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First, Bed Bath & Beyond’s CEO had to furlough 40,000 employees — then, he caught Covid himself

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

When Mark Tritton took the reins as CEO of Bed Bath & Beyond in November 2019, he knew he had a big challenge ahead of him. He just didn’t factor in a global pandemic.

At the time, the home goods retailer was struggling with years of poor sales, executive shakeups and stock losses. Fixing it was such a daunting task that Tritton, a 56-year-old veteran retail executive, says he took a “deliberate” four-week break before his start date to decompress and ready himself.

Five months into the job, Tritton had to shutter the company’s 1,500-plus brick-and-mortar stores and furlough its 40,000 employees. Shortly after, he and his wife caught Covid — a particular problem in New York City, where hospitals were overrun daily. At one point, paramedics had to visit their home.

“We were very ill,” Tritton tells CNBC Make It. “It was an intense period, trying to navigate my own personal health and the health and safety of 40,000 employees at a time.”

Tritton says he worked while sick, keeping his condition relatively private, constantly reassessing his health with his company’s chair to make sure he could still lead effectively. It was his way of trying to keep the company afloat, he says: “[I] couldn’t just roll over and go back to bed.”

Today, Tritton has fully recovered — and, he says, his pre-Covid turnaround plan for the company, including store renovations and new in-house brands, is back on track. As of Tuesday, Bed Bath & Beyond’s stock is up to $20.20 per share, significantly above its April 2020 low point of $3.90.

Here, he discusses his challenging first day as CEO, working through a Covid illness and the biggest lesson he’s learned during the pandemic so far.

How Tritton handled his first day as CEO: ‘[I] met about 2,500 people in one day’

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

I remember coming in and understanding the business wasn’t performing. I took a deliberate break between roles of four weeks, so I could just decompress and ready myself. I knew I had a big journey ahead of me.

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

It was an exciting and exhausting moment. People were thanking [me] for coming, so there wasn’t like this organ rejection. There was an embrace from day one, which was really meaningful.

How Covid spawned a new tradition: ‘I’ve done a video every week, just to connect with people’

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

Then, I did a video and explained to everyone what was going on. Since that week, I’ve done a video every week, just to connect with people.

As a new CEO, I was responsible for the health and safety of my team and this business financially at the same time, and that’s a heavy load. You couldn’t just roll over and go back to bed. You had to get up every day to fight.

Getting up in the morning and furloughing 40,000 team members because you had to shut the doors wasn’t easy. You have to find strength and fortitude. I was really stressed, but I also knew that if I sat there and complained about it, I wasn’t doing a service to all those who needed me to have a plan to make them safe.

On getting sick a few weeks into the pandemic: ‘We were lucky to come out of it the right way’

At the end of March and the start of April, my wife and I had Covid. We were very ill.

There were no drugs. I live in New York, so they were actively encouraging us not to go to the hospital. We were in contact with [doctors via] telemedicine, and we had some paramedics come in and check on us.

Mark and Bernadette Tritton in September 2017, at the #BoF500 gala dinner during New York Fashion Week.

Dia Dipasupil | Getty Images Entertainment | Getty Images

The city was in lockdown. No one knew what was going on. I think it was scary for everyone at that time. We were lucky to come out of it the right way and be healthy.

My experience with Covid was very real and very tangible. I think that my commitment to protecting my teams was stronger because it was personal. I understand the pressure this brings both to individuals and businesses.

We lost team members [to Covid]. I spoke to their families, and that was heartbreaking. It was hard when people were saying, “This isn’t real.” Because, you know, it’s real.

The biggest lesson he’s learned from Covid, so far: ‘Thinking you can do it all is the biggest mistake’

I think [the trick] is to stay very open. Thinking you can do it all is the biggest mistake.

You can’t have everyone coming to you and saying, “Mark, what do we do?” or “Do you approve this?” Instead, you have to say, “This is our culture, our company. These are our needs. Go solve these things and keep me updated.”

You really need to share that responsibility. The buck stops here, of course, in communicating with the Street, the board and the shareholders. [Those are] my responsibilities, but the CEO is just an expression of the team, not the single driving force. No one should be that.

We had run the business like that before, and it hadn’t worked well. So we had to completely reinvent the culture and the communication pathways.

I think that was a gift wrapped in a strange wrapping. It helped us broker a new way of working.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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How Ellen Ochoa, the first Hispanic woman in space, dealt with ‘people who didn’t think I should be there’

Designer Vera Wang on starting her company at 40: ‘I thought maybe it’s just too late for me’

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