Chuck Salzman: How Leaders Respond in a Crisis (Ep. #16)

Published on
April 23, 2020
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Building Better Managers Podcast Episode #16:  How Leaders Respond in a Crisis

Strong leadership is essential right now when it’s so challenging around the globe. Chuck Salzman joins us to talk about how Peerless Beverage quickly shifted its mission from “vision and values” to safety first and operating the business second.

In this episode:

Meet Chuck Salzman

  • Bio & Background
  • Peerless Beverage History and Current Market Situation

Pivoting in a Crisis

  • Pivoting their mission from "Vision & Values" to "Safety First and Operating the Business Second"
  • Changing the way they communicate
  • Using Video Conferencing to maintain your culture
  • Optimizing check-in times

Creating New Opportunities

  • Prioritizing Teamwork and putting people first
  • Being prepared for the next crisis
  • Supporting remote work opportunities
  • Creating temporary positions to keep people working

Downloads & Resources

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Check out our blog articles on Leadership here.

Chuck Salzman

Chuck Salzman is the President at Peerless Beverage Company.

Peerless Beverage Company, a family-owned business since 1933, is heading into its eighty-fourth year, led by third-generation Scott Beim and Chuck Salzman.

View the episode transcript

Wendy HansonLeadership is essential right now at this time when it's so challenging around the globe. So we wanted to speak to some leaders and find out what are they doing during this time have such great impact. And today, I'm so fortunate to get to talk with Chuck Salzman. Chuck is president of peerless beverage based in Union City, New Jersey, a third generation family business. So welcome, Chuck. I'm so happy you took the time to be with us and tell us a little bit about you and this business.

Chuck Salzman: Sure. So we're actually located in Union New Jersey.

Wendy: Okay.

Chuck: Union City is not too far away, but we are in. We're in union. So a little bit about us. We began in 1933. So I'm the third generation of ownership and I'm happy to say I haven't screwed it up too badly. Like they keep me around. But um, you know, I guess all kidding aside, my my grandfather started the company. Officially into beer in 1933. Before that he was a seltzer delivery person. And at the repeal of prohibition, moved it into delivering beer. And it went from there in 19. In the 1960s. When my father was involved, we merged the company with with another company with the bind family who are still our partners to this day. So we're sort of unique. We're two families in third and actually on the buying side, fourth generation of families running the business. Ah, and we continue to prosper today.

Wendy: Yeah, how many employees in the company give us a sense of scale?

Chuck: So we have 280 employees and we are you know, primarily a beer distribution company covering northern New Jersey. So we cover seven counties in northern New Jersey being union Hudson, Morris, Essex, Bergen, Passaic in Sussex, and some of our we represent the About 50 different breweries and some wineries and distilleries as well, but our largest breweries are Corona and Modelo Miller Corps, Guinness, Yingling and Boston beer. We also do some local crafts that are doing very well like Sierra Nevada and Brooklyn Brewery.

Wendy:  Yes. Well, I am very happy that you are an essential service right now. Yes, that that's been your designation. So that's very lucky for you and for the rest of us.

Chuck: So are we? Yes. So

Wendy: To check when the virus first hit, what were you most concerned about, like what struck you first?

Chuck: So first was was safety. And I think we we didn't, maybe throwing out our old mission, vision and values. I can't say we totally threw them out. But we changed course for the time being and then we set up a different mantra. I guess. We get to So it became safety first and operate the business second. And that was really what we're most concerned about the safety of the employees that are here, and how it affects their families as well. The other is and with that, the other thing was really uncertainty, day to day and even throughout the day for many weeks as how things were changing so quickly and how we had to adapt to it and change and very quickly, but thoughtfully make the right decisions to operate the company based on that mantra of of safety first, and operate the business second.

Wendy: Now, what are some examples of what you did for safety first, first, I love that that was first keeping everybody safe, but in your kind of business, what were some of the things that came up?

Chuck: So the first thing we did was get everyone who didn't have to work in the building, we got them home and we got everyone set up mobile, so on, we did On March 11, we got by March 11, we had 90% of the people that could be home, home. And a few days after we were at 100% of everyone who did not have to be in the building, they were home, they were set up mobily. And we went from there. At the same time, we looked at everyone who was essential to to working in the building or on the road. So all the warehouse personnel and delivery personnel, and we made sure they were safe. So we changed a number of existing sort of work policies and rules, in collaboration with all the employees to understand what they were dealing with internally and externally made a lot of changes. For instance, just simple safety things, making sure everyone had gloves. No longer do we have to have customers signed. So previously, we had customers signing tablets, we waved That we waived punching in and out to more of a verbal communication as well. And those are just some of the things we did, but even limiting the time that our drivers would be in the stores, so to get them out, and it really became a constant, it's really a daily conversation with all the employees, for everything that we're learning from the CDC and then information from them of anything they're uncomfortable with. We're making changes. We also let all employees know from the beginning that if you're not comfortable working, you don't have to work and there'd be different compensation strategies for that. But we wanted everyone to know, you don't have to work if you are not comfortable. We do have work. We're fortunate enough that we are essential. And we will find work for everyone, even certain departments where things have changed. We'll find different jobs for that. We even are paying people to do different charitable work. Can the community

Wendy: that that's wonderful and I think that's really one of the big things that hopefully we'll all get out of this is like, how to adapt quickly and you're so respectful of everybody like giving them you know, different jobs and even to do charitable work. Ah, that's, that's awesome. And what what have you learned about yourself during this time, Chuck as a leader, but because boy, this, this brings us to our core, right, to make all these decisions and be responsible for all these people.

Chuck: You know, it's funny user record, I think it was, it's just that that, you know, I learned that it's most important to cut out the clutter, the things that that aren't as important that that oftentimes as a leader could could sidetrack you or pull you aside that. really the most important thing is to cut out that clutter and focus on what's important right now the most important things and going back to to safety first and operate them Second, it's just a laser focus on that.

