Though Washington residents remain hunkered down in their homes amidst Gov. Jay Inslee’s Stay Home, Stay Healthy order, emergency home repairs continue to be necessary.

Refrigerators will continue to fail, pipes will continue to leak, and water heaters will continue to need repairs or replacing.

That is where many local companies with skilled installation and repair technicians, like Bothell-based Fast Water Heater Co., come in. Fast Water has been around since the mid-1980s, providing service across western Washington and parts of Oregon and California.

We sat down with Fast Water CEO Jason Hanleybrown recently to find out how the company is protecting its more than 130 employees and its customers during the pandemic, how it has pivoted parts of its operation, and how it is actively working to come out of this time ahead of its competition.

When did you first realize that COVID-19 was going to impact your business?

We got a little bit lucky because I have a really close friend who I visited with over mid-winter break (in mid-February). He’s Italian, his whole family (lives in Italy) and he basically told us, “No one is taking this thing seriously; it’s really bad and really crazy.” The Monday after mid-winter break, I sat down with our CFO and our director of operations and basically said, “This thing could be bad; let’s brainstorm what the worst-case scenarios could be.”

What were the first steps you took to meet the coming storm head-on?

By Tuesday or Wednesday (of that same week) we had ordered a bunch of personal protective equipment. We ordered P100 masks — just the classic 3M masks that you’d use in construction with filters. We did also get a supply of hand sanitizer and Lysol wipes while they were still available. And the second big effort was around our support center in Bothell — it’s about a 20-seat call center. Funny enough, we’ve had remote worker capability, but we’ve never used it. There was some equipment we had to order and some licenses we had to get, so we got all that in place. It took us about ten business days to get everyone set up to be able to work from home but still be in the call center system. I would call all this “stage 1,” and I would describe it as “defense.”

In what ways have you seen the greatest impact to your business?

We’re (operating) at about 90 percent or so, but the softness that we’re seeing is because we do both residential projects — most of the residential work we do is unplanned emergency — and (work we do) with property management companies. Some of that is emergency, but a lot of that is replacing equipment in multifamily condos or apartments and that project work has dried up. So that’s the part of our business that has been the most impacted.

In what ways have you found you have been able to innovate and pivot?

As part of COVID preparedness, we kept brainstorming different things. Like, it’s really hard to get hand sanitizer for example. So, we happened to find a marketing company that did promotion giveaways that had these 1-ounce bottles of hand sanitizer so we bought 3,000 of them because we couldn’t find hand sanitizer through regular channels. So, we got creative about that. Two weeks ago, we thought, “How can we do cheap handwashing stations?” So, we figured out you can get camping bottles for $7. They can put those on the lift gate of their truck and turn it into a mobile handwashing station. 

What steps have you taken to equip employees for working with customers in their homes?

For one thing, we spent a lot of time initially figuring out what is the safety equipment (our employees) need and then doing training about how to properly wear a mask; making sure they have protective glasses. Then we also gave them guidance about how to talk to customers (with masks on). It’s a 3M mask with two big pink filters on them. Think more, World War I soldier and less nurse. So we kind of gave them talking points about how to talk to customers to not freak them out while wearing what kind of looks like a gas mask.

If (employees) have (a customer) that is high risk and, say they need to get a signature on something, they’ll socially distance. Sometimes they’ll even talk to the customer on the phone even though they’re at the house. And if they need a hard signature, they’ll leave the paperwork on the doorstep for them to sign and if it’s someone who may or may not be high risk, they’ll leave them a little 1-ounce bottle of hand sanitizer for them to use after they sign. That’s the type of stuff we’re doing to protect customers.

One might imagine it could be hard for employees to venture into strangers’ homes to do their jobs at this time. What is one way you’re keeping your staff motivated?

(Letting them know) our purpose is more important than it used to be. I mean, you need hot water to stay clean. So, we’re really kind of making people understand that we’re not just selling water heater equipment, what we’re doing is now really important for health, safety, and hygiene. We’re not just making a buck; we’re actively contributing to the welfare of the community. So, we’re talking a lot about that and why it’s important.

What are some tips you have for business owners during this time?

With your direct team, it’s really important to over communicate. No one ever said, “I quit this job because the people at the top over communicated.” This is one of those times you want to do that. I had a call with my direct reports this morning and I spent the first 15 minutes of the call asking them what’s the hardest thing about this and what’s going on. I do that more than I otherwise would right now. And I’m encouraging them to then do the same with their teams and I’m hoping that cascades down.

Also, once you’re through that defensive posture, I think it’s important for businesses to pick something to rally around. And think about what you can do in the next eight weeks that prepares you for business post COVID. What can you do that not just helps you survive, but helps you to thrive later?