Supporting Frontline Workers in the Fight Against COVID-19: A Conversation with Jon Rennert, CEO of ZOLL Medical

July 15, 2020
In the feature article of this issue of Owner to Owner, Jon Rennert, CEO of ZOLL Medical, shares how ZOLL was able to quickly ramp up ventilator production to help fight COVID-19, what the future of the office may look like and leadership through crisis.

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in the U.S., companies across the country have stepped up to help support affected individuals, from frontline workers to patients. One such company is ZOLL Medical, a Massachusetts-based medical device manufacturer. While ZOLL’s core business centers around defibrillators, the company shifted its focus to a smaller segment once the crisis hit – its ventilator division, through which it has drastically scaled up production. We recently spoke with Jon Rennert, the company’s CEO, about how ZOLL was able to quickly ramp up ventilator production to help fight COVID-19, what the future of the office may look like and leadership through crisis.

Brown Brothers Harriman: Tell us about your personal and professional background. What road led you to ZOLL?

Jon Rennert: I received my bachelor’s and master’s degrees in engineering and started my career in aerospace engineering, working for General Electric and United Technologies. Eventually, I shifted into the laboratory and life science arena, which brought me closer to medical technology. I was recruited to join ZOLL Medical in 2008 as the head of what is now our resuscitation business, which produces defibrillators and is what we are best known for. I became CEO in 2016.

BBH: Talk about the history of ZOLL and how it has evolved to today.

JR: ZOLL has been around for almost 40 years. We were founded by Dr. Paul Zoll, a physician who in the 1950s was the first to externally pace and defibrillate the human heart. This invention, the external pacemaker, was the company’s first product. We’ve built off of that, and today we are the largest manufacturer of external defibrillators in the world.

Much of our advancements have been driven by critical innovation and the desire to help patients with better therapies. Sudden cardiac death is a big health problem. Every year, it costs hundreds of thousands of people their lives in the U.S. and millions around the world. But in many cases, it’s treatable if people can get rapid early defibrillation, high-quality CPR and good post-resuscitation care. There are a lot of lives to be saved, and ZOLL’s mission is to develop innovative technologies that help the clinicians, doctors and first responders who treat these patients improve the chances of survival.

BBH: How has your business been affected by and adapted to the current health crisis?

JR: As I mentioned, our company’s roots are in this narrow category of sudden cardiac death. As we’ve grown and invested in adjacent technologies over the years, we’ve broadened our focus to other acute critical diseases – those that are time-sensitive, meaning minutes or hours may matter, and critical, meaning they are life-threatening. Beyond sudden cardiac arrest, we’re now focused on other conditions such as acute heart attacks, heart failure, stroke and sepsis. That’s where COVID-19 comes in. It’s a life-threatening, rapid-onset disease that has huge numbers of affected patients, so some of the same technologies that are useful in cardiac arrest or heart attack – such as mechanical ventilation – are appropriate here as well. As a result, our technologies have received a lot of interest from hospitals seeking more equipment to treat large numbers of patients. It’s great for us to be able to help. Our people want to make a difference.

We’re primarily thought of as a defibrillator company, but we also make products for induced hypothermia, which is used for fever control. We also acquired a small ventilator company a few years ago. That had been a relatively small part of our business, but when we read the media reports in mid-March about this looming ventilator shortage crisis, we leapt into action and started exploring how to dramatically increase our production of these devices. We’re now focused on trying to scale up our ventilator output by a factor of 25 within a few months.

Supporting Frontline Workers in the Fight Against COVID-19 A Conversation with Jon Rennert, CEO of ZOLL Medical: graphic 6

BBH: What prepared or enabled the company to be able to scale up successfully under such short notice?

JR: Our employees are our biggest asset. They are passionate and wanted to help make a difference, so it was easy to motivate them to focus on the swell of demand in ventilators. We’re fortunate that it had been a small piece of our business, because that meant we had a lot of other resources in manufacturing, supply chain and engineering that we could divert onto this effort.

You need to have all the elements in place, and the most difficult one is the parts. There are over 1,000 individual component parts that go into a ventilator, and we have had to ask every supplier to provide 25 times their normal output as quickly as they can. We’ve had a lot of help. I’ve been impressed with the outpouring of support from other industries – people in aerospace and IT have reached out to see how they can help by making parts or connecting us with other sources. In just a few weeks, we were able to scale up our ventilator production by a factor of five, and we’re aiming for another factor of five over the coming weeks and months. I think we will be able to get there.

It has been rewarding to be able to help some of our customers in a real time of need. Our ability to ramp up production quickly in those first few weeks – even to get just a couple dozen devices to New York and Massachusetts hospitals – really made a difference. I believe that so far, no patient in the U.S. who has needed a ventilator hasn’t had one available to them, which I don’t think has been the experience everywhere in the world. We take some comfort in that.

BBH: What has the ramp-up been like for your employees?

JR: Everyone at ZOLL is working, either from home or in our factories, so everybody is able to contribute as we try and make a difference. Everyone who can work from home right now is doing so, and that’s really to protect the people who have to be in the factories. Obviously, a lot of these manufacturing and service activities need to be done on-site, and the experience there has changed dramatically. In our facility in Massachusetts where we make ventilators, we have 500 people coming in daily, and they’re going through strict single point of entry screening, completing health questionnaires, undergoing temperature scanning, wearing masks and adhering to strict social distancing protocols. People appreciate the safe environment we have created, and morale is good.