Wendy: Yeah. And whether there are opportunities. I heard a little backstory that you know, you're providing opportunities for people in the organization to not only do different work but possibly step up and lead in a different way. Did that show up at all?

Chuck: Yes, it has. So we, you know, I think we always rely on our managers and different employees to, to lead but now more than ever, we asked, we asked, you know, different people in leadership positions to do just that. So, as I mentioned, you're making quick and thoughtful decisions. And we're asking the managers to push that down very clearly and also bring information back up as quick as things are going down, push it back up the ladder, we, you know, we're mobile now. So we need to hear from the people that aren't here. And just how we can make things better. So we we pivoted very quickly to To videoconferencing to keep our culture going that way, and we're hearing from people.

Wendy: Well, and I love that because we're hearing so many unique things about communication strategies and companies, you know, of what they're using. So how are you keeping everybody together? What what are some of the things?

Chuck: Yes are two ways the one thing for everyone who's here in the building, myself and my partner who's here on a daily basis, we are very present. We're walking the buildings every day and making sure we're having contact with everyone that's here. And hearing from them, checking in on them, making sure that they're doing well their families are okay. And we want their feedback. So, so there's a lot of communication that way with everyone who's here and then everyone who's not, we're, you know, we're doing a lot of over communicating. So everyone understands what is going on here. But we pivoted very quickly, I think the day that we had everyone home to video, video conferences, so the The different teams are doing their own video conferences, we do a 60 person sales meeting every Friday. And that way, I'm personally able to see 60 people and communicate with them, and they're able to see me. And it's, and it's been great where our culture is very much, we're together a lot. And we communicate like that. So we're able to keep that going. I also call two to three employees a day two to three people that aren't here. Just to check in on a one to one level, it's usually a 10 minute call. You know, I have questions for them. They have questions for me, usually doesn't go much beyond that. But it's a check in and there's been some great things that have come out of that as well.

Wendy: Wow, that's great. It sounds like some of these practices that you've created during this time. You might actually hold on to I'm guessing in the future. Are there some of those that that strike you that you said, Wow, I noticed I learned this or noticed this and maybe we should keep doing it?

Chuck: Yes. I think we We've started to talk about that already. It's okay, we've had, you know, we have all this time to look at things differently. And, and I think, you know, working remotely, while we like having everyone here and in the building, and there's so many positives to it, I have heard from a number of people that they are able to focus and get a lot done without any interruption. So, you know, we're having the conversations, my guess is there'll be a little bit more balance to in the building versus out of the building and really being able to put your head down and work without, without certain interruptions. I think we'll also have, you know, a new look at crisis management. We learned a lot about you know, how we could operate the company in this situation and I think would be foolish to think that something like like this might not happen again. And, and just like the country has to be prepared, we have to be prepared as well.

Wendy: Yeah. And what advice would you give to some other leaders that are going through this now you're in a different type of business. We we talked to a lot of tech companies and things, but every crisis is a crisis. And is there any advice that you would give to people to keep top of mind?

Chuck: I would say Think about your people. First. The people that work in a company that has to be the first, the first thought before anything else, make sure they're they're taking care of safety wise, compensation wise. You know, we have to make sure the company is running too. But coming out of this, I think it'll make us a stronger company and everyone appreciates it. I'm having a lot of conversations. It's it's noticed it's making us an even stronger company. And I think it's just the right thing to do right now. During this pandemic,

Wendy: People first and safety first two very big messages. Yeah. And one of the things that we talk about a lot is gratitude. You know, gratitude for people at work and And showing people gratitude and it sounds like you're doing a great job of that. What are you most grateful for during this period?

Chuck: I'm really most grateful first, for safety. That's the thing I think about most often but of the employees or families, my family you know, that's number one that everyone's healthy. We we have had a few. We have had one confirmed case here. We've had some other people that were not feeling well. So you know, that was scary. Fortunately, they were. Okay. So that's first and second. You know, I'm just grateful about who I'm surrounded by, in our companies. So from management to people that aren't in management positions, everyone has stepped up in their own unique ways and, and it makes my job certainly a lot easier and it's, you know, comforting to know we've got such a great team so you know, I think people say those kinds of things and talk about that, but we I'm really loving it. It's a it's a great Great to be surrounded particularly in these situations with such a great team that that can can support me and you know, likewise while I'm supporting them

Wendy: I love this camaraderie is a connection and camaraderie i think is gonna be one of our big lessons from this hopefully in the good lessons and being prepared and an over communication, all those things that you're talking about anything else you want to share? Or how what if people want to have a beer like how can they like look up peerless if they're in the northern New Jersey area? I think

Chuck: Everyone should have a beer. Yeah, well, they could get you know, unfortunately, the bars and restaurants are closed, but liquor stores and supermarkets are open and, and and we're lucky, you know, we are we are essential. And, and we're fortunate and that's, and that's why, you know, from the very beginning, we said we're going to keep everyone in Floyd, you know, as long as we can and we don't foresee any issues continuing with with that goal, you know, we're in this fortunate, fortunate situation. So we're going to get the beer delivered and so people can have a beer. Great.

Wendy: So hopefully any anybody who's in northern New Jersey if they see a peerless truck go by, they should wave now. Yes. And thank people for what they do. We all should be appreciating people that are providing these essential services to us to keep us going during this time so we can stick together.

Chuck Salzman: Absolutely be nice. You guys would appreciate that.

Wendy: Well, thank you, Chuck. Really appreciate you taking the time everybody. Stay safe and have a good day.

Chuck: All right, great. Thanks. Take care.

L'avenir du travail est arrivé. Il est temps de prospérer.