Mike Connors, CEO of Worcester, Massachusetts-based lighting distributor Bulbs.com, remembers shaking his head and smiling a few months ago when a 20-something salesperson lamented that the coronavirus had created a work environment “unlike anything he had ever seen.”
“I had to break it to him that I’m quite a bit older and that no one has ever seen anything like this,” Connors says with a laugh.
The COVID-19 pandemic has been no laughing matter, of course. Bulbs.com endured some difficult times in the beginning, including a “small layoff,” pay cuts and a reduction in hours for some employees, according to Connors.
But things could’ve been worse, he adds. Bulbs.com, deemed an “essential” business, sells primarily online and has long relied on digital capabilities and data analytics. Equally important were a few strategic maneuvers that Bulbs.com enacted both before the pandemic hit and during its early stages.
“Some of it was due to the nature of our business, some of it by luck,” Connors says. “But it was also a credit to having a cohesive management team that is not afraid to make a change if we see something bad coming.”
Pivoting to a New Customer Segment
Like most distributors, Bulbs.com saw something bad coming. Its customer base is 80% B2B, so when contractors paused or canceled their construction and renovation projects amid the economic slowdown, orders for lighting equipment and parts quickly dried up.
The company subsequently saw a 35% to 40% decline in revenue, Connors said, but even as the pandemic ravaged the economy, Bulbs.com grew its B2C sales as residential customers searched online for their electrical and lighting needs. The pivot somewhat salvaged the otherwise soft sales months of March and April.
“About a third of that B2B decline was made up by a rush of residential customers, which has continued since the middle of March,” Connors says. “Our residential business, though a much smaller number, is up 70% to 80%. The question now is, ‘Can we maintain them as customers?’ The problem with residential customers is that they just don’t buy enough. But we’ll enjoy that lift as long as we can.”
If Bulbs.com does maintain them as customers, Connors will know immediately because the company is a “metrics-driven business,” he says. Bulbs.com relies heavily on data and also surveys its customers regularly to ensure it’s meeting their needs and addressing their concerns. That marketing effort has been key to COVID-19 survival.
“Everything is done digitally, so when you ask yourself, ‘What do I want to measure?’ you can measure it,” he says.
More Timely Shifts
Some moves that Bulbs.com made before the pandemic hit also proved beneficial, Connors adds. The company typically bumps up its inventory in advance of Chinese New Year (for more on this disruption, read Case Study: The Disruptive Holiday). As that holiday approached, news of a potential pandemic was sweeping the country, so Bulbs.com increased inventory by about 20% in preparation.
Also see: “Preparing for the Worst.”
The company adjusted its net term policies and even beefed up its phone system, the latter of which enabled Bulbs.com back-office and sales personnel to work from home and seamlessly take orders or perform customer service.
Bulbs.com saw another COVID-19 opportunity by stocking and selling personal protection equipment (PPE) along with lighting supplies. When Connors was first approached about the opportunity, he decided to start with about $10,000 worth of masks. The ensuing demand shocked him.
“We sent out an email on a Friday at six o’clock about the masks,” he says. “All of them were gone that Sunday afternoon. These aren’t even medical-grade masks, but they are masks that contractors are required to wear when they go into a facility to do a project.”
Now, as the economy reopens, B2B orders are coming back and Connors believes Bulbs.com has weathered the worst of the pandemic. What’s more, the company has a revised playbook should a second wave hit this winter or later.
Like any CEO, Connors has felt the responsibility of shepherding his company through this pandemic over recent months, providing a paycheck for Bulbs.com’s 45 employees and providing stability for each of those employee’s families. It’s a role he has relished.
“This has been both an opportunity and a challenge to lead in a situation that we’ve never experienced,” Connors says. “Our goal was to become even more sensitive to our employees’ needs while making a safe working environment and trying to keep the ship afloat in quite a storm.”
Join us on Friday, June 19, at 2 p.m. EDT for this week’s MDM Live, featuring more discussion about the response to COVID-19. The next episode, “New Paradigms for Talent Development,” will include John Salvadore, managing partner, GRN Coastal, and Cory Calderon, director of organizational development, Valin Corp.