WHITINSVILLE — Amy Yag Sondrup’s stomach was in knots. She had spent a week going over org charts, circling the names of employees she could afford to keep. For three terrible months since COVID-19 blossomed into a global crisis early last year, she had held on while her business was being decimated. Now, in May, she had an agonizing task ahead of her.
The pandemic’s damage to businesses large and small was overwhelming and everywhere, but this was personal. It was her company, the one she had devoted her life to, the one her father had founded and built and then passed on to her.
The 175 people who worked for her — sales executives, carpenters, designers, accountants — were family. Some she had known all her life — or, as those people sometimes said when they saw her, lowering a hand toward the floor, since she was “this big.” Their labor had given her a privileged life. She felt a duty to support them.
But her company, Access TCA, sat directly in the pandemic’s destructive path. It catered to a niche in the marketing world — designing and building elaborate, interactive exhibits that biotech and pharmaceutical companies use at trade shows. It was a thriving industry, until the virus transformed large indoor gatherings into potentially deadly superspreader events. Almost overnight, Access’s livelihood evaporated.
Sondrup found ways in those early months to keep paying employees, telling them and herself that the pandemic would subside and business would rebound. But now, on this Monday morning, with money running out and no end to the pandemic in sight, there were no more options. In a few hours, she had to face her employees in a company-wide Zoom meeting and deliver the news: All but a few dozen of them would be furloughed.
She poured herself a cup of coffee, with French vanilla creamer, and ate a bowl of Crispix. Then she went into the room in her North Providence home she had recently converted to an office and opened her laptop. After a video call with department heads and another with the finance team, it was time. Sondrup hit the “launch meeting” button and watched the frames appear on her screen.
Her employees looked back at her from kitchen tables, living rooms, and basements, wearing sweatpants, drinking coffee, holding children in their laps.
Sondrup tried to comfort herself: They were well aware of the state of their industry. They knew the government loan now paying their salaries was about to run out. Surely, they knew the reason she had gathered them.
Still, as she took a breath to speak, she knew that for some of them, hearing the words out loud might be devastating — and it might also be for her.
Sondrup’s entire life was bound up in the company. Her father launched it the year she was born, in 1984, in a massive 19th-century textile machine shop in Whitinsville, a village in the Central Massachusetts town of Northbridge that was once a mecca of American industrial development. As a 5-year-old, she sometimes went to work with her father and fashioned an office for herself in a phone booth, punching numbers into an adding machine and imagining she was in charge.
In time, Sondrup was doing real work for the company, wiping down booths at convention centers and putting labels on newsletters. Later, she worked summers as a receptionist. Sometimes she came in on weekends to hang out in the graphics department, just for fun.
Sondrup was the oldest of three children and grew up knowing her father wanted her to take over the business. But then came college, and she ran the other way. She moved to Salt Lake City to study history, a long-time passion; she was fascinated by the impact major events had on societies and the people who lived in them. After getting her master’s degree, she stayed to teach at a small liberal arts college.
Then, when she was 25, she got a phone call from her father’s longtime chief financial officer. It was time to come back, the executive said. Her father wanted to start handing over the reins. She put it in terms Sondrup could not refuse: You owe it to your family.
Sondrup’s father, Mike Yag, asked her to try it for a year. If she didn’t like it, he said, she could go get her PhD. But when Sondrup walked back through the door at Access, she knew she was where she was meant to be.
Over the next five years, the boss’s daughter rose swiftly through the ranks; then, after a shakeup of senior management, she was in charge. She carried on some of her father’s traditions — Doughnut Day on the last Friday of the month and summer picnics at the lake — and created a few of her own, including Christmas parties at the bowling alley with nachos and beer. Her father remains CEO and chairman but is no longer involved in day-to-day operations.
As a woman and someone under 50, Sondrup, now 36, is an anomaly among her peers in the trade-show industry. She’s 5-foot-3 and famous around the building for her high heels. She has more than 200 pairs at home; a sign on her office door features a pair of sky-high Louboutins. And there’s always a bottle of whiskey on hand for anyone having a bad day.
After taking over, she quickly found success and rose in importance in the industry. Between 2017 and 2019, she grew the company’s revenue 35 percent and added about 60 employees. In 2020, she was selected president of the industry’s trade group, the Experiential Designers and Producers Association, the youngest ever to hold the position and the first to hold it for two terms.
Access TCA’s longest-serving employees — some of whom she worked side by side with, cutting and painting letters in the shop to prepare for the company’s biggest show of the year — told Sondrup they were proud of her, like fond aunts and uncles.
Then, in late February of 2020, the virus came.
Sondrup was in Düsseldorf, Germany, at the massive international retail trade fair EuroShop. The coronavirus until then had been mostly a distant concern, centered halfway around the world. But now, it was rapidly spreading in Europe, and cases were showing up in the United States. Before long, trade show exhibitors started pulling the plug. Trucks delivering exhibits were turned around. Booths were dismantled.
