Surviving a pandemic year

From closing the family business to reopening and expanding, Madison Top Co. exec adjusts to a new reality.
0821 Editorialcontent Biz Dynamics

March 2020 may seem like a lifetime ago for some, or like yesterday for others. For Aaron Frank, president of Madison Top Co., and probably countless other business owners, 2020 represents the beginning of a nightmarish year filled with job losses, business closings, and unprecedented illness and death caused by an unrelenting virus.

Checking in with Frank in May, the mask mandates were still in effect and most people were still working from home. Since then, although the country appears to have made it through the worst of the pandemic (knock on wood), issues continue to dog the business world.

Inflation has since gripped the nation with rising prices on just about everything due to unprecedented supply shortages and pent-up demand, while willing workers remain hard to find.

Madison Top Co. is a family-owned promotional products company. In the 1970s, it was Frank’s uncle who got the company off to a swift start after he purchased the design for what became the wildly popular Mad City T-shirt design. For a while the shirts were screen printed in the family’s basement.

These days, the 49-year-old Frank co-owns the company with his wife and thinks back to early 2020 when the business was chugging along with 19 employees. In May it was hanging on with just six, including two family members.

Since our interview, the company has successfully hired three more.

“Finding employees who are interested in working is a bit of a challenge,” Frank sighs. “It doesn’t matter what I pay them or the benefits I offer, people just don’t show up for interviews.”

At one point he was feeling somewhat optimistic with about 15 interviews scheduled, only to experience firsthand the all-too-common practice of “ghosting,” as 12 of the candidates never showed.

Freight train coming

“When COVID started, most people didn’t think it was a big deal. Then Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson got it and it started hitting home. The NBA started canceling games and everything began shutting down. I had a pit in my stomach. It was nauseating and uncomfortable,” Frank recounts.

“No matter what you do in business, there’s a freight train coming. This one was right in front of our face.”

Around St. Patrick’s Day in 2020, he gathered his staff and informed them that he’d have to lay everyone off. “It was a hard, hard decision,” Frank says. “You can’t Google how to survive a pandemic, so you do the best you can, but I needed to be transparent with the team.”

Madison Top Co. closed the business as weeks turned into months.

“There was nothing I could do. We were shut down. There were no paychecks.” At home he “held a pity-party” for a couple of days before coming to grips with the situation and getting his workday and office organized.

“I was really struggling,” Frank admits. “It was hard. I own a family business! I kept thinking, my uncle started this company and I’m technically the third generation, yet I’m the generation that’s screwing it all up. That didn’t sit well.”

Madison Top Co. was closed from March until early June. During that time, Frank kept in touch with staff and paid for their health, dental, and vision insurance out of his pocket.

“What do I want this to look like post pandemic?” he wondered. “The world will be different. Will we?”

Taking the business’s long history into account, Frank decided to adapt.

In the same boat

“It hit me that everyone, including my suppliers, were in the same boat. They were sitting on inventory, too, so I had several conversations and decided to diversify.”

Already known for its screen-printing capabilities, Madison Top Co. was about to expand. Frank purchased equipment from suppliers that would allow the company to print “just about anything on any product for five or 500 people” with no minimum order sizes and a quick turnaround.

Following all proper pandemic protocols, he called staff back, and while some opted not to return, Madison Top Co. opened — slowly at first — based on customer needs.

Things were ticking again. Diversification moved the company forward from screen printing and embroidery to vinyl graphics (banners/vehicle wraps), dye sublimation, laser engraving, direct-to-garment printing, and UV printing. Most services, Frank says, can be completed within an hour, significantly speeding up what once was a two- or three-week turnaround.

“By far, laser engraving has been our best add-on,” Frank notes, because it allows the company to print logoed stainless steel-engraved drink tumblers, which have proven to be a big success. “We can decorate just about anything now, from awards to picture frames, cutting boards, and kitchen gadgets.”

The new strategy completely flip-flopped the company’s portfolio. Prior to the pandemic, screen printing was Madison Top Co.’s bread and butter. Since reopening, new products have evened things out.

Printing T-shirts for area sports leagues and sponsored events remains a significant part of the company’s product offerings, Frank notes. “Leagues and community events are the extracurricular, fun part of our business, but I really need the local small businesses to return, and that’s making me nervous. We need them back.”

In the Madison Top Co. production warehouse on Stewart Street, the company has kept COVID masking requirements in place for unvaccinated employees and for visitors taking factory tours. “We encourage vaccinations,” Frank says, “and once everyone is vaccinated, I think we’ll still encourage masks to some degree.

“Let’s just be safe for a while.”

Future outlook

As for the future, Frank remains cautiously optimistic. “In terms of the pandemic, I believe the impact has been done but it’s not yet over. We’ve arrived at our new normal. We’ve all been impacted. We’ve been beaten and battered and attacked by this virus, but I think we’re on the other side now. If we do see another spike around here, I feel we’ll know how to react.”

Madison Top Co. lost 40% of its business during the pandemic. Comparing April 2021 to April 2019, however, the company was only down 5%. “Our clients and our employees brought us back, and I can’t thank them enough,” he says. “They’ve looked out for me and now I need to take care of them.”

He increased employee wages, and in June, a new retirement program took effect.

Now, as he looks back, Frank credits the employees, his fellow Rotarians from the Madison South Rotary Club, and his family for helping him through the toughest of times even while they were experiencing their own difficult issues.

“I don’t think things will ever be the same,” he predicts. “Maybe 95%, but not what it once was.”

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