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Late last summer, as Canadians dared to hope they were emerging from COVID-19, a handful of the country’s business leaders stepped back to capture their company’s journey through the pandemic.

Thirty CEOs from businesses on the front lines of the health crisis – airlines, long-term care homes, grocery stores, retailers, restaurants, banks and hotels – wrote deeply personal accounts of what they’d experienced over the prior 18 months. They reflected on how those lessons will shape their companies – which employ a total of a million people around the globe – and their country going forward.

The stories became Unprecedented, a book compiled by investment banker Steve Mayer, president of Greenhill Canada, and Globe and Mail columnist Andrew Willis that will be published on Tuesday. When COVID-19 hit, there was no case study or textbook on how to manage the crisis. Now there is.

Unprecedented reveals the experiences of leaders who were accustomed to making decisions driven by bottom-line profits, and informed by reams of data, suddenly finding themselves making choices based on shared corporate values, not financial results. CEOs of iconic companies such as Lululemon, Couche-Tard, Sobeys, Brookfield Asset Management, Canadian Tire, Air Canada, Telus and Four Seasons Hotels & Resorts offered their personal takes on how they managed through unprecedented times.

To navigate the crisis, CEOs talked about the need to be agile, empathetic and intuitive. Several pointed out that the challenges they faced were compounded by inaction, vacillation or lack of clarity from political leaders and government institutions.

The book, published by Signal/McClelland & Stewart, an imprint of Penguin Random House Canada, highlights the permanent changes in the way we do business. “Candidly, prior to March 2020, I would have said that if you were working from home, you weren’t really working,” said Clearco CEO and CBC Dragons’ Den veteran Michele Romanow, who wrote the foreword to the book. “The improvements in productivity we have seen during the pandemic show that going forward, companies can and should be flexible around how to structure their workplace.”

Proceeds from Unprecedented are being donated to United Way Centraide Canada for COVID-19 recovery across Canada. To date, companies involved in the project have pledged more than $3.5-million. Here are excerpts, edited for length, from executives whose reflections will ensure the hard-earned lessons of this painful time will help Canadians cope with the inevitable next crisis:

Dino Bianco, Kruger Products

Workers ration toilet paper to one package per Costco member in an effort to stem hoarding due to fears of coronavirus, at a Costco store in Toronto, on March 14, 2020.CHRIS HELGREN/Reuters

Kruger is Canada’s largest supplier of toilet paper

It was March 2, 2020, when I received a text from a good friend saying Costco had run out of toilet paper. That can’t be, I thought. Costco always had lots of inventory. I had to see this for myself. I got in my car and drove to my local Costco, in the Toronto suburbs. I could not believe my eyes. People were pushing shopping carts filled with toilet paper. The floor pallets, normally piled high with Kruger Products’ Cashmere and Purex brands, were empty. In that moment, I knew that life was about to become very different.

On March 12, I received a call from a Globe and Mail reporter who wanted to do an article on toilet paper based on hearing of the short supply. That’s odd, I thought. With all the challenges going on with COVID, why do they care about toilet paper? Nobody ever cares about toilet paper. Until, of course, you don’t have any. So I did the interview. I took an upbeat tone. I reassured Globe readers that our toilet paper was made in Canada, we had lots of supply, and what consumers were experiencing was short term and the shelves would be stocked again soon.

Well, I was only partially right. We were shipping toilet paper at record levels to retailers, but as soon as an order got to the store, it was gone. Panic-buying had set in. Under Maslow’s new hierarchy, toilet paper ranked near the top, right after food, water, and shelter! Suddenly people realized that this product that everybody used but never really thought about had become the beacon for the COVID crisis. If you run out of pasta, you have rice; run out of oranges, you eat apples; but run out of toilet paper, then what?

As the Canadian market leader in the category, at a family-owned, Montreal-based company with one hundred years of history in this country, I realized I had a responsibility to ease the mounting uncertainty around a basic household staple. I told the outlets that our production came from Canada – many people thought most of our toilet paper came from China. I informed them we had lots of capacity to produce and encouraged them not to hoard and to buy only what they needed so that more people could get toilet paper.

My message didn’t get through.

