The Biggest Lessons Westchester Executives Learned During COVID-19

We asked executives and business owners across Westchester to share reflections on their experiences during the COVID-19 crisis. Their inspiring words on how they dealt with the challenges posed by this global pandemic are rich and varied, but all show one thing: The business community here remains determined not to let a virus shut Westchester down for the long haul.

Rely on Your Team

The most important insight during this pandemic has been to recognize and appreciate the talents that other key members of your team possess, and to rely on their advice, shaping policy as a group. There is too much that can’t be known by any one individual when we are in uncharted waters; relying on gut instinct, or to take on the “ultimate leader decides everything” strategy, is foolish and potentially fatal.

Further, experts do disagree, even when they have equivalent credentials and experience. I have seen how critical it is to create policy blending the realities of public health, law, operational limitations, available finance, and the resources of manpower. No one thing prepares you for a moment like this.

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Perhaps, flexibility and adjustment to facts on the ground become the most valuable assets to possess.

—George Latimer, Westchester County Executive

Understand the Power of Alignment

During the pandemic, our team at Tompkins Mahopac Bank anticipated and received overwhelming demand for the vital Paycheck Protection Program and needed to quickly assemble a team of people to process, approve, document, and fund the loans to keep our local small businesses afloat.

We immediately had a surplus of volunteers from our staff, who, over the course of several weeks and weekends, worked around the clock to ensure that our customers did not get shut out of the limited government funding. To me, this demonstrated the power of having your team aligned along a clear company mission and the importance of articulating our values regularly to new and existing employees. This creates a company with a shared vision, united by a passionate and engaged team.

To see the pride our employees took in serving others and getting needed funds to customers during this difficult time was extremely gratifying.

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Gerald J. Klein Jr. President and CEO, Tompkins Mahopac Bank, multiple locations

Be Ready for What’s New

During difficult times, the role of business organizations becomes even more relevant. Businesses look to the BCW for information, connections, guidance, and opportunities; we had to be ready to immediately pivot to new roles.

Resiliency was key. Our business community proved that we are all able to adjust to new technologies, to working from home, and leading from a distance in new ways…. We have also seen companies start new lines of business during this time. Entrepreneurs can find meaningful new routes to meet the new needs….

Finally, the networks previously made have paid dividends. We were able to compare notes on regional, state, and national levels, to provide the most up-to-date resources for our members on all levels of business, government, and community.

—Marsha Gordon and John Ravitz, President and CEO; Executive Vice President; Business Council of Westchester, Rye Brook

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Support, Communicate, Thank, and Renew

This has been a time of both great challenge and wonderful inspiration. The four principles that have helped us through this period are: First, support your staff by giving them the tools they need to do their jobs safely under unprecedented circumstances.

With the right tools, their dedication will come through, and they will figure things out you never could. Second, communicate. Tell people what is going on and what you can do and what you can’t. In these situations, you cannot overcommunicate: People will welcome hearing from you frequently and frankly.

Third, thank your staff. They are doing heroic work and need to know you recognize and appreciate that. Finally, take a break. No one can go full speed forever. After you have gotten through the deepest part of the crisis, take time for yourself and encourage your staff to do the same.

—Seth Diamond, CEO, Westchester Jewish Community Services, Hartsdale

Serve Your Community

It takes a village to get through a pandemic; this crisis has reinforced the importance of community. As a leader, I have been able to reach out to my entire community to support the needs of students, families, and staff. The issues have been complex, but as a group, we are going to come out of this stronger.

This crisis has also taught us more about our residents’ needs and wants, and the need to use the strong relationships our different groups have to make sure we were able to get the information we need to our families and students.    

—Dr. Raymond Sanchez, Superintendent, Ossining Union Free School District

Always Do the Right Thing

As a business owner in this type of unprecedented situation, you have to do what’s right. I made sure to connect with my team, to check on them and make sure they were doing okay physically and mentally.

Same thing goes for my clientele: I checked in with them, sent out emails to let them know how much we value them, and created an incentive for when they come back. I had all Meg-a-Lashes calls forwarded to my personal phone, and I tried not to miss a single call. I did the best I could to answer any questions or concerns clients had and tried to be there for them as much as I possibly could.

Also, I learned to stop stressing and let go of things you cannot control.

—Megan Ryan, Owner, Meg-a-Lashes, Rye and White Plains

Make Strategic Decisions

The pandemic led me to a massive choice: Do I reopen my business when gyms are given the okay to open, or do I transform my services to meet the needs and conditions of the future?

