Guided by faith and experience, Legates prioritize taking care of business and people amid a languishing pandemic.
Crises are times for heroes, and during the COVID-19 pandemic it is often requiring heroic leadership on the part of executives to keep their businesses afloat and their employees secure while continuing to serve the public good.
Manny Montanez, Dr. Rudolph “Rudy” Moise, and Tony Sarsam are three Legates who have responded with judicious courage. Montanez and Moise drew in part from their military experience, while Sarsam continued to revitalize a company that was struggling financially even before the coronavirus struck.
Here are their stories.
Manny Montanez told his story of faith and combat in the July 2015 issue of Legatus Magazine, from his devout upbringing to the serious leg injuries he suffered in the Vietnam War courtesy of a strike from a rocket-propelled grenade.
“My faith has always been a major part of my life,” said the Orange Coast Legate and former Legatus West regional director. “Sometimes I’d wander, but I was always rooted in my faith.”
His war injuries left him with grim reminders in the form of constant pain and a limp these past 51 years. But his ability to work and succeed despite difficulties no doubt empowered him to handle unanticipated obstacles to running a business — like in a pandemic.
As CEO and president of his Irvine, California-based general contracting business, EG Montanez Construction, Inc., Montanez made some timely adjustments to keep his projects progressing while safeguarding the well-being of his employees.
There was initial disruption, as they were nearing the final stages of a project in San Bernardino and anticipating a new project in Los Angeles. The San Bernardino project continued with some tweaks to the timetable, while the Los Angeles job was delayed due to directives from the mayor’s office. “In the construction business, schedules are critical and sometimes difficult to balance,” said Montanez, “but in this instance, everyone was affected and understanding of the need to reassess.”
The key to working through the pandemic, he said, is to communicate well and to ensure that “everyone involved, directly and indirectly, is well versed and on the same page as it relates to the project, personnel, and communities where we have exposure.”
That’s where faith and war experience kick in.
“As a combat-wounded veteran, my first instinct is to stress how this pandemic is affecting everyone, and give peace of mind to all our staff and their families that we will be all right, God willing,” Montanez said.
Employees experienced the expected uncertainties — about their own health and that of their families, as well as job security. But with communication and understanding, Montanez believes everyone has risen to the occasion.
“You realize early on when you hire, work, and interact with someone their level of maturity and calmness during challenging times,” he said. “As a seasoned CEO, you always want to be prepared … [It’s] a challenging time personally, emotionally, and professionally for all, but there is no time for ‘woe be me’ attitudes.”
Instead, Montanez emphasizes that “we are all there for each other.”
The guiding principles of his company are faith, family, community, and career. The fact career comes last “doesn’t imply we don’t work hard, but it is to remind us what is most important,” he said.
And faith is at the top of the list
“I make sure early on in any business and working relationship, that I am grounded in my faith and a true believer. Every day is a gift,” Montanez said. “I call it ‘Faith Under Fire’ — stay calm, and pray earnestly.”
EASING PANDEMIC PAIN
Dr. Rudy Moise, an osteopathic physician who specializes in general practice and pain management, is president of Comprehensive Health Center, a full-service primary care practice in North Miami, Florida. With a prepandemic load of 100 patients a day, decisive steps had to be taken for the safety of both patients and staff.
“To avoid our 45 employees, and patients, from being infected, we are starting to use telemedicine, contacting our patients via video call,” said Moise, a Miami Legate. “For the walk-in patients, we screen them outside, checking their temperatures to see if they have any symptoms. If they do and they are stable, we send them home for 14 days. If unstable, we refer them to the local hospitals.”
That protocol was preceded by in-house meetings to educate staff about COVID-19 and establish safety rules including full-body protection. After Florida’s governor issued a stay-at-home order, daily patient flow dropped to the single digits, and some employees feared they might lose their jobs. “But I kept every single employee, though it was very challenging for the company,” Moise said. “With a lot of prayers, we survived, and all employees were extremely grateful.”
