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Is your business like a family?

What happens when a family member passes away?

The death of an employee, colleague, or friend at work is always a sad experience. What do the employees need when their teammate dies? How do you care for the employee's family beyond catering a celebration in memory of their loved one? Suppliers want to participate. How are clients feeling and what will help them feel secure? How do the owners of the company grieve and keep the business rolling forward? Who comes first?

I looked into our business plan, prayed, read HR manuals, and then just cried. There was no roadmap to "get through" the loss of Katie Rosenblatt. Katie was our super earner, our Senior Event Coordinator whose passion for off-premise catering defined a major part of our Festivities Catering brand in San Diego. We worked together for 24 years. Through thick and thin, fabulous parties and disappointments, our personal lives intertwined, where one moment Katie was like my sister and the next I was coaching her on her tone of voice in the warehouse! Last June Katie died from cancer.

What happened when our family member died? Imbalance. Grief was universal but unequal. The "let's get back to work" cheer was opposed by the "how can we move forward without Katie" question. As the leader of the company it was left to me to guide all of us through a terrible tragedy.

A missed step

Hiring a business crisis consultant should have been the first decision and investment made. A person in the office—guiding me and coaching others—would have led to better decisions. I now believe that an outsider who is not a part of our grieving would have provided the buffer that was desperately needed between my employees and me. I could not get my message across about the importance of continuing to work, earn money, and keep clients with us without being reacted to as an uncaring employer. I truly deserved the time to grieve the personal and professional loss of Katie but couldn't figure out how to do it.

Our clients were very kind and consoling; however, the door had been opened for them to try another caterer due to gaps in our sales force. Newer event coordinators were hired while Katie was out on sick leave—not to replace Katie, but to meet the needs of our clients. Yet, established employees were unwilling to train the "newbies." When Katie died, ugly competitive strategies were deployed by a few of our area competitors. It worked in some instances. Clients pulled back and made a different choice in caterer.

I did make a good decision by asking our marketing company to craft the messaging to our world. They took my words and wrote a different letter to each targeted group: employees, clients, suppliers, industry, and to the community at large. The written message was consistent, minimized incorrect information, and diffused bad assumptions. I personally called 100 clients and industry friends of Katie's.

Financially, the loss of our top earner proved devastating. For the six months while Katie was receiving treatment her team was extraordinary. They continued to sell and operate while believing that this was a short-term situation. Katie's team was on pace to meet their annual goals. When Katie died all the factors mentioned negatively impacted revenue. Having Key Person life insurance on Katie would have allowed for us to operate with less financial upheaval. It's a common practice for C level employees to have Key Person insurance. Why not key salespeople?


What I've learned

In life, loss happens: have resources at your fingertips.

Grieving is individual: allow time to pass.

Secure your revenue: insure key earners.

Some employees will have to leave after the loss of a colleague: encourage them.

Other employees will joyfully fill in the gap: promote them.

Clients will be loyal: reward them.

Some clients will waiver: remind them that your company will never let them down.

Be kind to yourself: remember happier times.

Rest in peace, Katie. 

Lisa Richards

Lisa Richards is a lifelong catering and events entrepreneur from San Diego, CA. In addition to her Cowgirl Q and Picnic People San Diego brands, she is also a member of the Certified Catering Consultants team, specializing in sales management and family business issues.