Falcon Plastics leadership seeks to diversify facility; pandemic challenged new president

BUSINESS CAME to a stop at the Falcon Plastics facility in Madison during the pandemic. However, after furloughing employees for 12 weeks, the company was able to bring back all full-time employees and is currently seeking to hire.

A year -- as many observe these days -- can make a significant difference. For Jenn Barlund, president of Falcon Plastics, it's the difference between seeking to hire employees and furloughing valued, longtime employees.

"I've never lost so much weight, hair or sleep," she said about the decisions the company was forced to make when the COVID-19 pandemic hit last spring. "It was very personal."

Barlund, the daughter of Guy Bender and granddaughter of founders Don and Carol Bender, was director of operations at the time, having worked her way up in the organization. She started with a part-time job in assembly while a student at South Dakota State University, where she earned a degree in entrepreneurship with minors in economics, marketing and business.

After graduation, she left the organization, moving to Detroit to work in the automotive industry. There, she realized that she had a passion for the culture and work of the family-owned business she had left. Rather than returning to Brookings, she applied for the position of production manager at the plant in Lexington, Tenn.

"They called and said, `Is this a joke'?" Barlund recalled. She indicated it was not, that she wanted to go through the standard hiring process to ensure the best candidate for the position was hired.

She was one of five interviewed for the position and was selected as the best fit for the facility. While working there, the Brookings facility lost its plant manager and she was asked to consider accepting that position, which she did.

Barlund was later promoted to the position she held when the pandemic curtailed business and was named president earlier this month. Her dad will serve as chairman of the board, and her uncle, Jay Bender, will serve as CEO.

The press release announcing the change in leadership stated, "Neither Jay nor Guy have plans to retire in the foreseeable future. These changes have been implemented through a planned and deliberate transition involving the Board and management over several years to ensure the leadership team was fully prepared for their roles."

In 2020, the organization faced unprecedented challenges. After a strong first quarter -- "the best quarter in company history," according to Barlund -- business came to "a screeching halt" toward the end of March.

Customers started canceling orders and the leadership team was forced to respond quickly. A cash-flow analysis indicated it would be necessary to close three of four facilities.

"Our employees are very important to us. It was difficult to have those conversations," Barlund said.

She explained that letting an employee go due to performance issues is entirely different than letting employees go because there simply is no work for them to do. The management team tried to avoid this initially by reducing the workweek from five days to four days and by allowing employees to take unpaid time off.

"We realized we could not continue to offer that," Barlund indicated.

The decision was made to furlough the majority of full-time employees for 12 weeks and to let part-time employees go. In Madison, that resulted in reducing a workforce of 67 full- and part-time employees to 12. This was difficult.

"We call each other a Falcon family," Barlund said. "I don't know where we would be without our employees."

In Madison, this is especially true due to the leadership of plant manager Randy Morehouse, production manager Alesha Richardson and human resources director Janet VanRosendale. At the time of the shutdown, many employees had been with the company for more than 30 years, with the average at the Madison plant being around 20 years.

"They do a really, really good job of creating a culture where people want to stay on," Barlund indicated, noting the local leadership team is solution-oriented and maintains a positive work environment, which facilitates teamwork. "If you go to Madison and look on the floor, our employees are helping each other."

With federal funding, the company was able to reopen the facilities that were closed when customers began to cancel orders.

"In Madison, we were able to bring all of our full-time employees back at the end of that period," Barlund said. Currently, Falcon employs 52 at the Madison plant and is seeking to hire additional employees.

"Hiring right now is a nightmare. We can't find anyone," Barlund indicated. "Before, we had a part-time crew due to college students. We have little to no college students applying anymore."

At the end of 2020, Falcon Plastics began to look at what they could do as a company to position themselves to respond better should a similar situation arise in the future.

"Last year was a big drain, physically and emotionally. It wore on the management team," Barlund noted. "We don't ever want to go through something like that again."

Although the company ended the year financially strong because of the proactive steps they took, that silver lining did not dim the memory of looking "at our good employees and saying, `We don't have work for you to do tomorrow'," Barlund indicated.

Consequently, the goal of the management team is to build back better, to build back stronger. They have determined that diversification would help, she said.

"Madison has two large customers that they rely on for their business," she explained. When they stopped ordering, it affected production. "Since August, we've been working hard to get more customers in that facility."

While the company is not ready to announce what that will look like, they are currently in discussions that will help them achieve that goal. On a personal level, Barlund is grateful to have experienced that challenge during her first year on the leadership team.

"The experience will impact how I do business going forward," she said. "It will shape the decisions we make and the business we do."