BBH: Have there been any unexpected positive developments or stories you have heard during these difficult times?

JR: The most inspiring thing for us is that we haven’t yet seen this ventilator crisis develop in the U.S. I know some of the early reports out of Italy were very concerning, and that is what got us motivated to ramp up production. We weren’t alone in acting obviously – a lot of people and companies have risen to this challenge.

One internal story that comes to mind will give you a sense of the way ZOLL employees work. As I mentioned, we have employees coming in every day to put together ventilators. My assistant worked with human resources to have people who were working at home make signs and banners thanking all of their peers in the factory. They came in one night and decorated the whole campus with these signs saying things like “Thank you” and “Heroes work here.” Nobody told them to organize this; it was something that they wanted to do to support their co-workers who were taking a risk. That people are willing to come in and do that speaks to the spirit of ZOLL.

What has made us successful over many hears is that we have employees who believe in what they are doing and want to keep working toward the next innovation.

BBH: You mentioned how you have workers coming to the office and touched on some of the safety protocols you have put in place. What have you learned from that? What is going to transpire as some of these businesses begin to open?

JR: I think there is going to be a lot of soul-searching across industries about why for centuries we have brought people to a common place to do work. I do think that humans are fundamentally social creatures, though, and working remotely is just not the same. Our fiscal year-end was in March, and normally about now we would be gathering 1,500 people from all over the world to celebrate and kick off the new year. We’re doing that virtually instead, and it’s not as good as face-to-face interaction. Overall, having people working from home hasn’t been as disruptive as we may have expected, so I think people are adapting. At the same time, there is a craving for people to get back to that live interaction.

Right now, we are focused purely on safety, so we want the bare minimum number of people in our facilities. If there are reasons someone needs to come in to get work done, we want them to do that, and we make sure to catch them up on the safety protocols we have implemented. The biggest challenge for us is in our sales organization. They’re normally on the road at customer locations, which now may be closed to visitors, or working from home themselves. That’s going to be the most difficult problem for most companies to solve – how to develop new business in this virtual world.

BBH: How has your approach to leadership evolved over the years, particularly during this crisis?

JR: I have always been a pretty open and participative leader. As I’ve gotten more responsibility, it has become apparent that I cannot make every decision. I need to be able to lay out broad principles and guidelines for people to follow, and they’ll find their own way. That has been an advantage during this crisis. The complexity of what we are trying to accomplish in scaling up ventilator production in just a few months involves hundreds of people, but everyone knows the goal and the role they play – and that failure is not an option for us. So, my approach to leadership hasn’t changed as much during this time as it has reinforced the usefulness of our approach.

BBH: Tell us about ZOLL’s values and how they came to be.

JR: We are a value-driven company. When I first joined ZOLL, our office was small. I saw other senior leaders all the time, so it was really obvious to us from an interpersonal standpoint what the values were. We have gotten a lot bigger since then, so within the last year and a half, our leadership team decided to sit down and document those values so that we had a written framework that highlights what makes a successful ZOLL leader.

One of our values is resilience, which means don’t give up. What has made us successful over many years is that we have employees who believe in what they are doing and want to keep working toward the next innovation. Another one is humility. It’s not about the leadership team – it’s about our customers and employees. They are the ones who do the work. Our job is to be supportive and get out of their way. Others include courage, willingness to make hard decisions and intellectual curiosity.

We also documented the way that we lead with people around us. First on this list is being able to set a vision – lay out the broad principles and guideposts, and let people work within that. Then, we have customer orientation, forward-thinking and valuing the diversity of people and thought in our company.

BBH: How do you rely on other leaders and senior management when it comes to strategic planning and making big decisions?

JR: It’s a very open and participative culture. We are our own worst critics. When we strategize at ZOLL, it is done out in the open. All of the ZOLL leadership team looks at what is going on in their business as well as others and comes to a consensus about where we should focus and put our resources. We have a lot of diversity in our businesses, and we have been successful over the years not because every business is growing at the same pace, but because some are doing well and taking turns carrying the broader company. Everybody appreciates the strength of that diverse set of businesses working together and cares about the overall success of ZOLL more than anything in their own personal realm.

BBH: Innovation has obviously been important to growth over the years. Tell us about how you approach this.

JR: We have charted a course in our industry as a clinical innovator by understanding the science and where the best therapies come from and putting better tools into the hands of our clinicians. A lot of it comes down to listening to those clinicians about what works today and what the unmet needs are. It’s not about asking what we are doing well, but instead asking what they need that we are not doing – or that no one is doing.

Our engineers also get firsthand exposure – through talking to doctors or riding in ambulances, for example – and then hopefully they see something we can engineer here that will help clinicians improve patient outcomes. We’re focused on some very serious, large unmet health needs. COVID-19 may be the focus today, but when we get beyond that, we are still going to have acute heart attacks, heart failures and strokes. We are going to have diseases and medical emergencies that are time-critical and life-threatening, with many patients that have fundamentally poor outcomes today. We are here to help with that.

BBH: Jon, thank you for your time and insights.

Interview conducted by Jake Turner, and article written by Kaitlin Barbour.

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