"We really took it seriously early on," Gustafson said. "And we were true to our nature. The well-being and safety of our employees, that remained our most important value, and we stuck to that.
"Like the rest of the world, we were surprised by this, but we weren't unprepared."
As far back as January 2020, a Bridgestone spokesperson said the company was monitoring the outbreak and strategizing crisis management plans at the corporate level.
Bridgestone suspended production at factories in North America and Latin America on March 21 for between one to four weeks.
The Des Moines plant restarted April 13 along with other North American commercial tire plants as demand for tires grew for government-deemed "essential" industries, such as the food and supply chains.
This included Bridgestone truck tire plants in Warren and La Vergne, Tenn., as well as OTR plants in Aiken County, S.C., and Bloomington, lll.
The Des Moines plant, which turned 75 in 2020, is the No. 1 agricultural tire facility in the country, according to the company. It produces agricultural, construction, forestry and OTR tires. The plant manufactures approximately 90 percent of all agricultural products that Firestone sells in the U.S. and Canada.
Prior to the restart, the company put into place its plan (an Environmental Health Safety & Sustainability playbook), that featured benchmarks to restarting production and measures to ensure safety. This included, among other guidelines, wearing face masks, reconfiguring common spaces, temperature checks, increased sanitation and changes to sick leave.
Listening to the concerns of employees has been important, Gustafson said, and the company has done that throughout the process and working with United Steelworkers (USW) Local 310L, which represents around 90 percent of employees at the Des Moines plant.
Steve Vonk, president of Local 310L, said last year the company had been forthright and included the union in crisis planning from the beginning.
"The most important part of the plan, looking back, is to make sure that we are following our process and keeping employees informed," Gustafson said.
Mitigating the virus has presented challenges, but the plant remains focused on serving its customers, especially now as demand is rising, the company said.
"The agricultural business in the U.S. provides essential services—feeding the world—we feel fortunate to be able to provide what they need to continue operating," Gustafson said.
"Right now, we are seeing strong demand and at sustained levels we haven't seen for years in the agricultural space."
He noted improved commodity prices creating opportunity.
"Farmers are feeling optimistic," he said.
Given that positive outlook, he said, the plant is hiring for more positions.
"We're looking at positive trends in our markets, and we think we've got the right strategy."