition: that family member, Brendan Wall (G2), share the spot with him as co-CEO.
“Jim wanted a family owner closely involved with him in communicating the difficult decisions and co-leading the necessary changes with the passion and values instilled in our family business culture from our father,” said Brendan. “At the same time, Jim and I saw eye to eye. He knew my business turnaround experiences during the 2008-9 recession would be helpful in leading the path through the pandemic. And I knew his knowledge and drive would lead us to make the hard decisions that would ultimately pave the way through.”
Short-Term Solutions. Long-Term Benefits.
Jim and Brendan took the helm as co-CEOs. They increased communications and set up a crisis management team; they leaned heavily on the Board for collective insights and guidance; and they leveraged outside relationships to gather intel on how other businesses were navigating the pandemic. Coworkers, family members, and other stakeholders trusted that interim leadership were thoughtfully balancing everyone’s best interests.
“We’re an organization that runs on family values,” said Brendan. “And while we realized that family values are important, they don’t matter if we don’t have a family business and don’t have coworkers.”
Brendan and Jim focused on short-term (COVID-based) solutions to ensure the long-term health of the organization. This included right-sizing the business to streamline the organizational structure and product offerings; reaching out to their customers to learn about their needs; and then developing new product ideas to meet those needs.
Innovation and Opportunity
Another hurdle to clear was finding a new president for Demco, Wall’s 115-year-old supplier of unique and hard-to-find supplies, furniture, and equipment to America’s libraries and schools. Enter Chad Edwards. With a background in educational business software, Chad understood the importance of innovation and saw the massive and debilitating effects the pandemic was having across the world. People needed help and Demco had the resources. Through a partnership with the University of Wisconsin at Madison, Chad led the charge on the creation of face shields for schools and emergency management teams. Chad also spearheaded the creation of acrylic desk shields used in classrooms, which became a game-changer as schools moved from virtual to hybrid and in-person models.
“The library and school markets tend to move like an ocean barge. Slow and steady,” said Brendan. “But with the onset of COVID and its constantly changing ramifications, we found ourselves needing to shift and move quickly to make hard decisions, fast.”
Click below for more photos from Wall Family Enterprise
Demco kept close tabs on the evolving needs of their customers—specifically, librarians. A series of webinars were created to help them navigate the pandemic; one broadcast reached 13,000 viewers during its live broadcast, while another 7,000 watched the recorded session. This helped boost Demco’s credibility within the marketplace as a trusted, reliable, and knowledgeable resource.
“We realized that if we wanted to be part of the solution in libraries and schools, we had to bring the solutions," said Brendan. “We became problem solvers, anticipating what our customers needed and finding the suppliers to get it done. Proprietary solutions made all of the difference.”
From a Supplies and Equipment Provider to a Solutions Provider
The pandemic brought with it a digital revolution—in order to survive, businesses had to adapt, and many of these adaptations are now here for good. Wall’s businesses, for example, shifted from purveyors of hard goods to digital solutions, forever altering how they do business across the enterprise. Their company, Hatch Early Learning, was the first to feel the positive effects of this change. Not long before the start of the pandemic, Hatch hardware was transformed into a subscription, cloud-based app, loaded onto school iPads and smart tablets. When schools shutdown and moved to online learning, Hatch found themselves poised to help with a suite of early childhood education tools.
“We saw an immediate impact here,” said Brendan. “We had to quickly pivot to provide our early learning solution, ‘Ignite’ (a digital learning platform for pre-schools and Head Start programs) to be sent home for individual home learning and remote teaching. Even as we come out of the pandemic, this will be a great on-going tool to bridge the learning gap caused by the challenges associated with remote schooling.”
The Cultural Shift
John Wall always said, “Take care of our coworkers first because they take care of our customers.” As co-CEOs, Brendan and Jim made sure to carry on this notion by doing all they could to ensure the safety of their workforce. They also chose to be hands-on with the leadership team—acting as mentors while at the same time unafraid to “get into the weeds.” What was important to individuals? What can we do to help? Keeping people informed and seeking their input was a top priority that resulted in an empowered leadership team—one that was reenergized with a sense of urgency to change the pace of going to market.
The Road Ahead
Today, Brendan believes the organization and the family will come out of this experience stronger and wiser. At the Board level, there’s a greater focus on accountability and a push to be more proactive about the future. Trust among shareholders is stronger, their role as stewards more clearly defined. As for coworkers and leadership, they found their own personal stake by being more involved and more engaged.
“These past 18 months have certainly caught the attention of family and business leadership, our customers, and coworkers,” said Brendan. “But the progress we’ve made is setting the structural course for how we’ll move forward. With the innovation we’ve seen during these trying times, we’re sure to come out leaner and more agile.”