Three local business leaders discussed the ways their organizations survived the COVID-19 pandemic during a panel discussion organized by the Santa Clarita Valley Economic Development Corp. as part of its semi-annual Economic Outlook event held Friday morning at the Santa Clarita Performing Arts Center at College of the Canyons.
On the panel, Princess Cruises and HA Group President Jan Swartz, Williams Homes Chairman and CEO Lance Williams and Sunkist Growers Senior Vice President and COO Christian Harris talked hiring, culture, vaccines, supply chains and a host of other business topics.
Jan Swartz said after considerably reducing the size of her team at the cruise lines’ global headquarters in Santa Clarita, she’s excited to be hiring.
A hybrid model will be the likely path forward for her company since working from home has been a positive experience for many in many ways, Swartz said.
“What we’re seeing in our survey results is an appetite to when things return to a little bit more to normal to have that place to come together for a number of days a week, but perhaps not back to five days per week.”
Swartz said that in this new environment, her team is making an extra effort to strengthen their corporate culture.
“In the past, we would have come to the office and had coffee with a thousand people, but today we have to initiate those relationships in new and different ways,” she said.
A key lesson from the past 18 months, Swartz said: “This is an ultra-endurance marathon of sorts.”
“It’s how we build our personal resilience, maintain our physical and mental health as we press forward, but also encourage one another to see the opportunity within all of the challenge,” she said.
Lance Williams said everybody stopped buying homes when the pandemic hit. Then it went in the opposite direction.
“Ninety days later, everybody started coming back, interest rates went lower than they already were, and everybody was at home and they wanted a bigger house,” he said, noting that the home became the office, school, gym and more for families during the pandemic.
Williams said his company, headquartered in Santa Clarita, has been in some ways “immune” to the pandemic despite the skilled labor and materials shortages.
“We turned buyers away because we don’t have a lot of inventory to sell, which is a brand-new experience for us,” he said.
Affordability has become the biggest challenge for Williams Homes, Williams said.
“We want to build entry level and move up housing. It’s very difficult to a build entry level new home in Southern California, particularly Santa Clarita,” he said, looking to Swartz and Harris. “So, you guys are hiring folks, it’s not easy for them to afford to buy.”
Williams said suburban housing is what’s hot, with Santa Clarita being one of the hottest housing markets.
And because of the experience of the pandemic, he said, “there’s a little more freedom to balance your life a little bit and maybe live where you want to live instead of where your boss tells you, you need to live.”
When the pandemic started, Christian Harris had to figure out how to safely run 30 pack houses.
“We knew we had to get food going,” he said. “Our customers made clear (it) that people wanted to eat and they particularly wanted to eat fresh food and fresh produce.”
The food grower was challenged by changing food buying patterns and getting the supply chain going again.
“We really are struggling to find people to move here,” he said of labor. “They take a look at our house prices and they say ‘I don’t know how I can make this work.’”
Harris said he’s found it hard to have as much collaboration on screen, though technology has created other opportunities for the fruit company.
“We’re trying to get technologies to move faster for us a little bit, so we can be safer, longer term in the facilities,” he said, noting artificial intelligence to support fruit packing.
Harris said the pandemic provided an opportunity to reassess processes and ask, “Do we need to do that?”
“And start thinking about work-life balance a little bit more,” he added. “Start being kind to each other a little bit more. Start really paying attention to how someone’s day is going, not what you need to get out of them that day.”