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As the world began to realize the severity and scale of the COVID-19 pandemic earlier this year, the security of the food supply chain quickly became a top concern.

At Nutrien Ltd., the largest potash mining operation in the world and its largest agricultural retailer, company officials knew that keeping the food supply secure, along with employees, would be a huge task with little room for error.

“This occurred right at the beginning of the spring planting season in the northern hemisphere,” says Mike Webb, Nutrien’s chief human resources and administrative officer.

“If we hadn’t been able to maintain our operations and serve our customers and get our products and services where they needed to be, that could have significantly impacted the spring planting season and ultimately the world’s ability to feed itself. Food security was something that the world needed to not be a problem.”

The agricultural company was deemed an essential service, which meant production could continue.

With plants and employees in Canada, the U.S., Australia and South America, company officials quickly formed an international task force that would meet virtually every day for the duration of the crisis – sometimes several times a day.

With tens of thousands of employees at potash mines, nitrogen manufacturing facilities, phosphate mines and manufacturing and operations and investments in 14 countries, Mr. Webb and his colleagues quickly realized that there was no pandemic playbook to guide them through the months to come.

So they wrote one, day by day, hour by hour.

In the potash mines, Nutrien separated the lifts that take miners down into the mineshaft so they could keep physically distant. It had plexiglass partitions installed, so miners could function without putting themselves at risk.

In the retail branch network, the company focused on digital platforms it had invested in for the last few years, suddenly key to getting products to growers.

On the corporate side, within a matter of days, those who could work at home, did.

“Thank goodness we made the investments we did over the last couple years in technology,” Mr. Webb says. “When we moved folks from their workplaces to their homes, it was seamless. We did it in a matter of days.”

It was seamless for Nutrien’s wholesale customers, too, says Ken Clancy, president of Enderby, B.C.-based Okanagan Fertilizer Ltd.

A Nutrien Ag Solutions agronomist consults with a grower in Western Canada.Supplied

“There were certainly a lot of concerns from customers early on about the potential it may have on supply lines,” Mr. Clancy says. “Nutrien was really good at communicating that they weren’t anticipating any supply issues.”

Planting season went ahead with little impact from the pandemic, Mr. Clancy says. Some farmers stocked up on supplies but no shortage occurred.

“Our customer base is farmers and, like us, from the middle of March to mid-June, they were head-down and doing all the work that needed to be done,” he says.

Customers also wanted to know how they, too, could stay safe, Mr. Webb says.

“At the end of the day, these farmers are running their own businesses and they wanted to know what we were doing and what we had learned,” he says.

The company provided daily updates and when personal protective equipment became scarce in the early stages, Nutrien donated N95 and surgical masks, hand sanitizer and other equipment to those in need.

“If they were safe and healthy, that was ultimately good for us, too,” Mr. Webb says.

The company’s approach didn’t end with employees and customers, though. Nutrien made its planning and 30-plus-page pandemic playbook available to smaller competitors lacking the kind of resources the company has available.

“We got on the phone with the safety and health professionals at those organizations and told them what we were doing and what we had learned. There’s no such thing as competition in situations like this,” Mr. Webb says.

“Our ability to maintain our operations could have given us a competitive advantage but that’s not the way we roll as a company. These are people we go to church with, who we see in the supermarket, our kids play softball together. These people are part of our community. Why hold something back that could keep them and their families and their communities safer?”

Nutrien also turned its attention to community partners, donating $1-million over and above its regular contributions to food banks and charities throughout its regions as they struggled with greater demand and lower donations. Food banks and school nutrition programs were a priority and new efforts were quickly launched including a garden box project with several Indigenous partners in local communities.

The company also increased its employee volunteer program from one paid volunteer day a year to five days, as many community partners were understaffed and overwhelmed.

The COVID-19 pandemic will have a permanent impact on Nutrien’s operations, Mr. Webb says. It accelerated a technological shift and ushered in health and safety precautions that will better prepare it for future emergencies.

It may permanently change the workplace, offering more remote work and a different approach to office space.

The most important things didn’t change, though, Mr. Webb says.

Shortly after the merger of Potash Corporation of Saskatchewan Ltd. and Agrium Inc. in early 2018, to form Nutrien, the leadership team met to discuss its aspirations and purpose under the new brand.

After two days, the team had two core values they wanted to define Nutrien: safety and integrity.

“It’s very easy to talk about those things when times are good but in a situation like this, those get tested,” he says. “I am enormously proud that the organization has held true to those values.”


Lessons from the pandemic

Mr. Webb says he learned seven key lessons from the past few months:

1. Communicate calmly and confidently: “Our employees were looking to leadership to be confident and calm because they were not necessarily seeing that in the communities they live in.”

2. There’s no playbook for the pandemic. Be prepared to innovate on the fly.

3. Surround yourself with a group of talented executives who represent the entire company.

4. Make fast decisions and feel comfortable doing so without 100 per cent of the information: “Nutrien is an organization with a lot of engineers, and engineers like dealing with 100 per cent of the information – but we realized we were going to have to make decisions where we didn’t have 100 per cent of the information. It’s going to be imperfect but we need to feel comfortable with that and we need to make those decisions fast.”

5. Speak to the entire company at least weekly and have an open dialogue where employees can ask any questions and get answers. Nutrien initially held a global town hall every week that anyone could dial into that, whether a full-time employee or a contractor – and still holds one per month. The meetings include live, open-ended question-and-answer sessions. “We get asked some very difficult questions but it’s really important for people to see we aren’t scripted and we need to be genuine and we need to be transparent. If we aren’t, our credibility would go up in smoke.”

6. Stay informed. Nutrien developed a digital dashboard that tracked in real time the rate of infection hot spots, locations, demographics and other relevant information throughout its operations. “It is very effective and very reassuring that we have our act together.”

7. Don’t let distant sites get away from you: With 4,000 employees in Australia and 1,000 in Brazil, Nutrien made sure to localize planning and consider different circumstances in different regions.


Advertising feature produced by Globe Content Studio. The Globe’s editorial department was not involved.