During the Blitz, London shopkeepers would often arrive at their stores in the morning to discover the overnight German bombing raids had left the streets strewn with debris and blown out their windows. The owners would sweep up the glass and scrawl “business as usual” in chalk across their storefronts. It was both an act of defiance and a notice to customers. They were determined to keep daily life moving forward, regardless of the obstacles.
The times and circumstances are vastly different, but there is a commonality of spirit between the shopkeepers of 1940 and the business owners confronting the current pandemic. More than two-thirds of small businesses have adapted their strategies to meet customer demand, according to a global survey conducted by Visa. Remarkably, the same survey found that after months of lockdowns, 71% of Canadian small business owners were still optimistic.
The pandemic-related challenges facing businesses—both big and small—were inescapable as we began our deliberations to select our CEO of the Year. For more than 15 years, Report on Business writers and editors chose one Canadian executive to honour for their accomplishments. In 2019, we broadened the awards to celebrate five finalists who excelled in different areas, such as strategy and innovation. We pulled together a similar short list of impressive chief executives this year, all individuals who enabled their businesses to thrive during the global pandemic. What our finalists have in common is an ability to look beyond the quarterly reports and business disruptions, and take care of their employees, customers and communities. Take Sean Boyd of Agnico Eagle, who made the decision to compensate workers at his Nunavut mine to stay home, rather than risk a coronavirus outbreak in the northern territory. Or Cargojet’s Ajay Virmani, who extended “hero pay” to his workers. Or Dave McKay at RBC, who has served as a vocal advocate for struggling small business owners.
In this, we find common cause with McKay. When selecting a CEO of the Year, we want not only to celebrate an exceptional leader but also offer a reflection on the year in Canadian business as a whole. And this year, we decided it wasn’t one individual who exemplified 2020, but many. It is the 4.1 million owners of small and medium-size businesses who disproportionately bore the brunt of this year’s economic hardship. But thanks to their innovation, strategy and grit, many small businesses not only survived but are positioned to lead the economic recovery ahead. Our 2020 CEOs of the Year are the people behind small businesses who confronted impossible conditions and, once again, declared business as usual.