From the first Canadian lockdowns in March right through to July, we could not catch up to the panic-driven demand. Our plants were running at full capacity, day and night. Not only were we short on toilet paper, but demand for paper towels and facial tissue spiked. People were stuck at home and clearly decided to clean anything and everything.

As I reflect on the time before the pandemic, I had always thought that, as a leader, I was prepared to handle pretty much anything that could come my way. I’m at the stage in my career when I thought I’d seen it all. Then came COVID.

José Cil, Restaurant Brands International

Then U.S. president Donald Trump listens as Jose Cil, CEO of Restaurant Brands International, speaks during a meeting with restaurant industry executives about the coronavirus response, in the State Dining Room of the White House, on May 18, 2020.Evan Vucci/The Canadian Press

RBI owns Tim Hortons, Burger King, Popeyes and Firehouse Subs

One morning in May, 2020, our general legal counsel, Jill Granat, called me to say that the White House was seeking our opinion on several policies. I was anticipating a brief phone call with a policy advisor, but then quickly learned that I was being invited to meet with President Donald Trump and a half-dozen other restaurant leaders at the White House a few days later to discuss policy options on how to balance the protection of U.S. citizens while continuing to stimulate the U.S. economy.

The meeting would include discussion of the Paycheck Protection Program, a loan program for small businesses (many of our franchisees would participate) backed by the U.S. federal government’s Small Business Administration, so I knew that it was important for RBI to have a voice at the table.

My parents both emigrated from Cuba to Miami as children, and although my father has passed away, I felt their pride in my being able to represent our industry. The journey to Washington, D.C., through deserted airports and on an almost empty airplane, was a surreal experience. I was told that when I arrived at the White House, we would be tested for COVID, and that unless they tapped us on the shoulder during the meeting, all was fine.

The White House meeting was in the State Dining Room, an impressive if not imposing space used to host receptions and banquets for visiting heads of state, with a large portrait of Abraham Lincoln above the central mantel.

As I walked around the room, looking for my seat, I saw Secretary of Labor Eugene Scalia, Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin, and Larry Kudlow, director of the National Economic Council. I was also looking out for fellow restaurateurs like Thomas Keller of the French Laundry, Niren Chaudhary of Panera, and Will Guidara of Eleven Madison in New York City, but I wanted to first find my seat.

When I located my name, I observed that I would be sitting next to Secretary Mnuchin, who was placed a socially distant six feet to my left, and as I looked to see who would be seated on my right, I couldn’t see a nameplate in front of the chair. As I looked more closely, I noticed that the unmarked chair was in the centre of the table, directly in front of the mantel and the Lincoln portrait and flanked by two flags. Dozens of cameras were set up directly opposite.

I realized I would be sitting next to President Trump, and the seriousness of the moment dawned.

I played football in high school and college, and some of the lessons I learned from competing in sports have been useful to apply in business. Mental preparation is essential, and coaches often have players study game videos of themselves and their opponents to learn how they react in different circumstances.

In preparation for the White House meeting, I had watched online clips of a couple of similar meetings President Trump had hosted, one with a cross-section of business leaders and another with representatives from the oil and gas industry. In both cases, after delivering his opening remarks, the president had turned to the person on his left with his first question.

In sports, players always have a tendency to repeat certain actions, and President Trump’s tendency was clearly to go to his left (ironic, I know). Once I realized that I was seated to his left, there was no doubt in my mind that I would be called upon to start the discussion.

President Trump and Vice-President Pence soon came in together, and not long after that we all sat down. President Trump spoke briefly in introduction and then turned to the topic at hand, saying “We’re here with the leaders of the restaurant industry” and noting that we had been tremendously impacted by COVID. Then, sure enough, he turned to his left, looked at me, and said, “We’ll start with you.”

One of the things I made a point of emphasizing in my comments at the White House was the need to expand the Paycheck Protection Program past the eight-week deadline that had originally been envisioned.

“When it was implemented, eight weeks probably seemed like an eternity,” I said at the time. “But today we’re in the tenth week of the pandemic and I think it’s going to take some time for our restaurants and our owners to get back to the capacity levels and the traffic levels that we were seeing pre-COVID.” I took the opportunity to suggest extending the program to twenty-four weeks, to allow restaurant owners to be able to manage through and rehire their employees over a longer period. In fact, the program ended up being extended for an additional year, through the end of May 2021.