Ultimately, I chose to transition from my brick-and-mortar location to personal online fitness coaching, as well as small-group personal training out of Iron Health Physical Therapy in Peekskill. In this transition, I learned how important it is to be decisive, how important confidence is in making decisions, and how important the delivery of your decisions are — especially when customers and employees alike are in a fearful and vulnerable state.

The leadership that it took to make and execute that decision successfully was crucial to keeping our community and culture thriving. We’ve maintained 50 percent of our members for online training and as potential members in Peekskill.

—Alina Pedraza, Owner, Fused Fitness, Peekskill

Share What You Know — and What You Don’t

The first casualty in any emergency is information. In the beginning, we didn’t know exactly what we were up against with this virus. The uncertainty was stressing everyone. 

People base their reactions on what people in roles like mine say, and they expect that their leaders and public officials know everything. It’s very tempting to try to meet that expectation. But it’s important to tell people what you do know and what you don’t know.

By building that trust and rapport through honesty, you’re recruiting them and educating them and helping them understand when to have concerns. That can only happen if you’re honest with your audience. Building trust has to be a philosophy, not just one event. Everything works better when you have open lines of communication.

—Dr. Sherlita Amler, Commissioner, Westchester County Commissioner of Health

Lean In

One of the most important guiding principles for me during the COVID-19 crisis has been something I learned as a runner: to lean in. Our basic instinct is to slow down during an uphill because it hurts and to pace ourselves during the downhill because it’s too easy to lose control.

But, indeed, the only way to have impact, to make a difference, is to embrace the chaos and lean into it. For me and my team, that meant working seven days a week and being flexible when new challenges or opportunities arose. The result was us being able to help tens of thousands of people in our community weather the impact of this crisis.

—Tom Gabriel, President and CEO, United Way of Westchester and Putnam, Hartsdale

Always Be Prepared

We knew it before, but the coronavirus brought it home: always be prepared for a crisis. Of course, no organization could have fully anticipated the impact of this novel coronavirus. But over the years, we have drilled for various emergencies and that served us well during the sudden onset of COVID-19.

We didn’t panic because we had emergency plans. Our staff was nimble. We had structure in place to immediately implement intensive training on virus protocols. We were able to go above and beyond what was expected in terms of health, safety, and communication. Being prepared gave us the freedom to develop new skillsets needed because of this crisis — in technology, virtual communication, and creative programming for our residents.

While crises are transient, organizational culture is not. Ours is one of compassion and collaboration, and that worked to our advantage.

—Rita Mabli, President and CEO, United Hebrew, New Rochelle

Teamwork Is Tops

Navigating this crisis was very hard in the beginning, but we decided to stay open, and that made our team even closer, like a family. We learned how important community is — and we proudly provided many meals to local first responders, who were so grateful. We learned to appreciate every single guest even more and are so thankful for the love and support they showed to our restaurant during these challenging times.

We also learned how to pivot our business and quickly create new offerings to support our establishment, such as virtual cooking classes, special promotions, such as our seafood night, an online gift shop with wonderful gift baskets, and more. These learnings will all certainly stay with our team for the long haul.

—Zarak Matija, General Manager, Dubrovnik Restaurant, New Rochelle

Strategic Staffing Is Key

I could not be prouder of our teams at NewYork-Presbyterian Hudson Valley Hospital and Medical Group. As challenging and daunting as this has been, our frontline caregivers and medical staff were selfless in their willingness to re-deploy to other areas — places they had never worked before — in order to help their colleagues care for critically ill patients.

And the thoughtful planning and strategizing of our multidisciplinary leadership team enabled us to create the additional capacity that was needed for our patients. I am grateful for this dedicated team of heroes here at the hospital and for the tremendous support from NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital.

—Stacey Petrower, President, NewYork-Presbyterian Hudson Valley Hospital, Cortlandt Manor

Take Advantage of Downtime

We took advantage of the “pause” to get our field employees trained and certified for several safety classes, including OSHA30, and encouraged all of them to do online educational training to enhance their professional development. We also had several executive team meetings to evaluate and improve our policies and procedures.

As a leader, I regularly communicated with our employees via video meetings, and I sent video announcements to put a human touch on information sharing, instead of emails. We also assembled a group of employees to volunteer for the United Way of Westchester and Putnam to help set up and deliver food in Putnam and Northern Westchester Counties.

By keeping our company together, communicating with each other, and bonding over helping the local community, our organization is closer and stronger than it ever has been.

