How alumni adapted to keep their businesses going—and help out
By Matthew Biddle
Nick Pitillo, CEL ’18, was at his downtown Buffalo restaurant, Osteria 166, when Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced a mandate for restaurants to close—one of countless such orders issued by leaders worldwide this spring to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Soon, Pitillo was forced to lay off all 60 of his employees, many of whom had become like family after a decade or more on the job.
“It was a horrible time, with so much uncertainty,” says Pitillo, who owns two restaurants and a catering business with his wife, Kendra. “We raised a glass, hugged and cried—and the next day woke up trying to figure out what we were going to do.”
In just two days, Pitillo and his team developed a new business: Stock The Freezer, a meal prep service that allows customers to order comfort food that’s cooked fresh and frozen for delivery. Within 12 hours of launch, the company had sold 1,500 meals—including 1,000 that customers purchased to donate to shelters and front-line workers. As orders flooded in, Pitillo was able to hire back many workers, and together they made and delivered more than 37,000 meals (including 20,000 donated meals). He also explored other sales opportunities, like pop-up booths outside breweries.
“It’s been invigorating to see the community rally behind us, because the reality is that all these things keep our restaurants alive and keep people working,” he says. “We don’t know what will happen in the future, but we do know we’ll keep fighting every day.”
Alumni from the School of Management and Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership are ambitious, innovative, inclusive, globally minded—and, now more than ever, resilient. When cities went into lockdown, organizational leaders and entrepreneurs got to work, shifting operations to keep afloat, serve their clients and help their community. For some alumni, like Pitillo, their pivot may have even opened up long-term opportunities, a silver lining in the crisis.
Pitillo’s experience is one of many such stories in the School of Management community—here are a few more.
Seemingly overnight, countless organizations faced the herculean task of moving their in-person operations and services to a virtual environment.
At the Buffalo Niagara Partnership, staff didn’t just start working from home—they reorganized into new cross-functional teams to best support the business community. The regional chamber of commerce hosted webinars on emerging issues for more than 3,000 professionals, created a reopening guide and other resources, and hosted a virtual listening tour for industry leaders and Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul.
“Across the board, businesses have been striving to do the right thing to keep their employees and customers safe, and come out stronger on the other side,” says Dottie Gallagher, EMBA ’07, president and CEO. “The flexibility and innovation I’ve witnessed has challenged me to think differently in all we do."
In Philadelphia, at social service agency People for People Inc., Kirk Berry, BS ’05, faced unique challenges with the program he leads: Project D.A.D. (Developing Active Dads), which helps noncustodial fathers become more active in their kids’ lives through workshops, employment services and case management.
For Berry, shifting in-class workshops to Zoom was the easy part.
“The greatest challenge we overcame was recruiting and building rapport with the fathers to keep them engaged,” Berry says. “It also has been difficult identifying the best way to provide services to those fathers who don’t have the means to stay in constant communication or are in facilities that are locked down without the ability to use technology.”
Berry helped Project D.A.D. to bridge those technology gaps, work with partners to find job opportunities, recruit new dads through expanded advertising and provide services like job interview prep. So far, he says, their efforts have paid off.
“The new fathers participating seem to like the online workshops and attend each morning,” he says. “In the future, we will continue to offer online enrollment and both in-person and online workshops, which will allow us to serve more fathers.”
No organization has been immune to the effects of COVID-19, and large and small firms alike have had to adjust.
Ingmar Haffke, MBA ’11, director of technology strategic initiatives at Visa, says the payments company recognizes consumers’ need for digital and contactless payments, working to help money move seamlessly and securely between individuals, businesses and financial institutions. In addition, Visa supports more than two dozen state government programs, where unemployment insurance benefits are distributed via prepaid debit cards.
At Tronconi Segarra & Associates LLP, a top CPA firm in Western New York, partner Thomas Mazurek, BS ’98, co-leads the firm’s COVID-19 response team, fielding clients’ questions and helping them understand federal legislation and relief programs.
“From the beginning, we knew this wasn’t going to be like a three-day Buffalo snowstorm, where things quickly returned to normal,” says Mark A. Tronconi, BS ’82, MBA ’85, another partner. “We hoped that by helping businesses understand their options, they would be able to make the best decisions possible to remain viable through and after the pandemic. This became larger than helping our clients—it became about helping a substantial part of the Western New York economy and community.”
