Published: April 20, 2020 By

Crisis OpportunityAt CESR we are interested in the opportunities businesses have to make a positive impact on the communities in which they work. It has been incredible to watch as businesses of every size, and from diverse industries, respond to the COVID-19 pandemic with creative solutions designed to make the world a better place. 

In a recent article in Forbes, Erica Ariel Fox writes about how flexible work hours, working from home, paid sick leave, cutting carbon emissions by reducing commutes and air travel, and replacing competition based strategy with collective innovation, has all suddenly become the norm.  “The ‘moonshot’ dreams of social change that claim years – or decades - of debate in our congresses and parliaments and world bodies seem to have come to life overnight as the most forward-thinking corporate leaders embrace new ways of working,” she writes. 

We wanted to know whether local companies are seeing the same profound types of change, and how they are helping to lead the way. We also wondered if these changes are being seen broadly, or primarily in mission-oriented companies. So we spoke with two people from very different industries to explore the diversity of local responses to COVID-19.

Breakthru Beverage Group

Among local businesses changing the way they work is Breakthru Beverage Group, an alcohol distribution company. They are connected on the supply side to breweries, distilleries and wineries, and on the demand side to liquor stores and restaurants. They employ sales people and drivers. And their business has been deemed essential by public officials. While this is great news because it means they can keep their employees going, it also raises ethical issues they are working hard to address, in particular how to keep their business afloat while keeping workers safe.

Michelle Ried (BS Bus Admin, SRE, '10) Director of Analytics and Business Management at Breakthru and member of the CESR Advisory Board, explained that most of the ways they are used to working have had to change; from taking inventory, to putting products away, to helping customers find the beverages they are looking for. One adjustment they have made has been to stagger their hours so they are not in stores at the same time as most shoppers. Another more significant shift has been toward ecommerce. Since social distancing was implemented Breakthru has broadened the launch of an online ordering platform. In the first 48 hours after launch, 150 stores signed up.

Breakthru has also refocused their team on supporting customers. Only 15-25% of restaurants have transitioned to pick up and delivery services. To support these businesses, Ried says Breakthru’s sales teams have printed over 200 branded signs for restaurants to display saying they are open and advertising products that shoppers can buy with their meals, like pre-mixed cocktails. Breakthru is also distributing legally approved packaging for cocktails to restaurants, and offering pre-built visuals and marketing information that can be used on social media. Two sales reps have even created websites - in Fort Collins and Castle Rock- that list which restaurants are open and how to order from them. Retail sales folks are primarily commission-based so these strategies have allowed them to continue earning. For hourly workers like drivers, Breakthru has enacted a hazard pay system to help acknowledge the work they are doing during these extraordinary times.

On every level Breakthru is looking at ways to keep people safe. Their suppliers have a unique infrastructure and can create hand sanitizer, which many are now producing. Breakthru is delivering this critical product to food banks and essential workers.

These adaptations represent a huge pivot. Ried explains that the process has included executive coordination meetings 3 days a week for one hour each with over 20 cross-functional participants. At these meetings the team talks through everything they are hearing and shares best practices. It has taken courageous leadership and creative ideas from the ground up to transition to remote work literally overnight. Their industry is relationship based and keeping that at the core of all of their solutions has been the constant.

Empower Retirement

The second local company we spoke with is Empower Retirement, the second largest record keeper in the US, providing retirement service to 9.6 million plan participants. They are also working through the pandemic. They are a mission driven corporation: their goal is to make retirement accessible to all people, and one of their core values is “do the right thing.” Community has always been a part of their value system and employee engagement in giving back is very high.

Their Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) program is led by Angie Ruddell, Corporate Social Responsibility Manager, and a graduate of CESR’s Certificate in CSR program. It focuses on employee and community engagement using an associate-driven model. All Empower employees have 16 hours of paid volunteer time each year and Empower will match volunteer hours completed outside of work with financial support. Action committees also plan volunteer events and team building at each of their 5 offices.  The company matches associate’s donations of up to $5,000 a year. Approximately 1,000 employees take advantage of this program each year. In addition, Empower supports organizations whose boards their executives sit on through event sponsorship.

