When businesses began to acknowledge the world was facing fundamental unknowns early in 2020, the nimble and innovative did not waste time trying to maintain business as usual. They assessed the new frontier facing them and set out to blaze new trails. 

Two of those trailblazing chief executives are YPO members leading companies in vastly different industries, using the Salesforce platform to innovate and transform their organizations.

As the pandemic began to wreak havoc on the world, Eric Edelson, CEO of northern California-based Fireclay Tile, and Mirka Wilderer, CEO of De Nora Water Technologies, threw out their playbooks, rolled up their sleeves and did what so many were forced to do in 2020: They pivoted. 

Their decision to change course quickly benefited their organizations as well as society at large. Here are their stories.

Forging a new path 

Leading more than 200 employees throughout the United States in the manufacturing and sale of artisan tile, Edelson credits Fireclay’s resilience during COVID-19 to his pre-pandemic decision to integrate the 35-year-old company 100% vertically and to partner with customer relationship management solutions firm Salesforce.

“Everything we sell, we make; and everything we make, we sell,” Edelson explains. “During the pandemic, we benefited from that decision and from the support of the Salesforce platform.”

That confidence and 20/20 hindsight does not mean Edelson didn’t have sleepless nights in early 2020.

“It was very daunting making the decision to close our factory at the onset of COVID-19, the source of all our revenue,” he admits. “I was scared, which is not a great emotion to have in a leadership role.” 

But Edelson did not let his fear immobilize him. He established three guiding principles at the pandemic’s start:

  • Protect the health and welfare of his employees.
  • Do everything possible to support Fireclay’s clients.
  • Practice no discrimination and lead with love, kindness and support.

Those principles and their Salesforce partnership served Fireclay well. After slowing down production for a few weeks as they established solid health and safety protocols, they began making tile again. Business is up 50% in 2021.

“We leaned more into the cloud-based technologies and platforms like Slack, which helped our team communicate more effectively and respond to challenges in the field,” Edelson says. “We are so much more connected to our customers and to each other.”

While the manufacturing of Fireclay’s tiles requires employees to work at the northern California plant, the pandemic opened Edelson’s eyes to customer support and other positions that could be based virtually anywhere. He now looks throughout the U.S. to fill open roles originally based in California. 

With employees spread far and wide now, he adds, “working with Salesforce has helped identify new ways for our team to work to make life easier for everyone.”

Chaos accelerates change

Wilderer, leading the third-generation, family-owned business that treats water sustainably and ensures access to clean and safe water around the world, experienced the pandemic in its early days as she diverted a planned visit from Asia to Europe in January 2020. She, like most of the world, did not fully comprehend the pending seismic impact on the world’s health and economy. 

After seeing De Nora teams in Asia and Europe forced to shut down, Wilderer recalls, “We should have jumped into emergency mode then. We were witnessing dramatic scenes from our colleagues and how their lives were being impacted.”

Wilderer, who moved into the CEO position less than a year before COVID-19 struck, realized the seriousness of what was happening and knew everything had to change.

“Everything was in flux,” she says, explaining she saw opportunity in the unrest. “It allowed us to establish an entirely new mindset, which allowed us to adapt and to be more responsive. We had to rely on our expertise. There was no longer a recipe to follow.”

That’s where technology – and specifically De Nora’s partnership with Salesforce – stepped in to help. 

In addition to using Salesforce’s cloud-based solutions for communications and data analysis, De Nora moved into the world of augmented reality (AR) to serve its clients located around the world. 

Wilderer explains, “Prior to the pandemic, when something didn’t work in the field, we sent an employee to wherever in the world the client was. It was costly and used a lot of expertise time for little touch time with the customer.”

The pandemic made this practice more difficult, but Wilderer had the AR alternative ready for those times travel restrictions or other COVID-19 protocols made in-person calls not practical. Now, De Nora product specialists can use a phone app and AR goggles to help customers anywhere in the world find solutions to their problems. Wilderer says this saves time and money while improving the customer experience.

Prioritize people over profit

While leading companies in different industries, Edelson and Wilderer are both committed to using their businesses and their leadership skills for the greater good. Fireclay is a Certified B Corporation, which means it is dedicated to creating benefits for all stakeholders, not just shareholders. Edelson says Salesforce’s Pledge 1%, which invites entrepreneurs and their businesses to commit resources to supporting philanthropy, was an inspiration for getting Fireclay to meet the B Corp metrics. 

Not only is using business for good the right thing to do, Edelson says, but it is also good for business. “The fact is that you can drive more revenue, more sales, with a stakeholder mentality,” Edelson concedes.

At the start of the pandemic, Wilderer turned De Nora’s ability to make bleach in industrial-sized quantities for drinking water disinfection into smaller sized generators for businesses of any industry to help generate disinfectant on-site to prevent the spread of the virus. The adaptation meant De Nora helped others keep their places of business safe.

She shares, “It was incredibly fulfilling and gratifying to be able to contribute to the global efforts to keep our customers, their families and their communities safe and healthy, as well as to support customers in many different industries, keeping their operations going and supply chain uninterrupted.”

The change was fast. “The idea of pivoting to surface disinfection was born on a Friday and implemented on a Monday,” Wilderer says.

Staying the course

Wilderer’s plans for De Nora is to be the partner of choice in the industry. “We want to take the opportunity to tap into technology to be innovative,” she says, adding that strategic use of the data they collect is a key to success. “We aren’t in the business of developing the digital tools that help our partners and us, which is why we partner with Salesforce. It’s a dialogue with them. I appreciate working with the experts. They challenge us; we challenge them.”

The pandemic was a masterclass in change management for Wilderer. “I learned in this ‘new business as unusual,’ to tap into the talent outside of our core business. Use the talent where we find it whether in my organization or out. Together we’ll create value for our customer,” she says. “The other piece is to look at the customer. The modern-day customer is evolving. How can we serve them? Through various (Salesforce) solutions, we keep our finger on the pulse of the customer and are able to respond to their needs with speed and agility.”

Edelson’s mission for Fireclay is similar to that of Wilderer’s for De Nora. “In the world of tile, we may be a small company, but if we can be the best, that’s what matters,” he explains. 

Both Edelson and Wilderer advise other entrepreneurs and growing businesses looking to improve their adoption of technology to look at is as a transformation. Says Edelson, “Start small. Shoot for 1% improvement every day. If you try to do it all at once, you’ll get overwhelmed. Take your time and start at one specific area. Once you master that, then add on.”

Salesforce is a YPO Strategic Partner, focused on helping YPO members become better leaders, drive business transformation, and connect to their customers in new ways.