Design and construction work at companies like Access TCA soon came to a halt. At Access, layoffs and furloughs started within weeks: 22 people on March 12, then 20 staffers in Las Vegas, the nation’s capital city of trade shows, effectively putting the Vegas office into hibernation. Several smaller rounds followed. Each time, Sondrup thought she had cut her staff to the core. But then her finance manager would tell her she had to go deeper if she wanted to keep the company alive.
On the morning of April 3, Sondrup and her HR team went to the mammoth shop and warehouse where exhibits were built and stored, an almost 200,000 square-foot area at the far end of the building. The 50 shop workers knew why she was there.
Sondrup felt defeated as she stood on the worn concrete floor in front of a carpenter’s bench, an American flag and posters of retired employees hanging from the rafters nearby.
We’re initiating a relatively large-scale furlough, she told them, choking up as she spoke. We have to act swiftly if we’re going to survive.
The crew was quiet. Heat blew down from the ceiling ducts in gusts.
Rick Colarusso, an Access carpenter for 18 years, hugged her and told her he loved her. We’ll be back, he said.
By noon, the shop was empty.
Help came shortly in the form of a $2.9 million federal Paycheck Protection Program loan. Almost everyone went back on the payroll: designers who dreamed up high-tech exhibits, carpenters who built them, warehouse workers who crated and shipped them, client services staff who traveled with them all over the world.
It was enough to pay everyone through spring. By then, Sondrup thought, the world might almost be back to normal, or close enough, at least, for work to resume.
But as the weeks ticked by and restrictions showed few signs of lifting, Sondrup’s hopes dimmed. In mid-May, with the loan money nearly gone, she called the company-wide Zoom meeting to announce the gut-wrenching decisions she’d made.
She looked into the faces watching her from her computer screen and cut to the chase.
Look, here’s what we know, she said. We know there are no live shows on the calendar for the rest of the year. And that means we’re going to have to do another furlough.
One hundred and twenty-five of her 175 employees would be let go.
She called it a furlough because she didn’t want it to be, didn’t believe it to be, permanent.
I’m doing this, she told them, so there’s a company to bring you back to.
But there was no telling when or how her business would return. Before the pandemic hit last year, Access TCA had been on track to bring in an all-time high of $75 million in revenue. The revised figure after massive cancellations — and a pivot to virtual exhibits — turned out to be closer to $17 million. And 2021? No one knew. Some small shows are in the works for later this year, but industry experts say the big international expos that could revive a company like Sondrup’s aren’t likely to be back to full steam for another two years.
The 50 employees who remain on the job, people Sondrup calls “Swiss army” workers because they can perform multiple duties, are now largely consolidated on the third floor in one corner of the giant, otherwise mostly deserted complex. Many of them work reduced hours, making half or a quarter of their usual pay.
Sondrup couldn’t bear walking past all the empty desks outside her office on the first floor, so she asked three employees to move her desk— a massive steel welding table her father had topped with glass — to be closer to the others.
She keeps tabs on some of the employees she had to let go, particularly the ones in need. She put a number of them on the payroll at minimal hours, allowing their families to remain on the company’s health insurance on Access’s dime.
On company-wide Zoom calls every other Monday, she assures them she can right the ship. But there are some days when she just can’t — can’t be strong, can’t tell everyone it’s going to be OK.
She frets about what seem to her to be haphazard restrictions that allow shopping malls to remain open but cut off trade shows and similar corporate events. By one industry estimate, 50,000 people in Massachusetts’ business events workforce have been laid off and $250 million a month is being drained from the state’s economy. A nationwide study found that nearly 40 percent of business-events companies are at risk of going under.
The emotional exhaustion has driven Sondrup to take naps for the first time in her adult life. On stressful days, she drives 45 minutes to visit her young nieces and momentarily forget her troubles while they play with Barbies or watch “Moana.”
Sondrup believes the tide could finally be turning. Several clients have asked Access to build booths for shows in late summer, boosting several employees back up to full time, and a second PPP loan is awaiting approval.
But she often thinks of the Zoom call she held back in May, when she announced the layoffs and saw the hurt and fear in her employees’ eyes up close. There were husbands and wives who were now both unemployed; fathers and sons. Sondrup had locked eyes with one woman who had been at the company for 20 years. Sondrup used to sell her Girl Scout cookies and take candy off her desk. Now Sondrup was telling her that her livelihood, at least for now, was gone.
When the meeting was over, Sondrup felt shaky and slightly nauseous. Then relieved that it was over. She was glad to be alone. She made herself a sandwich, watched some Food Network, and took a nap.
When she woke, she wrote down the names of employees and their skills on brightly-colored sticky notes and started moving them around on the wall, imagining a company that would survive and one day thrive again.
She would hire back the people she lost. She had to find a way.
Katie Johnston can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @ktkjohnston.