On the other side of the globe, Grab—an app, similar to Uber, with 187 million downloads in Southeast Asia—adapted its business model quickly to changing needs. While stay-at-home orders negatively affected its ride-hailing services GrabCar and GrabBike, the company saw a spike in demand for its food delivery and telemedicine services. The app also launched new products: GrabMart, for delivery of daily essentials, and GrabAssistant, an on-demand concierge.
“Our immediate efforts focused on how we could ensure the well-being and safety of everyone in our ecosystem: our driver-partners, merchant-partners and customers,” says Ridzki Kramadibrata, MBA ’99, president of Grab Indonesia. “We are working closely with governments to keep our communities safe, while providing customers the essential services they need. That’s our main focus to keep business going during this pandemic.”
As life shifts to a “new normal,” Kramadibrata sees touchless technology—like cashless transactions, autonomous vehicles and biometric identification—becoming increasingly prevalent, and says Grab is well-positioned because of advancements made during the pandemic.
“Every sector has been impacted to varying degrees; travel and transport might get hit hardest, but telemedicine and e-commerce are gaining momentum,” he says. “As a super-app, there’s no dead end for Grab as long as we continue to listen to new market needs and evolve.”
With the crisis affecting everyone, communities have come together to support one another—and businesses have been part of the effort. (See sidebar for more ways alumni are helping out.)
When hand sanitizer starting flying off store shelves, Todd Snyder and Joe Nardecchia, BS ’03, sought to help meet the critical need. So, in addition to producing small-batch spirits at their micro-distillery, Niagara Craft Spirits, they started making hand sanitizer and giving it away for free.
Francine Brooks, CEL ’99, has completed multiple Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership programs, and was participating in the Class Connections program when the pandemic began. Right now, her business, FB Displays & Designs, would typically be producing exhibits and displays for companies headed to trade shows or conferences, but those projects were put on hold as events were canceled.
Instead, her facility is busy manufacturing face shields, sanitizing stations and safety barriers, along with banners and floor graphics for entrances, lobbies and work stations, so organizations can keep their employees and clients safe.
“We are working hard at being creative and agile while providing relevant solutions during this very unusual business climate,” she says. “As difficult as it is to wrap your arms around this reality, we all have to face it, and you might as well do it with style and pizzazz.”
Wesley Froebel, CEL ’19, pivoted both of his businesses: Big Ditch Brewing Co., where he’s a founding partner, and Minuteman Press, a Buffalo-based marketing services provider. At the latter, as companies slashed their marketing budgets, Froebel started printing more lawn signs to help schools celebrate their grads and businesses facilitate curbside pickup. In addition, he’s in a new market: custom face masks.
“During these tough times, we are putting our customers first with our philosophy that we ‘design, print and promote—you,’” Froebel says. “We will only be successful if we can help our clients and the community be successful.”
This spring, Danielle Hockwater, BS/MBA ’20, should have been celebrating graduation with her friends. Instead, she was preparing to enter the job market in a recession and watching as her father battled COVID-19. Thankfully, after days on supplemental oxygen, he recovered.
Instead of getting discouraged, Hockwater heeded the advice of her LeaderCORE™ coach, Professor Dorothy Siaw-Asamoah, who challenged her to see setbacks as opportunities.
She decided to launch her own business—and give back to the medical workers who were risking their safety to help patients like her dad. Through her Etsy shop, Divine Designs by Dani, Hockwater sells custom glasses, mugs and apparel, and donates 20% of the profit to WNY Feeds the Front Line. Within a few weeks, she had already turned a profit and wrote her first check to the foundation.
“What I learned is that anything is possible and hard work pays off,” she says. “I am forever grateful for this opportunity and excited to see where it takes me.”
Globally, countless School of Management alumni have shared their time and talent to help their communities in recent months.
In Buffalo, Wesley Froebel, CEL ’19, founding partner at Big Ditch Brewing Co., organized an initiative called Give a Pint to the Front Line, in which people donate gift cards for local breweries to health care workers—thus supporting small businesses and giving essential workers a well-deserved nightcap.
“We received our first donation within minutes of posting on social media,” Froebel says. “It’s been inspiring to see the community rally around our front-line workers.”
Over in Singapore, Andrew Tan, BS ’15, used his skills to help the UB alumni community. Tan, country manager for recruiting platform Wantedly, created #UBGotTalent in early April to connect job-seeking alumni with mentors and companies in Singapore. So far, he has engaged dozens of alumni and made several referrals, and hopes to expand the platform.
“In these difficult times, extending goodwill is more important than ever,” he says.
In these unprecedented times, the School of Management is a community—now more than ever—and we are here to support our alumni. You can: