During uncertain times, like the coronavirus pandemic and its aftermath, leaders are looked to more than ever for guidance and direction. On a national scale, people look to the president and federal government to advise them on what is safe, lawful and required. Locally, people look to their employers and community officials on how to incorporate needed changes into their day-to-day lives, and for resources when they are met with challenges. In the business world, leading a company through a pandemic—something unprecedented that will likely affect the future of that company and possibly its employees’ livelihood—requires courage, not only to make the hard decisions, but also to make sure these decisions are carried out correctly.

But it’s a job that Nancy K. Schmidt, the newly appointed CEO of AIA Corporation, has deftly stepped into, setting precedence in two ways: she’s the first CEO to lead the Appleton, Wisconsin-based distributor through a pandemic, and the first woman to hold the position of CEO in AIA Corporation’s nearly 40-year history.  

Schmidt brings to the job 25 years of experience as a financial professional, and she’s spent the past two-and-a-half years with AIA, first as its vice president of finance and most recently as its chief financial officer; a role that entailed working closely with AIA’s marketing, operations, owner success, sales and technology departments. 

“I think the benefit of my background is I understand the organization as a whole, both internally and externally,” she says. “I’ve taken the last few years at AIA to understand the inner workings of the company and the industry.” As CEO, she plans to focus on continuing to develop the company’s existing services. AIA is comprised of a network of nearly 300 promotional products distributors nationwide. It provides these distributors with sales, marketing and technology solutions so they can better serve their clients. Some of the services that AIA will focus on, Schmidt says, are its in-house marketing programs, which are designed to help the owners promote their brands, website customization and company stores.

Becoming CEO during a pandemic certainly comes with challenges, specifically surrounding how to prepare and protect employees for what’s to come, but AIA has been dedicated to supporting its distributor network and employees alike. Prior to the stay-at-home order, AIA had its employees work from home for a day to identify any potential issues with working remote beforehand, which allowed for a smoother transition, Schmidt says. For distributors, AIA changed its marketing program and content so owner companies could let their customer base know that “we are here and that we care.” During the height of the demand for personal protective equipment, like face masks and gloves, AIA was ahead of that need and some of the distributors were particularly well-positioned to benefit from PPE sales. “It’s been an interesting time with the coronavirus, and I’ve been impressed with how versatile and strong the owner community is during this time,” Schmidt says. And in a move to provide distributors with new solutions to diversify their businesses, distributors are being offered the opportunity to partner with OfficeZilla, a distributor of business products, breakroom and sanitation supplies, which AIA acquired in 2018.

But above all, Schmidt says AIA remains dedicated to providing its distributor network with the same quality and standard of service as before the pandemic. “As I look at it, at the end of the day AIA is here for the success of the owners, and we’re going to retain that focus and make sure that we’re not only caring for the owners during this time, but continuing to look forward,” she says. “We’re going to stay focused on our technology, stay focused on our marketing offerings and continue to be that sales and marketing business partner that they so appreciate.” 

Looking at the industry as a whole, Schmidt describes the effects she’s seeing from the coronavirus as wide-sweeping. “The industry is facing a whole host of challenges, and what I’m seeing is that there’s such a diverse impact between owners, between customers, between suppliers, as some are hit very intensely, and some at the other end of the spectrum are being asked to operate above capacity and are doing really well with this change.” In keeping with the true essence of the industry, she’s also noticed a lot of partnership. “I’ve been impressed in the outreach of extension amongst our owner community to contribute hope and collaboration,” she says. 

But like many other industry pros, Schmidt believes the pandemic will forever change the landscape of the industry. “I think, with or without the return of COVID-19 in the future, society is going to be ultra-sensitive to the common cold and the annual flu, and I think this experience is going to change how business is conducted for a long time to come.” In the industry, it’ll create new challenges, particularly in terms of events and event planning, she says. “They may not hold events or transition to virtual platforms or [make them] smaller in size to accommodate economic constraints and social distancing.” She adds, “This industry is built on creativity, and I believe AIA and the industry as a whole will adapt, and we’ll thrive in the new normal.”  

Looking ahead, Schmidt says this a good time for businesses to redesign or reinvent themselves to best prepare for any disruption that lies ahead. “The pattern that you see happen is that when times are good, we fail to see or utilize our resources to the maximum capabilities, so now is a time to look at those things and be creative, and think outside the box...” She adds, “Stabilize your business, build resilience and then adapt to a new reality. There will be exciting times to come.”  


Danielle Renda is associate editor of PPB.