As the coronavirus pandemic is on the verge of stretching into 2022, local leaders have adapted in unexpected ways to the hurdles and difficulties that COVID-19 presented.
One of them, Springfield-Greene County Health Department Director Katie Towns, is among those who’s been on the front lines in response against the virus since early last year. Looking back on the initial days of the pandemic, Towns – then the department’s assistant director – says the biggest challenge for her and the health care agency was the unknown.
“We all were just sort of learning together because this was a novel respiratory virus,” she says. “We’ve had to really lean on each other and dig deep and find the way that we’re going to continue to pull from the depths of our abilities to have that commitment to do what needs to be done to help our community.”
Stay-at-home orders, face mask mandates and vaccinations were part of the actions government and health care leaders ordered or recommended in response to COVID-19. For Towns, her leadership role has expanded amid the pandemic. She initially was named acting director in February following the retirement of Clay Goddard. In July, Towns was permanently named to the director of health position.
In her new post, Towns says she is a collaborative leader who wants to surround herself with people who have different skill sets and expertise that can challenge her assumptions.
“I don’t believe that in my position I’m the smartest person in the room,” she says. “I am oftentimes just the person who can and is charged with taking in all of the information and making a final decision. That’s my job, to make a final decision and recommendation to people who are charged with creating policy or making bigger decisions than I do.”
Rob Blevins, executive director of the Discovery Center of Springfield Inc., knows about big decisions. The educational science center that he leads briefly closed in March 2020 only to quickly reopen less than a week later as a licensed child care facility. Child care and educational programming were temporarily offered for children of health care workers and first responders at the nonprofit’s 60,000-square-foot building. Blevins says the idea was hatched after a conversation with Towns about community child care needs.
“They needed a backup plan for their health care workers. That’s where we came in,” he says, noting he made the decision after taking a staff vote. “We decided we’re going to keep kids in person and find a way to still deliver hands-on learning. … We made those adaptations.”
As the Discovery Center continues its Academy of Exploration, a magnet school in partnership with Springfield Public Schools, the nonprofit in August 2020 also launched Discovery School at the Center, a private institution that focuses on science, technology, engineering and math programming. Between the two schools, Blevins says the Discovery Center serves roughly 100 students.
When the museum fully reopened to the public in July 2020, child care and school areas were separated from the remainder of the building. However, he says the pandemic impacted 2020 attendance figures down roughly 25% from a year prior, Blevins says. It’s still down about 20% this year from 2019 totals, he says, declining to disclose totals.
“We’ll see how much we can catch up in the last few months,” he says. “We’re definitely in a catch-up game.”
Blevins says he gains inspiration from reading books about leadership, such as “Leaders Eat Last,” by Simon Sinek. That reading interest has paid dividends during the pandemic, as Blevins says he’s learned to better navigate crises.
“You have to be a selfless leader because everybody needs you to remain confident,” he says. “They need you to remain in control and providing directions. They need you to not ever give up.”
As CEO of SMC Packaging Group, Kevin Ausburn has led the company for nearly 20 years. Ausburn says the pandemic has intensified hiring struggles for SMC, which manufactures corrugated packaging, protective shipping cartons and packaging supplies. However, an October hiring event resulted in 14 new hires, getting the company close to 375 employees locally.
“It’s such a moving target and volatile thing,” he says. “It’s a tough environment out there to find quality people that we’re looking to put on our team. It didn’t used to be that way.”
As the pandemic started last year, SMC was in the midst of consolidating some of its operations in the Springfield area through a multiphase, $18 million expansion to its Partnership Industrial Center plant. The capital project finished on schedule last year – a relief to Ausburn, as the company saw business increase because “everybody was ordering online,” he says.
“It was perfect timing for us. If we hadn’t had that increase in our capacity and ability to produce, we wouldn’t have been able to handle the surge of business that we experienced last year and has continued into this year,” he says.
While declining to disclose revenue, Ausburn says order volume increased 8% in fiscal 2020 over the previous year. Fiscal 2021, which runs through October, is up 20% year over year.
Ausburn says consistency and honesty are characteristics he believes every leader should have, noting it has served him well when dealing with SMC employees – particularly during the uncertainty of the pandemic.
“It’s important to a be a bit predictable,” he says. “They should have a pretty good idea of how we’re going to respond to different situations.”
At the Health Department, Towns says her new leadership role already has provided takeaways when dealing with professional challenges.
“I’ve learned there are always going to be opportunities to find the silver lining and carry that to the next phase of a dire situation,” she says. “Use those things to lean on as you continue to figure out how to draw strength and courage and determination to continue.”
Read the profiles of this year's honorees.