By Nithya Caleb
By Nithya Caleb
Vladimir Gendelman is the founder and CEO of Company Folders in Pontiac, MI. The company is an award-winning presentation folder printer. Gendelmanis is a thought leader in business marketing, and had published numerous articles in major publications, including Forbes and Time.
He fled from Kharkiv, Ukraine, with his family in the late 1980s with only a few hundred dollars in his pocket. He is now a U.S. citizen. Today, half of Company Folders’ staff is located in Ukraine.
Their team is mostly based in Kharkiv, which sits next to the Russian border. Gendelman has been consulting a retired U.S. Army colonel, and between his understanding of tactics and targets and Gendelman’s knowledge of the country and experience with this situation, he has been able to help guide the staff out of the city to a safer location. Unfortunately, one of their employees is caring for elderly parents in Mykolaiv, directly in the path of the Russian invasion. Vladimir has been and is working around the clock to help him and all of his Ukraine employees navigate this dangerously chaotic time.
The war in Ukraine is not a new situation for Company Folders. The company successfully navigated a similar situation when the conflict began in 2014. They had to abandon their base in Donetsk and figure out how to navigate their people through a dangerous situation. Thankfully, Company Folders rebounded and was also named one of Inc magazine’s 5000 fastest growing companies in 2015, 2016, and 2017. In an e-interview, Gendelman explains how his company is helping his staff.
Given that half of your employees are in Ukraine, how are you supporting them and helping them stay safe?
VG: The first priority, of course, is to get them to the safest places possible. From the beginning, we have consulted with a retired U.S. Army colonel, who has helped us understand military tactics and identify strategic targets. With this information, and my knowledge of the country, we were able to help direct most of our employees to safety. So far, one was able to cross into Poland. One will be in Moldova soon if all goes well. We got four employees out of Kharkiv, and one away from a strategic railroad bridge across the Dnipro River. We still have one employee in Mykolaiv, and we are working to help him get out.
After safety, we are concerned with making sure they have shelter and supplies. We have assured them that regardless of their ability to work while this is going on, we will continue to pay them. We are sending additional funds to anyone who needs them to get to safety. We don’t want anyone to stay where it’s not safe if it’s just a matter of money, and we want to make sure they have everything they need.
And, of course, this is a horribly stressful situation, which is changing every day, so we want to provide support. We are maintaining several communication channels in case one goes down. I speak to each member of our Ukraine team at least once a day and I am in constant contact, messaging throughout the entire day. I am trying to help them keep up the hope, telling them that this will end and just focus on getting through it.
What are their needs now? Do they have enough essential supplies?
VG: When the invasion seemed imminent, we encouraged everyone to stock up. We have also sent additional funds to make sure they have everything they need. Right now, our employees are fine.
How can companies aid their Ukrainian employees?
VG: First, they must help them get to safety. If they can provide advice about where to go and money to help them get there, that is number one. Or, if they are somewhere safe, make sure they have money to buy essential supplies. Second, reassure them that their jobs are safe and that even if they have to flee or if their electricity or internet goes down, and they can’t work, they will be paid. Third, stay in touch. People are terrified and stressed out, worried about their parents and their kids, and messages and phone calls from colleagues are helpful.
What did you learn from your 2014 experience and how differently are you handling the current situation?
VG: The key thing we learned in 2014 is how fast things change. For example, we don’t know if the banking system in Ukraine will go down. So, in addition to the financial support we’re providing for our staff to get to safety, we’ve offered anyone who needs it, an advance on their salary. Also, we learned to listen to our team there – they know what they need better than we do, and we make a point of getting them whatever they ask for.
How are you managing to keep running company operations given that half of your staff are in a war zone?
VG: The Ukraine staff are able to work some of the time, so some of their tasks are getting done. For those who can work, it’s good for them to have a distraction from what’s going on there. We have shifted some work to our U.S. team. Fortunately, the part of the team that’s had the most trouble with internet and other issues is our software programmers, and although we lose opportunities by not being able to continually improve our website, it does not affect our day-to-day operations.
This must be stressful to you and employees outside Ukraine too. What steps are you taking to help address your mental well-being?
VG: It is horrible to see people you care about going through this. I feel very much responsible for our employees. I am trying to stay calm and get enough sleep, so that I can provide support to everyone else. Like many companies, this company is like a family. Many of our Ukrainian staff have been with the company over 10 years. Some of our U.S. staff have been to Ukraine. People are close and they really care, and they feel a little better if they know what’s going on. So, the primary thing we’re doing for our U.S. staff is providing regular updates on the safety and well-being of the Ukraine team. Earlier this week, we had our regular staff meeting with everyone who was able to log on, partly because we’re still running a business, but also for people to see each other and connect.