That White House meeting was just weeks into the pandemic, when everyone still thought that the tide would start to turn within weeks. Looking back at that moment from the vantage point of more than a year later, as we continue to weather the effects of the pandemic and its repercussions, it’s striking how much has changed economically, politically, and medically.

Dani Reiss, Canada Goose

Employees work with Canada Goose jackets at the Canada Goose factory in Toronto, on April 2, 2015.Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

Maker of performance luxury apparel

We knew from news reports that frontline workers and essential public and private sector organizations across Canada were running perilously low on personal protective equipment, or PPE – another acronym the world added to its COVID vocabulary in those early months. Canada, a first-world nation with many ostensible advantages, had a clear deficit when it came to our mostly extinguished manufacturing sector. That became heartbreakingly clear as government officials scrambled to secure sought-after PPE from other nations and fell short in their efforts. Staff at nursing homes were reusing N95 masks, and workers across the country desperately needed items like sterile masks, gloves, visors, surgical gowns, caps, and booties. Frontline workers, the people who worked tirelessly through the most terrifying early weeks of the outbreak, were left vulnerable.

At Canada Goose, we saw the PPE crisis unfolding and knew very quickly what we had to do. We came to a decision to make whatever PPE we could. As a brand whose roots lie in making products that protect people from the harshest elements, it made good sense to pour all of our efforts into protecting the people of Canada from this terrifying disease.

I have championed our “Made in Canada” commitment proudly for over two decades, and at a time like this I realized just how vital that was to helping hold our nation together. If there was one thing Canada Goose could do with our closed factories and furloughed staff, we could make the PPE that our frontline workers so desperately needed, no matter what it would cost us.

I knew that if we were going to do it, we would have to do it right. We began without contracts, knowing that we were in a position to help. In March, we jumped in. We retrofitted our factories and recalled and retrained our workers. All eight of our facilities worked at full, but modified, capacity to churn out PPE for our dedicated Canadians working on the front lines of the crisis

After we reopened our factories to make PPE, I visited our Scarborough facility. It was an incredibly emotional highlight of an otherwise scary time. Every single worker on the floor was filled with purpose. It made me incredibly proud to know how many of our people, caught up as we all were in the fear and uncertainty of the pandemic, were prepared to come back to our factories to help our country.

Over the course of the pandemic, Canada Goose made over 2.5 million units of scrubs and hospital gowns, supplied at cost, across our facilities in Winnipeg, Toronto and Montreal.

Rebecca McKillican, McKesson Canada

Health care workers in the pharmacy at the Bluewater Health Hospital in Sarnia, Ont., on Jan. 25, 2022.Chris Young/The Canadian Press

Owner of Canada largest drug distribution network and the Rexall, IDA and Guardian chains

The pharmaceutical supply chain is truly global, and at this time [April 2020] we saw various countries – such as India, China, and others that typically export active pharmaceutical ingredients used for producing common pharmaceutical products – in various states of lockdown. They had halted their pharmaceutical exports over fears about how they would manage the health of their own populations. Countries became protectionist, and it had immediate implications for us in Canada.

Our customers at McKesson Canada are some of the largest retailers and hospitals in the country. Both our own retailers and our customers were placing incredibly large orders from us each day and understandably calling into our customer care centre at unprecedented volumes.

We needed to discourage hoarding by our customers. We implemented product ordering limits.

Often times, we are the only distributor for a certain drug in Canada, so if we allowed a few eager customers to order the product in large quantities, there would be nothing left for other cities, provinces, territories, hospitals, and pharmacy retailers.

On March 24, we made the critical decision to look at the historical weekly demand of each customer, and adjusted their allowable order limits based on their historical demand. We calculated this would provide a reasonable buffer for customers – a chance to get extra product and serve the healthcare needs of their patients. We knew that, outside of COVID-19, there were no different illness patterns related to chronic or acute care in the country, so historical data should be sufficient in predicting forward-looking demand. It seemed the most equitable thing to do, and it would ensure patients across the country continued to get their medications.