—Bud Hammer, President, Atlantic Westchester, Bedford Hills

Get Lean

During the COVID-19 crisis we have learned, as an incidental but very welcome benefit, how to become leaner and more efficient in many of our processes and procedures. For example, we have substantially streamlined and automated many of our communications processes, from ingoing/outgoing mail to document exchanges with other attorneys and medical providers. This has allowed us to spend more time on core substantive work on behalf of our clients.

Also, our firm has taken advantage of this unusual time to finally take on the important, big-picture projects that never seemed to make their way off the back burner. The extra time while being on pause has provided us the opportunity to rethink the firm top to bottom and bottom to top, to gain perspective and to figure out what we are doing right and what we could be doing better.

Perhaps most importantly, we have refined the responsibilities and goals of everyone at the firm, lawyers and staff alike, to ensure that everyone knows what is expected of them on a day-to-day basis, without the need — or, for that matter, the ability right now — to have someone peering over their shoulder.

 —Daniel G. Ecker, Attorney and Partner, Lever & Ecker, PLLC, White Plains

Make It Timely

The biggest thing we learned during the COVID-19 crisis was the importance of timely action and communication. Immediately when the crisis started, Tarrytech designed and executed a work-at-home plan for our team.

Establishing our home offices early allowed us to stay safe and efficiently address the rush of support requests from our clients setting up their home offices. In addition, Tarrytech was in front of the curve in communicating our plans and status with our clients. This helped assure stability and confidence in having us as their technology partner when our support was critical to their operations. Communication with our team over the past few months has been important, as well. We hosted several virtual happy hours and online games to keep our team connected and engaged.

Tarrytech also leveraged the professional organizations to which we belong; these organizations provided tremendous insight, knowledge, support, and direction for our company, enabling us to fully service our clients, maintain the health of our team, and pivot our business for success in the COVID-19 landscape.

—James Kudla, President, Tarrytech, Elmsford

Helping Hands

Businesses across Westchester came together to provide support, assistance, and gratitude for essential workers on the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic. From donations of PPE and meals to parades to say thank you, the county’s business, nonprofit, and government sectors stepped up to show their appreciation.

A tribute parade on May 15 in Mount Vernon, led by Mayor Shawyn Patterson-Howard, honoring the frontline workers at Wartburg, a healthcare-and-rehabilitation campus.

COVID-19 antibody testing was provided to all Wartburg staff thanks to a partnership with The Mount Vernon Neighborhood Health Center.

Kings Capital Construction of Tarrytown donated and distributed more than 40,000 pounds of fresh produce with the help of White Plains mayor Tom Roach.

Tompkins Excavating donated a truck and driver to help Feeding Westchester meet its increased demand for food deliveries.

Inspiria Outdoor Advertising used a Port Chester billboard to recognize local healthcare and frontline workers across Westchester

At HudCo, members were encouraged to use its drop-off spot for food and PPE donations.

Million Air flew in 8,000 surgical respiratory masks and protective face masks for White Plains Hospital.

White Plains-based personal-care company, Combe, donated $50,000 for PPE, plus 10,000 units of hand sanitizer to White Plains Hospital at the end of May.

Dobbs Ferry-based Glam4Good provided hospital workers throughout the region with personal-care products to boost spirits and promote self-care.

Remain Positive

The impact of COVID-19 has been more devastating on the aviation industry than September 11 or the financial crisis of 2008. For me, the most important strategy was to remain positive and shut out all the bad noise of doom. As aircraft factories shut down aircraft production and deliveries, I learned about the value of relationships and the resilience of our industry.

I believe that as our country starts to move again, more people and companies will consider private jet travel, not only out of fear but because there is no other alternative. 

—Millie Becker, CEO, SkyQueen Enterprises,, West Harrison

Leadership Is Not Defined by Titles

We were only a week or so into the crisis when a reporter visiting our warehouse learned that our CEO had just left for a new job the Friday before COVID hit and that our interim director was on her way back to Tennessee and would be working remotely until it was safe to return. 

The reporter looked surprised and asked me, “How are you all doing this without a leader?” I looked at him and said that I didn’t know what he was talking about — I had a warehouse full of leaders. Leaders don’t need to be told how to respond to a crisis; leaders lean in.

And titles tell you nothing about a person’s character and capacity to get a job done. I’ve never been so proud to be part of a team of people who continue to move mountains together.

—Matt Honeycutt, Former Vice President, Development, Feeding Westchester, Elmsford

Expand Your Expertise

When you run an event-management firm, it’s pretty hard to hear the news that people are not allowed to gather and host events — even when you agree with and understand the decision. I was very concerned about my business and my ability to pay my staff and all of my event partners who were going through what I was going through. 

But I quickly embraced my “new normal.” I scheduled myself for educational webinars about what was happening globally in the event space. I spent five to six hours every day, learning everything I could about what’s next for events, how to plan events with social distancing (I purchased software that helps with floor plans for social distancing), and how to master virtual events.

On the public relations side, I figured out what people want to hear during these crazy times, and I went to work. We’ve picked up about seven new contracts in the middle of a pandemic, so I’m pretty excited about that. It’s going to be a tough year, but we’ll get through it.

— Chereese Jervis-Hill, Owner, Events to Remember, Mount Kisco

Make Technology Your Asset

The legal world is built on face-to-face communication, and that has been almost impossible because of the pandemic. Riebling & Payton, PLLC, knew it was time to adapt, and we did it by shifting our business strategy online. Need to speak with our lawyers? Now, you can schedule a virtual meeting in minutes.

Need a legal question answered? Now, anyone can message us on our website for an immediate response. We now know that technology is an asset in our industry, and we will continue to use technology to our advantage long after the pandemic is over.

—Stephen J. Riebling Jr. Attorney and Partner, Riebling & Payton, PLLC, Mount Kisco

Count on Your Strengths

During times like these, I am thankful that communication and operational transparency have always been a part of the leadership style at Westmed. Before COVID-19 was prevalent in our local community, we launched a virtual communication strategy that we felt allowed us to adapt to changing situations and transfer the newest information to the most people in the most rapid manner.

During the crisis, we held regular town halls and Zoom calls with our 500 doctors and 1,500 support staff on a weekly — and, when times called for it — daily basis. Obviously, this was key to getting important information to our frontline workers, but it also played a role in creating a sense of community and inclusion during a period that was hard on everyone.

 When you become the leader of a company, it’s critical to set up a team that you can trust will take action and implement critical decisions swiftly. Our ability to make these decisions quickly and decisively was critical and proved to be very effective. Times of crisis really bring out the best in everyone, and I was able to learn a lot from my colleagues and partners. I also observed our team’s ability to work even closer, even when not physically together, to ensure our patients still received their necessary care during a pandemic.

—Anthony Viceroy, CEO, Westmed Medical Group, Purchase

Deliver Transparency, Frequency, and Clarity

Being in New Rochelle as the epicenter at the beginning of the outbreak was a surreal experience, and yet it revealed the strength and resilience of our community. I was impressed and moved by the degree to which neighbors helped neighbors, nonprofit and community agencies stepped up to address human needs, and the great majority of residents coped with this abnormal challenge in a calm and measured way.

In a crisis, transparency, frequency, and clarity are all vital, as is modeling the calm and composure you are asking of others. Tone of communication is as important as the substance. It was important for me to be as open as possible with facts, be as available as possible to the community, provide context and perspective, and partner with other leaders. No one person can do it by themselves.

Also, this crisis renewed my faith in collective action: Not just in New Rochelle, but around the country, we have done things over the last few months that I would not have thought possible. Our entire society mobilized on a united front to overcome a single challenge. It was inspirational to discover that we are capable of acting together in that way when the stakes are so high.

—Noam Bramson, Mayor, New Rochelle

Look for a Silver Lining

Long before the coronavirus pandemic happened, I created for my business emergency plans for everything: from a fire to a subway strike (for my Manhattan location) to a public emergency like we’ve seen with the pandemic. I made sure that I had ways to be able to communicate with my staff.

And, as anyone in a leadership role knows, you need to lead by example and communicate honestly about emergency planning and everything else, as well. I laid out the landscape for my staff, so there were no surprises. It’s not going to be possible to bring everybody back at once; it will take time for us to rebuild the business. I respect the intelligence of everyone on my staff, and I’m not going to try to sugarcoat the situation or not tell the whole truth about that.

Sooner or later, the truth comes out, and if you lose the moral high ground, you cannot get it back. Also, I try to find the silver lining in everything. Will something good come out of this? Yes, absolutely. We will have a playbook in place, so if it happens again, we can handle it even better the next time.

—Bruce Schoenberg, Owner, Oasis Day Spa, Dobbs Ferry

Find an Opportunity for Growth

Though I have owned Bayside Travel for 33 years and weathered many crises — the stock market crash of 1987 (just a few months after I purchased the company), the September 11 attacks, and the recession of 2008 — I never used my crisis-management skills more than I have in the past three months. Since March when COVID-19 hit, travel ceased to exist; I had to close my office and quickly pivot to a new remote work life, including caring for employees’ emotional health and well-being. In partnership with my vice president of sales, I redefined employee functions, secured disaster financing, and established new efficiencies.

The most critical knowledge I’ve gained is how to turn a devasting crisis into an opportunity for growth, through reimagining the business and planning for a new future. I’ve learned that we can manage with technology efficiencies to work without paper, to communicate with the team effectively through conferencing, to find joy and a sense of pride and fulfillment when we counsel our clients through their disappointments over canceled honeymoons, family celebrations, travel dreams. We’ve learned how valuable we are as travel advisors during this crisis to clients, and to each other, as a cohesive team. 

—Barbara Nichuals, Owner, Bayside Travel, Bronxville

React Quickly

We all experienced the world turning upside down with the onslaught of COVID-19. Some of the lessons I personally learned include the importance of nimbleness and flexibility. We shifted all services and operational components of the Hudson Gateway Association of Realtors to a remote and virtual environment prior to the governor issuing the “pause” executive order back in March.

We modified our website within 48 hours to provide as a resource to our 12,000 members the most current news and information. We started a daily email update on all issues related to COVID-19 at a national, state, and local level, and that communication averages a 40 percent open rate. We shifted our educational classes and seminars from the classroom to a Zoom environment in a matter of weeks. 

I also learned to not take anything for granted. Preparedness is vital, and communication is the linchpin — both communications with our staff of 30 employees, as well as immediate and multichannel communications with our Realtor members.  

—Richard Haggerty, CEO, Hudson Gateway Association of Realtors, White Plains 

Always Be Open to Employee Ideas 

The key takeaway for me: Do not underestimate the capacity and resiliency of your workforce to step up and do what is best for the organization during an emergency. The Arc Westchester, with 850 essential employees, oversees homes supported by staff around the clock for the most vulnerable people with developmental disabilities, who, during the COVID-19 crisis, were at a disadvantage due to preexisting illness.

In the midst of activating our plans in response to the pandemic, several of our frontline workers decided it was best not to return to the comfort of their homes and requested to shelter in place [at their workplace], day and night, to ensure the safety of the people they care for given their fragile health and susceptibility to the coronavirus. This was an ideal solution as it limited exposure to the virus for our fragile people living in these environments and allowed them to continue to be surrounded by their trusted and caring staff. 

I learned it’s essential to ensure your work environment is open to ideas from all employees during critical circumstances. Create avenues to contribute that are easily accessible to your workforce and always recognize that your employees represent your foundation and provide you strength to overcome any crisis. 

—Tibi Guzman, Executive Director and CEO, The Arc Westchester, Hawthorne

Change Your Process  

In higher education, we thrive on research and analysis when making our decisions. In this case, we didn’t have the luxury of taking our time for either of those things. We had to act rapidly. We found that we could do a lot more than what we thought was possible, do it quickly, and do it well.

—Anthony R. Davidson, PhD, MBA, Dean, Fordham University School of Professional and Continuing Studies, West Harrison

Appreciate Employee Dedication

Throughout the crisis, I have been humbled by the unwavering dedication of our administrative and professional staff and volunteers, who continued to provide exceptional and compassionate end-of-life care to Westchester County residents diagnosed with any life-limiting illness. While government guidelines prevented us from offering our full range of compassionate services in our patients’ homes, patients and their families still received visits from our nurses and home-health aides, while social workers, spiritual counselors, volunteers, and bereavement counselors provided services via telephone and video.

I am reminded daily of our staff’s resilience and the importance of the work that they do, especially during this time of stress and isolation. As a result of their extraordinary care, our patients are able to remain safe with their families at home, as opposed to being admitted to acute-care hospitals, which were already stressed due to the pandemic.

Mary K. Spengler, MS, CEO, Hospice of Westchester, White Plains

You Can’t Do It Alone

At Regeneron, we’ve long embraced teamwork to solve tough scientific challenges and we believe overcoming the COVID-19 pandemic will require uniting the very best thinking from healthcare professionals, governments, regulators, and biopharma companies.

The solution to the COVID-19 pandemic is not going to be a single medicine by a single company — scientific advancements have always thrived under collaboration and this time is no different.

—David Weinreich, MD, MBA  Senior Vice President, Global Clinical Development, Regeneron

Trust and Communication Matter

Leaders build trust thimble full by thimble full over a long period of time. Asking your team, partners and customers to take leaps of faith during the COVID crisis took all of that built-up trust. But if we didn’t have that trust investment, we never could have responded as quickly as we did.

Trust mattered. Communications mattered. Those two together told us that community mattered. We have gotten through this crisis together so far. And we need to maintain trust, communications, and community to get through the rest of this crisis as well as the recovery that is coming.

—James Russell, CIO & Vice President for Digital Strategy and Planning, Manhattanville College, Purchase   

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