Leading a hospitality company through the COVID-19 pandemic

As CFO, Minit Gupta ’08, helped Unidine rethink how to safely deliver food to vulnerable clients

When the COVID-19 pandemic started rapidly spreading across the United States in early 2020, nursing homes ended up contending with a large percentage of positive cases as the virus spread to vulnerable populations throughout elder care facilities. With over 400 operations, Unidine Corporation is the leading boutique provider of food and dining management services in 38 states for discerning senior living communities, as well as behavioral health facilities, hospitals and corporations.

With team members on the front lines, it became clear right away to Minit Gupta ’08, chief financial officer, the company would need to rethink many aspects of its business operations. He knew the organization had to quickly move from a reactive mode to collaborative planning and quickly make necessary decisions to pivot approach, minimize overhead and elevate engagement with clients, customers and team members.

“Hospitality has been one of the hardest hit industries during COVID-19, and we saw a fair share of changes in our business,” Gupta says. “It kind of hit us from all angles. We were worried about the safety and risk of our customers and residents, availability of supplies and readiness of our teams to enter these higher risk operations to provide essential dining day in day out.”

Initially, Unidine saw supply chain disruption with product shortages. With procurement for this half a billion dollar corporation as one of his areas of responsibility, Gupta had a clear line of sight into the food distribution side of the business. All of Unidine’s food is made from scratch, so using protein substitutions for recipes required significant culinary adjustments. When servicing customers with prescribed dietary restrictions, just changing food preparation was not enough. Nutrient intake and menu balance play a critical role in eating for immunity and supporting better health outcomes. Mitigating supply chain challenges required ongoing coordination with culinary, clinical and locally placed operations teams.

As for service, state mandates defined that Unidine could no longer serve food in communal style dining rooms and needed to switch to in-room service to minimize the risk of spreading infection. Being in a high-touch business, the company leveraged technology to stay connected with its residents and families, keeping hospitality in the forefront as it drove change behind the scenes.

“People are Unidine’s most important assets,” Gupta says. “There was concern for Unidine’s food service workers who could be at risk of contracting the virus while serving residents. For those senior living folks, our dining staff continues to be very essential. If we didn’t show up, they wouldn’t have food that day,”

In facing these challenges, Unidine made major shifts to accommodate its workforce. With the corporate facilities shuttered, available team members were leveraged to support growing needs in elder care. This included relocating team members and their families near clients’ facilities for extended time periods to comply with travel regulations and minimize potential virus spread.

“Motivating and developing our team while in coronavirus recovery mode actually strengthened our culture.” Gupta says. “Unidine’s team member orientation, culinary competency testing, clinical onboarding and sales leadership training were all virtually enabled, and despite remote learning, we saw an increased participation and engagement. We have used this time wisely to invest in the ongoing development of our people through online education.”

While Unidine established infrastructure for some employees to telecommute by utilizing Microsoft Teams and other meeting technology, Gupta and other members of Unidine’s executive team and functional support departments continued going into the Boston headquarters daily throughout the pandemic to show solidarity with the company’s more than 12,000 employees who needed to be on location for work. This also allowed the in-office team to serve in a crisis management capacity and respond immediately to triage issues from workers in the field.

“You had to make sure that a sustainable business came out the other end,” Gupta says. “You become nimble and stronger. You make many moral decisions with limited time and information, you don’t get all of the decisions right, but you make good mistakes, not bad, and learn from them.”

Gupta says he was impressed with the innovation he saw from employees at all levels of the company while contending with the pandemic. For instance, a food service worker designed and utilized a 3D printer to create a plastic clip with three pressure settings to make masks more comfortable throughout long shifts. The employee shared the design, and Unidine began replicating the clips for team members to ensure masks would be less cumbersome over the course of an eight-hour shift.

“As we look back, the team is incredibly proud of what we accomplished,” Gupta says. “We created enhanced protocols, established a new normal and completed gap analysis of our existing standards, all while meeting the financial pressure of the budget goals we set for ourselves. The team did a fantastic job.”

Gupta says he learned cross-sectional skills at Kellogg that help him lead in his role. “I don’t have a prior hospitality background. I deploy my learnings from strategy development to management. I draw on marketing knowledge and people management to shape my responses.”

“In my CFO role at Unidine, if I am looking at a marketing campaign or am evaluating an employee incentive plan or handling vendor negotiations … I took the class for it at Kellogg,” Gupta says. “I keep coming back to the frameworks I learned and the foundational knowledge the school provided to me.”

Beyond the skills he developed at Kellogg, Gupta also says he is grateful for the personal and professional connections he made through the school. That, along with his pride as an alumnus, led him to join the Kellogg Leadership Circle, a group of donors who fund the school’s top priorities by contributing to the Annual Fund.

“At Unidine, we have had our fair share of challenges given the majority of our business is in senior living, but the core business remained intact through the pandemic, so it was much more important to contribute this year than other years,” Gupta says.