How Bed Bath & Beyond CEO kept the company afloat after getting Covid

This story is part of the Behind the Desk series, where CNBC Make It meets with successful executives in person to find out everything from their path to where they are, what makes them get out of bed in the morning, to their daily routines.

When Mark Tritton took over as CEO of Bed Bath & Beyond in November 2019, he knew he was facing a major challenge. He just ignored a global pandemic.

At the time, the homeware retailer was struggling with years of bad sales, corporate governance restructuring, and inventory losses. Fixing it was such a daunting task that Tritton, a 56-year-old veteran retail manager, says he took a “deliberate” four-week hiatus before its start date to decompress and prepare.

Five months after starting work, Tritton had to close the company’s more than 1,500 stationary stores and take leave of its 40,000 employees. Shortly thereafter, he and his wife caught Covid – a particular problem in New York City, where hospitals were overrun on a daily basis. At some point, paramedics had to visit her home.

“We were very sick,” Tritton told CNBC Make It. “It was an intense time trying to navigate my personal health and the health and safety of 40,000 employees at the same time.”

Tritton says he worked when he was sick, kept his condition relatively private, and constantly checked his health with his company’s chair to make sure he can still lead effectively. It was his way of keeping the company afloat, he says: “[I] couldn’t just turn around and go back to bed. “

Today Tritton made a full recovery – and he says his turnaround plan for the company before Covid, including store renovations and new private labels, is back on track. On Tuesday, Bed Bath & Beyond’s stock rose as high as $ 20.20 per share, well above its April 2020 low of $ 3.90.

Here he talks about his challenging first day as CEO, working on Covid and the biggest lesson he learned so far during the pandemic.

How Tritton experienced his first day as CEO: ‘[I] met around 2,500 people in one day ‘

It’s been two years, but it feels like five years [ago] with everything we’ve been through

I remember walking in and understanding that the business wasn’t working. I took a deliberate four week break between roles so I could just decompress and prepare. I knew I had a big journey ahead of me.

The first thing I did was create a welcome video that was released that afternoon. Then I walked all over the building and introduced myself to about 2,500 people in a day. I literally made myself visible and showed that I am happy and excited to be here.

It was an exciting and exhausting moment. The people thanked them [me] for coming, so there was no such organ rejection. From day one there was a hug that was really meaningful.

How Covid started a new tradition: “I made a video every week just to get in touch with people”

I remember sitting right where I am now, in my office. I remember saying, “I think we’ll send everyone home for two weeks and see what happens.”

Then I made a video and explained to everyone what was going on. I’ve been making a video every week since that week just to connect with people.

As the new CEO, I was also financially responsible for the health and safety of my team and this business, and that is a heavy burden. You couldn’t just turn around and go back to bed. You had to get up every day to fight.

Getting up in the morning and taking 40,000 team members off because you had to close the doors wasn’t easy. You need to find strength and strength. I was really stressed out, but I also knew that if I sat there complaining about it, I wasn’t going to be of service to all of those who needed me to have a plan to get them to safety.

When I got sick a few weeks after the pandemic: “We were lucky enough to get right out”

In late March and early April my wife and I had Covid. We were very sick.

There were no drugs. I live in New York so they actively encouraged us not to go to the hospital. We were in contact with [doctors via] Telemedicine, and some paramedics came and checked us out.

Mark and Bernadette Tritton at the # BoF500 Gala Dinner during New York Fashion Week in September 2017.

He was subdued. Getty Images Entertainment | Getty Images

The city was in lockdown. Nobody knew what was going on. I think it was scary for everyone back then. We were lucky enough to come out right and be healthy.

My experience with Covid was very real and very tangible. I think my commitment to protecting my teams was stronger because it was personal. I understand the pressures this is putting on both individuals and businesses.

We lost team members [to Covid]. I spoke to their families and it was heartbreaking. It was hard when people said, “This is not real.” Because, you know, it’s real.

Biggest lesson he’s learned from Covid so far: “Thinking you can do anything is the biggest mistake”

I think [the trick] is very open to staying. Thinking you can do anything is the biggest mistake.

It cannot be that everyone comes to you and says: “Mark, what are we doing?” or “Do you approve of this?” Instead, you have to say, “This is our culture, our company. These are our needs. Solve these things and keep me updated.”

You really need to share that responsibility. Of course, this is where the goat ends when it comes to communicating with the street, the board of directors and the shareholders. [Those are] my responsibility, but the CEO is just an expression of the team, not the only driving force. Nobody should be.

We had run this business before and it hadn’t worked well. So we had to completely reinvent the culture and the communication channels.

I think it was a gift in strange packaging. It helped us to convey a new way of working.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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