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Columbia Business Monthly

CEOs with Covid: Managing Through the Coronavirus

By Liv Osby

Jon Musselman’s general contracting company was managing the construction of several commercial projects in the Lowcountry when the coronavirus first hit.

Suddenly, some of those contracts were canceled and others were put on hold. Employees were sent home to work remotely. No visitors were allowed in the office.

After coping with supply chain challenges, and infections and exposures among subcontractors that forced some projects to shut down, the company came back to full strength last fall. 

Then in January, Musselman, 51, got Covid. And it was back to quarantine and other 2020 Covid protocols.

“We were only a week in from the holidays when I came down with it,” said the president of J. Musselman Construction in Charleston. 

“Now I’m looking at the Delta variant and wondering if we’ll have to use the same protocols in the next couple of weeks.”

Curtis Nesbitt tested positive at the end of July after returning to South Carolina from a two-week family vacation in the Bahamas. 

The founder of Blue Sky Specialty Pharmacy in Mount Pleasant had tested negative when he left the Bahamas on a Friday. But he began feeling sick over the weekend. 

“By Monday, I had an extreme headache and flu-like symptoms. So I knew I probably had it,” he said. “I was on vacation for two weeks and then out another two weeks.”

Fortunately, both men had relatively mild cases of Covid.

But having had the virus has given them new perspectives about health, and about running their companies. 

In business since 2006, Musselman said his company serves as general contractor for industrial and commercial construction projects from medical offices and retail establishments to churches and other facilities, like the newly renovated Folly Beach City Hall.

“We were running very hard and busy … when Covid hit,” he told Integrated Media, publisher of Greenville Business Magazine, Columbia Business Monthly and Charleston Business Magazine. 

“We had to quickly adapt.”

The company employs 14 management and administrative staffers and has more than 100 subcontractors at work sites on any given day, he said. 

Three higher-risk employees were sent home immediately, he said, while the rest figured out how to work remotely. A few set up a schedule to rotate through the office to maintain social distancing while keeping the projects they had going.

Then the economy tanked.

“Everybody was shutting off spending,” Musselman said. “Medical clients canceled several projects on us, and others were put on hold.”

There were also scares, particularly early on when less was known about the virus and timely, accurate tests were hard to come by, he said. 

One job site was shut down when someone who’d flown in for a day learned that an immediate family member in another state had tested positive, he said. And when subcontractors tested positive on other sites, he said, they had to be isolated and quarantined. 

Supply chain issues were another obstacle, he said, adding that one painting contractor had to drive to four stores to get 17 gallons of paint while another had to drive to Columbia to find it.

But at least the company didn’t have to lay anyone off, he said. And while business was off from 2019, a backlog meant that the financial impact was less than it might have been, he added.

Business began to rebound last fall, he said, and the staff came back to the office. Less than three months later, Musselman got what he thought was a sinus infection, then tested positive for Covid.

“Compared to some of the stories I’ve read, I had a very mild case,” he said. “I had a fever for three or four days. But the big thing for me was general exhaustion. Physically, I was not able to go an entire day without a nap … and then I’d be back in bed at 8:30 at night.” 

The exhaustion, which lasted a month, was his biggest challenge running the business, that and quarantining at home.  

But like the company had done 10 months earlier, it adapted. 

“We did have to quarantine and we went back to Covid protocols of April and May (2020) … for the better part of six weeks or so,” he said. “You need to be flexible and to evaluate (the situation) and change direction as needed.” 

Launched in 2015, Blue Sky expedites prescriptions for biologics and other medications for people with chronic diseases, then ships them to about 500 patients a day, Nesbitt said. 

Licensed in all 50 states but heavily concentrated in the Southeast, it has 85 employees, including 18 sales representatives in the field, and annual revenues of $350 million.

During 2020, he said, about 20 employees shifted to remote work while others operated with special Covid precautions – daily temperature checks, universal masking and desks spaced apart from one another, he said. 

But the company never shut down, said Nesbitt, 51.

Over the course of the year, about 10 employees wound up with Covid and were quarantined, he said. All others were monitored through testing.

“It’s an extremely serious disease,” he said, “and we’ve taken it very seriously from a company standpoint for sure.”

But although companies everywhere were shutting down and shedding workers, there were no layoffs, he said. In fact, Blue Sky began hiring, adding new technology and expanding its territory, eventually doubling its business. 

“We were blessed,” he said. “Other people have not been that fortunate.”

Between vacation and Covid, Nesbitt was out of the office for a month. He handled some critical business decisions remotely, but he credits his “amazing team” and the leaders at Blue Sky for keeping things running smoothly. 

Beyond that, being away from the team has been the hardest part of having Covid, he said.

“With the whole Covid thing, we’ve kind of gotten used to working remotely,” he said. “But my favorite thing is coming in and talking to everybody on the team and I miss that. Being gone for a month was the toughest thing.”

Nesbitt said about 70 percent of his employees are vaccinated, but that he hasn’t mandated vaccination because it doesn’t fit the culture at Blue Sky.

“That could change,” he said. “Because if this thing spreads like it could, half the company could be out with something that clearly, if you’re vaccinated, will help. It’s a struggle where to fall.” 

But he thinks some of the new restrictions will prompt more of his employees to get vaccinated.

For example, Nesbitt said, before the vaccine he paid for the time that quarantined people had to be out. Now, if unvaccinated employees have to be out, they need to use their own PTO.

And in addition to daily temperature checks, masks are required in the pharmacy and everywhere else for the unvaccinated, though those who’ve been vaccinated can work without masks at their desks, he said.

“There is still apprehension (about the vaccine) among some, but I do think the Delta strain, and putting together new (protocols)… will drive some people to get vaccinated,” he said. “These have been uncertain times for sure. And having it (Covid) really does give you … a lot of empathy for what our teams are going through, the anxiety they have when they have it.”

Though Nesbitt, his wife and eldest son had been vaccinated before vacation, they all came down with the virus along with the three boys who hadn’t yet been vaccinated, he said.

“We should have been wearing masks at some of these activities we went to,” he said. “It was a learning experience.”

Still, he said, he’s optimistic about the future, just that it may be a different future.

“I told my wife I don’t want to go on vacation again until this is controlled,” he added. “But this may be here forever. Our new reality may be that we may need to wear masks, and do other things, and get used to it.”

Musselman said he and two others in his office got sick just as the vaccine was being rolled out to the elderly population. So he wasn’t yet eligible. 

He also didn’t mandate the vaccine, but “gently encouraged it,” he said. And now everyone is vaccinated, he said, unless their personal circumstances or health conditions prohibit it.

But with the much more infectious Delta variant now circulating, he wonders if he’s in for a third wave of business disruption. While one employee is quarantining after a member of his family was exposed to someone who tested positive, he said, currently everyone else is healthy and working in the office.

“Well,” he added, “at least for the moment.”