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The Coronavirus Economy: A new CEO on transitioning to a remote workforce based in Italy and the U.S.

April 20, 2020, 5:00 PM UTC

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Previously the chief marketing officer at Kate Spade, Mary Beech joined the Sarah Flint team in February as a first-time CEO.

But within just a few weeks, the realities of the new coronavirus became devastatingly apparent in Italy, where Sarah Flint’s entire supply chain is based. Soon thereafter, as the outbreak proceeded to spread in the U.S., Beech had to transition the team at its headquarters in New York City to working remotely while staying focused on brand preservation and expanding business for the aspirational fashion brand founded eight years ago and which has since become popular with royals, Hollywood stars, and prominent businesswomen and activists.

Fortune spoke with Beech for a new series, The Coronavirus Economy, to ask about how the outbreak of COVID-19 has affected her team and her plans for the company, and to get a sense of how she has been handling this news, both emotionally and financially.

Mary Beech joined the Sarah Flint team in February as a first-time CEO.
Stacie Flinner

Fortune: How does your business normally fare this time of year? What would an average day at the office look like?

Beech: We’re in the midst of our spring launches. Sarah Flint has several new styles debuting this season, and we were able to get the majority out of Italy and available to consumers on our site.

I had only been working at Sarah Flint for three weeks prior to work from home, so an “average” routine hadn’t quite fallen into place. Prior to COVID, I spent my days partnering with Sarah, our small (but amazing) team, and our investors on how to grow this brand to the next level. With COVID, it was an immediate focus shift to the health and safety of our employees and to business preservation actions.

When did you realize that COVID-19 would affect your business? How has it, so far?

In late February, my second week in the role, we realized Italy would shut down. Sarah Flint shoes are handmade in Italy, and most of the artisans we work with happen to be located in Lombardy, perhaps the hardest-hit area within Italy.  While all eight of our factories have temporarily closed, we immediately began contingency planning and were able to air ship product (versus boating) to ensure we had newness for spring.

We didn’t feel the impact on the consumer side until Thursday, March 12. That’s when many offices in the U.S., including ours, began working from home, and the dangerous extent of the virus in our home city, New York, and across the U.S., became clear. Our biggest concern was our team and our partners in Italy. Thankfully everyone is well, healthy, and staying home. My main memory of those first few nights was this enormous surge of passion for our team and artisans, for Sarah, and for the brand, mixed with this clarity around the analytics of the business and where I needed to focus to ensure we could stay operational.

Have you and your employees continued working from home? What kinds of tools and strategies do you use to work and communicate remotely?

Yes, we are all working from home for the foreseeable future. Our team is phenomenal, committed, communicative, and passionate. We start each day with an all-team Zoom, and it is my favorite 20 minutes of the day. Two days a week, it’s a business update with financials and announcements. Clear, frequent, and transparent communication is key. We start those meetings reading a recent email from a customer to keep us grounded and inspired.

And three days a week, a few team members share how they are doing and answer a question such as, “What have you learned about yourself while working from home?” We’ve done an all-team virtual cocktail party and are big fans of Zoom background–themed calls! We also ask employees to send their manager a list of their day’s priorities each morning. Sarah and I do it with one another, too.  It helps prevent the overloading of priorities and ensures we celebrate accomplishments. 

How have sales fared since the outbreak commenced? What are your day-to-day operations like at the moment?

In 2017, Sarah had the judgment to move completely out of luxury retailers and go direct-to-consumer. As a result, while sales are down since the outbreak of COVID-19, we are far better off than we would be if we were still in wholesale. Clearly, women working from home without events, graduations, weddings, and parties on their calendars have an understandably diminished need for luxury footwear. However, we switched our marketing focus immediately away from heeled styles to focus on our great work-from-home-friendly flats, sandals, and slides.

But we also focused on what we could do as a tiny, 26-person team to help. We’ve donated 25% of all proceeds to hospitals in the region of Italy in which most of our artisans live. And recently we did a campaign called #standinsupport where our customers nominated women working on the front lines of COVID to receive a free pair of our shoes. We had 400-plus nominations. We were overwhelmed by the generosity of customers but not surprised.

If your business has suffered, have you been pushed to make any budget cuts or layoffs?

Any leader right now needs to be focused first and foremost on business preservation and that includes actions to preserve cash. We have cut expenses in a thoughtful and deliberate manner, and senior leadership have taken pay cuts, but we have not had to lay off any of our staff. Thankfully, we were a lean team to begin with, and when the danger of the virus recedes, we will be able to quickly bounce back and be ready to continue our growth trajectory.  

Have you or will you be applying to the Paycheck Protection Program for assistance?

After thoroughly examining the details, we ultimately decided not to move forward with the PPP.  Although our business is significantly impacted by changes in consumer behavior, we are fortunate to have a strong brand and a growing customer base, as well as experienced and committed investors, so we don’t feel we are in the same position as many small businesses.

Mary Beech (left) with founder Sarah Flint in New York City.
Stacie Flinner

What are your plans for the business, short term and long term?

Short-term, we are focused on our employees and partners, enabling the longevity of our business, and providing empathy, moments of joy, and value to our customers.

Long term, we are focused on Sarah’s original vision: to be the next great luxury brand, but in a way that redefines luxury. Consumer expectations are dramatically altering, and we believe consumers will demand value alignment, transparency, quality, and actions for good from the brands they choose. I see this as a true opportunity.

On a personal note, how have you been faring amid all this?

My family and I are safe and well, and for that, I am incredibly grateful. I have enormous empathy for my teenage daughters, who are missing their friends, their after-school activities, and even milestones like eighth grade graduation. (An event I don’t even remember from my childhood, but is pretty important when you’re actually in eighth grade!)

But these are small sacrifices. I’m an optimist, so I’m trying to see the silver linings. I am connecting with friends and family far more often and sitting down to a lot more family meals. I used to travel extensively for work, as did my husband, so this is definitely the most consecutive time we have spent together in 20 years of marriage.

But more than anything, I just want the world to be well again. Our family has been able to take a few small actions to help others during this time, and it has truly fueled us. I am focusing on staying hopeful and trying to inspire and enable hopefulness in others.

More coronavirus coverage from Fortune:

—This famed economist doesn’t think we’re headed for another Great Recession
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—10 questions about the 2020 election during the coronavirus pandemic, answered
6 steps to sustainably flatten the coronavirus curve
—How hackers are exploiting the coronavirus—and how to protect yourself
—Hong Kong launches a surveillance operation to track suspected coronavirus patients
—Listen to Leadership Next, a Fortune podcast examining the evolving role of CEOs
—WATCH: The race is on to create a coronavirus antiviral drug and vaccine

Subscribe to Fortune’s Outbreak newsletter for a daily roundup of stories on the coronavirus and its impact on global business.