When COVID-19 hit, Ruddell started activating her professional network to solicit ideas on best practices and innovative responses. She then put together a proposal for her executive team which quickly approved it. She knew that she wanted to focus on how Empower could continue to support employees and the causes they care about. She also wanted to be personally accessible, so she set up a way for employees to ask for advice and meet one on one about how they can volunteer or ways to help those in need. The conversation from the beginning was how to get some immediate resources out, help each other, and do the most good. 

On the financial side, Empower spearheaded an initiative to waive fees on new loans and hardship withdrawals. They created a $250,000 fund focused on efforts like food banks, health care, the CO COVID relief fund being administered by the Mile High United Way, and the Boston Resiliency Fund. The idea was to invest in immediate needs, and in partnerships that built on existing relationships. In addition, Empower launched a 2x1 match of employee donations for 2 months. 

Empower has always offered work flexibility but now, 99% of their workforce is working from home. They even moved their call center to remote work. They had to get tech to the people who needed it and set up secure systems.

Empower is responding quickly to technological and work culture challenges, ensuring employees’ have access to what they need and feel connected to their community remotely. The company thrives on human contact and many of the things they value are now off limits. They have been working on new ways to support one another, connect and boost morale such as sharing pictures of at home work setups, and stories of employees who give blood or volunteer. 

These adaptations are so impactful in part because Empower had an existing framework for thinking about how to make a difference, what kinds of philanthropy it could offer and how to activate its workforce. The ways they have responded to the crisis are consistent with the kinds of programs they run already. This made the new urgency and emphasis easier to communicate and they were able to start making an impact quickly.


These two local companies seem to bear out what Fox is saying in her Forbes piece. Whether these changes will last is another question. Certainly Breakthru’s ecommerce platform has long term potential. For Empower, the investment in distributed IT will allow for ongoing flexibility. But while technology is helping solve some problems, and these businesses are adapting nimbly and supportively, everyone wants to come back together someday. 

We are living through a rapidly changing world, and what it will look like on the other side is anyone’s guess. We believe that the kinds of skills that business students who study social responsibility and ethics have will be more relevant than ever. The ability to grapple with complex ethical questions - such as balancing the economy and public health, personal freedoms and community safety - understanding employee-centered workforce policies and practices, and thinking about how to maximize in-person time while balancing that against the climate benefits of work-from-home and virtual meetings, are all the kinds of things sustainability professionals study. These are the skills increasingly that companies will need.

More Companies Stepping Up

Fred Rogers famously said “Look for the helpers.” This was one of a number of things he advised adults to do with children during a crisis (some of the others included turning off the TV and establishing a routine - advice we can probably all use, and are all struggling with these days!).  In Colorado, businesses aren’t waiting for the helpers. They ARE the helpers. Below are some of the companies we are aware of making a difference in our community. There are more every day as this situation evolves and our response to it grows.

Many local businesses are reorienting their workforce and production lines to meet critical needs:

  • OraLabs is producing 20,000 personal use hand sanitizers for first responders and up to 2,000 half gallon containers for hospitals
  • Greeley-based Genesis Plastics is making plastic medical face shields 
  • Zeal Optics is manufacturing face shields for doctors using its sunglasses technology 
  • Osprey has committed its’ pack repair team to sew fabric masks for healthcare workers
  • NCAR is making its supercomputers available to a consortium working on contact tracing
  • The hyper local Melanzana is making face masks

Other local companies are leveraging their brands to make significant donations

Some companies are focusing on employee pay, benefits and schedules:

  • DaVita extended employee benefits to include emergency paid time off, back-up child care support and financial assistance
  • Delta Dental of Colorado is providing employees with access to mental health services
  • Molson Coors announced they will increase pay to workers during this time
  • Vail Resorts announced that executives will forego pay during this time

And other companies have been lifting fees, building networks, and compiling best practices: