Coronavirus a year later: Rob Connelly, ‘The future is bright’

A year ago today marked the moment that COVID-19 went from a emerging threat on a somewhat distant horizon to a grim reality that would kill more than 500,000 Americans in its first year and alter the lives of millions.

The Dayton Daily News checked in with 12 area business and community leaders and let them tell us what they learned about their lives, businesses and policy making during the pandemic.

Rob Connelly, chairman and chief executive of Henny Penny in Eaton

Henny Penny workers are returning to their Eaton offices, and the food preparation equipment company’s chief executive is greeting them with an upbeat message: “We’re back.”

“From being down over 80% last April to currently running at full capacity, we are as busy as we have ever been in our history,” Rob Connelly, Henny Penny chairman and CEO, said in the recent message to workers. “The Roaring 20′s are coming, and we are preparing. There is so much excitement and people can’t wait to get back out and be together, be it a restaurant, event, vacation, ballgame, or whatever.”

He added: “The future is bright, and we are happy to be back”

Last week, the company returned all employees to offices for the first time since March 2020, although the company has had about 400 workers on manufacturing floors since April 6 last year, Connelly told the Dayton Daily News.

The company has come a long way since the dark days of last spring. Perhaps more than any other industry, restaurants were hit especially hard by the pandemic, as many customers declined to dine out and government lock-down orders either reduced capacity or shut doors entirely.

Henny Penny Corp. makes frying equipment for restaurants like McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s, KFC and Chick-fil-A.

Last April, Connelly told his employees in a very different written message then: “The darkest phase is where we are right now. It calls all of us to question our roles.

“What I firmly believe, and what I want you to know, is this: we are going to get through this together,” Connelly wrote in that message last year. “We’re not preparing and responding out of fear. This isn’t a false sense of confidence. This is a real confidence based on the most likely scenario. Things may be terrible, but it is temporary.”

“Our businesses are the busiest they have ever been in our history,” Connelly said Tuesday. “Through this, one of the cool things is, we’ve continued our expansion, getting ready to open up a 175,000-square-foot addition that we were in the midst of (when the pandemic struck).”

“We didn’t stop that, because we were really believed in the future of what’s going on,” he added. “And that’s the coolest thing; we were not ready for a ribbon-cutting, but you’re going to have to come out and see it.”

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