June 26, 2020 • Sam Grabel
Each day, we learn of new hardships faced by essential workers on the front lines of the fight against COVID-19. Many are being asked to make sacrifices for the greater good, much like the generations that came before them during World War II and other times of crisis. More widely, society as a whole has been asked to alter its daily routines and give up many of the creature comforts that we take for granted.
Private citizens are not the only ones who are being asked to alter their routines to help fight coronavirus. Major corporations are altering their manufacturing lines to make supplies needed by health care workers. In our newly launched COVID-19 Corporate Memory Project database, there is an ad from one of our clients, New Balance. The ad features a protective mask made from refurbished parts of sneakers. It states: “Made shoes yesterday. Making masks today.” The database also included an article from The Boston Globe on how New Balance retooled its production lines to create those masks for Massachusetts General Hospital.
What other stories can be found that show how crisis conditions disrupted operations? What stories of sacrifice and ingenuity from Corporate America can shed a light on effective crisis response? And furthermore, what value do stories like these have to help build employee pride and drive customer loyalty?
Bechtel was founded in the late 19th century. In its early days, it gained valuable experience on railroad and then energy construction projects such as pipelines, power plants and hydroelectric dams. During the Great Depression, Bechtel helped to organize a group that bid $49 million to build a dam at Black Canyon, Nevada. You might know it today as Hoover Dam.
These megaprojects helped inform Bechtel’s work during World War II. Bechtel began forays into new types of construction and manufacturing. The company ran plants that retrofitted allied bombers and jeeps and helped to design the secret facilities that housed the country’s nascent atomic programs. However, the biggest pivot in expertise came when Bechtel won a bid to build 60 cargo ships for the U.S. Maritime Commission. Bechtel went on to design and build shipyards and produced 560 ships between 1941 and 1945.
Not only did Bechtel pivot to produce a product it had never before produced, it mobilized a previously untapped portion of the workforce: women. Beginning in 1942 at Marinship, just outside of San Francisco, the company hired women of all ethnicities as welders. Just a year later, 65 percent of all shipyard workers on the West Coast were female.
Graybar, an industrial and electrical supply company which recently celebrated its 150th anniversary, helped lay the foundation for modern radio and telecom networks. More recently, it has provided the infrastructure to power stadiums such as U.S. Bank Stadium, the home of the Minnesota Vikings.
The company, a spinoff of Western Electric, primarily manufactured consumer electronics in its early years. During World War II, the company shifted to securing government contracts. In the 1941 annual report, CEO Alfred Nicoll wrote, “Our business changed rapidly until our activities were almost entirely devoted to furnishing material and equipment either directly or indirectly for the government to use in its war effort.”
By 1944, the company asserted that it provided “real value” to the war effort in over 200 ways. Its projects included adapting standard switches for use on secret projects under tight timelines.
Graybar’s most top-secret project involved providing warehouse space for Bell Laboratories’ “Project X,” which led to the invention of an unbreakable code to scramble phone calls between U.S. and British forces. Graybar’s work on the project helped to maintain secrecy between Allies on what is regarded as an early step toward the digital revolution.
Telecommunications powerhouse Verizon was deeply affected by the events on 9/11. Its operations included a massive telecommunications hub at 140 West Street, adjacent to the twin towers of the World Trade Center. Before the towers fell, Verizon evacuated about 1,700 employees from the building.
Immediately after the attacks, Verizon deployed 21 temporary cell towers, set up numerous no-pay phones on trailers throughout Lower Manhattan, and gave cellphones to emergency workers as part of the effort to restore communications quickly.
Additionally, Verizon technicians worked tirelessly to get the New York Stock Exchange—whose communications had run through the World Trade Center—back online by the following Monday. Through sacrifice and ingenuity, and with cooperation from local emergency workers and law enforcement, Verizon was able to set up a network that enabled the NYSE to reopen on September 17, 2001.
These stories are by no means the only ones from our clients that highlight their service during a moment of crisis. However, they are stories that have been retold by these organizations in myriad ways, serving as a road map to instill pride and communicate shared values. Externally, stories have the power to build loyalty and goodwill with existing and potential customers.
Today, our country faces several crises—from the public health and economic crises related to COVID to the crisis of identity and history as it relates to race. In 10, 20, 50 or 100 years, how will the actions of your organization be remembered? Will its stories inspire hope and activism in future generations of employees?
If your organization is interested in systematically capturing the stories of how it is responding to today’s crises, check out History Factory’s Real-Time Capture Program.
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