His experience as a U.S. Air Force flight surgeon gave Moise plenty of crisis training — including the investigation of the crash of a fighter jet, which required collecting the pilot’s remains and breaking the news to his family. He also received extensive training for dealing with mass casualties with chemical or biological warfare. “I utilized some of this knowledge for my own office as well as for giving advice to community organizations,” he said.
As a Haitian American, he also was part of a panel of physicians and bioscientists that advised the Haitian government on how best to prepare for the pandemic before it struck their nation.
And in a generous outreach to the local community, Moise used his professional connections to donate 12,000 N-95 respirators to Miami’s Jackson Memorial Hospital, 1,500 to Miami Dade Ambulance, and 2,000 to the Orange County Fire Department in Orlando.
When Tony Sarsam took over as CEO in March 2018, Borden Dairy was staggering in debt, largely due to the lingering impact of aggressive acquisitions made three decades before. Already sporting an impressive track record as a C-suite executive in the food industry, he set to work rebuilding the Borden brand and business, from renegotiating with lenders to giving a face-lift to the iconic “Elsie the Cow” logo.
But with raw milk prices rising and thousands of dairy farms going out of business, the Dallas-based company filed for debt reorganization under Chapter 11 bankruptcy in January 2020.
Then along came COVID-19 and the lockdown.
“The pandemic brought an immediate and serious threat to Borden,” said Sarsam, a Dallas Legate. “In addition to the concern for ensuring the safety of our 3,300 team members, we instantly lost most of our school and restaurant business, which is one-third of our revenue.”
Sarsam favors a “people first” management style, so it was natural that he’d take care of his Borden family first. “Once we were satisfied that we had a plan to keep our employees as safe as possible, we were faced with adjusting our business to meet the realities of this incremental profit loss,” he explained.
Furloughs were issued only to those who lost all their work, such as school-route delivery drivers — around 100 workers. Others were invited to volunteer for time off, and a “significant number” accepted that option.
Then came adjustments to manufacturing schedules to match reduced product demand. “When we presented the idea of adjusting factory schedules to our employees, they readily understood the need and flexed to accommodate,” Sarsam said. “I believe the work we did to communicate openly and Tony Sarsam honestly with our team went a long way toward ensuring a quick transition to this ‘new normal.’”
It was a leap of faith. The pandemic was going to force Borden Dairy to burn cash even in the midst of bankruptcy. “We simply had to have faith that the other side of ‘new normal’ would come in time to right the ship,” said Sarsam.
On the bright side, as a food producer, Borden Dairy is considered an essential business and could remain open without interruption. But it was something more than that.
“The Borden team, like most in the food industry, saw its work as a matter of vocation — to keep America fed,” Sarsam said. “We are proud of the fact that we never missed a beat during this difficult time.”
The company still needed saving, however. Sarsam sought a merger with Dean Foods, a rival that also was going through bankruptcy, but Dean was bought by another interest. Then Sarsam and Borden found a lifeline: a major contract with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to provide 700 million servings of milk over 30 weeks to nonprofits throughout much of the nation.
“When the USDA program was announced, we saw this as a great opportunity,” he said. “Our team went right to work on the extensive application process.” Borden’s contract was the largest of any dairy, he added.
Following the sale of Borden Dairy in a June bankruptcy auction, the company enters its next phase of recovery — but you can bet Sarsam will continue to let faith be his guide.
“My faith provides critical foundational principles that inform the way I lead at work and have allowed me to ‘act on instinct’ during this two-fold crisis,” he said. “I believe it has made a big difference.”
GERALD KORSON is a Legatus magazine editorial consultant.
A servant’s heart
Borden Dairy CEO Tony Sarsam summarizes his guiding faith principles for leading his company:
Love your neighbor as yourself.
How would I want to be treated in this crisis? My concerns and fears are not much different than those I serve.
Jesus is the ultimate model of servant leadership.
My role as a leader is to perfect my service to the organization — and to model the “servant’s heart” I expect from others.
I try to communicate directly, openly, and acknowledge my mistakes and ignorance. It is often a challenge to remain ever-charitable, but that choice has never let me down. Expressing positive expectations.
Seek to do more.
We gave instruction to our team to not only provide flawless service to our customers, but to look for more opportunities to serve in the community.