That is easy to say but hard to do when faced with healthcare professionals across the country working under very stressful and unknown conditions. Try telling hospitals urgently needing medication that we’re going to have to monitor ordering behaviour and scale back if we notice unusual activity. Yes, exactly. Predictably, people were not happy. We received hundreds of concerned calls every hour from governments and customers alike.

Through my previous retail experience I was accustomed to having to occasionally communicate to customers that their favourite shampoo or food item was out of stock. However, being in a situation where we had to communicate to some of the largest retailers in Canada, or our own healthcare teams at pharmacies like Rexall, Guardian, IDA, and Uniprix that we were holding back pharmaceutical products or tempering their orders – that was a whole new world for me, and for our teams.

Brian Porter, Bank of Nova Scotia

An MLSE employee puts together meals as staff work on the floor of the Scotiabank Arena, in Toronto, on April 22, 2020.Chris Young/The Canadian Press

Canada’s third largest bank has 90,000 employees in more than 30 countries

One day in late April 2020, with the pandemic just over a month old, I was at Scotiabank Arena helping to put together meals that would be distributed to frontline workers at hospitals, charities, and shelters. The initiative was supplying ten thousand healthy meals a day to people putting themselves at risk to help others. I was moved by the efforts of the people there giving of themselves for their community. Moved, but not surprised. Canada is a generous, open place where people look out for one another. I knew then that however difficult this challenge proved to be, we would pull together and come out stronger on the other side.

We were getting close to that other side in late June 2021 when another event took place at Scotiabank Arena. This time, we had helped organize a mass vaccination clinic. Over the course of the day, more than twenty-six thousand people would get their first or second vaccines, a global record. The event had a joyous, celebratory feel, one of those moments when we all felt like life might soon start getting back to normal.

But I couldn’t help thinking that maybe we could do even better than getting back to where we had been before the pandemic. Those difficult eighteen months revealed this great country’s many strengths, but they also exposed shortcomings that need to be addressed, both to prepare for the next crisis and to ensure our prosperity in the decades ahead.

On the first count, we simply must make our healthcare system better, and that means investing in it. As chair of the University Health Network, a research and teaching hospital network in Toronto, I saw first-hand the impacts of the pandemic on the system. Yet the issues existed before the pandemic. Although the population density in the Greater Toronto Area has grown substantially, the number of hospital beds has fallen. The answer isn’t just more beds; many services can be delivered in the home or the community if the necessary funding is there. As well, this country used to have vaccine manufacturing capability, but it no longer did by the time COVID struck. We were reliant on others for the life-saving shots

The pandemic highlighted several economic issues that need serious attention. One is a housing shortage that has seen real estate prices skyrocket. While Canada has significantly increased the number of new Canadians it welcomes every year – a move I fully support – our housing stock hasn’t kept pace with the population growth. Governments at all levels must work together to remove the obstacles to the construction of housing.

We also have to look at our economy and determine where the strengths are and how we sustain them. Where do we have a strategic competitive advantage? How can the government enhance investment? We’ve had issues with productivity – a key measure of economic growth – in this country for a long time.

For years we have been satisfied living in what some call the 2% trap, with modest economic growth of that order being the norm. How do we break out of that trap to create the robust growth that will add to the prosperity of all Canadians? Part of the answer may be to fashion what one might call a modern industrial policy. we must identify the sectors where we can lead and win and make sure those sectors get the support they need to compete globally. We must aggressively pursue our economic interests and encourage entrepreneurship, innovation, and creativity in all their forms. Let’s not allow the lessons of this difficult time slip past us. Rather, let’s seize the opportunity to make Canada an even better country for all.

The Bank has a part to play here. I have often described the role of Scotiabank, and of other financial institutions, as being that of shock absorber for the economy. We are responsible for most of the capital allocation in this society. During difficult times like the ones we just went through, that capital provides a backstop for the businesses, large and small, upon which the economy depends.

That social and economic responsibility is part of the reason that I consider banking to be more of a calling than a career.

Excerpted from Unprecedented: Canada’s Top CEOs on Leadership During Covid-19. Copyright ©2022 Covid Recovery Canada Inc. Published by Signal/McClelland & Stewart, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.

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