‘The Most Painful Decision of My Career’: How Top Execs Responded to Covid-19
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‘The Most Painful Decision of My Career’: How Top Execs Responded to Covid-19


Members of the second annual All-Canada Executive Team discuss the biggest challenges and toughest decisions their companies faced in 2020.

In a turbulent year dominated by an unprecedented health crisis, top-ranking chief executives across Canada have taken decisive action to protect their staff, support their customers, and — in the most hard-hit industries — keep their businesses alive.

“The dreams, plans, and hard work of so many have been undermined by the global pandemic,” said David McKay, CEO of the Royal Bank of Canada, who observed how devastating this past year has been for so many families and businesses: “The sudden loss of loved ones. The loss of jobs and small businesses. Missing out on the valuable experiences of a normal school year.”

When Covid-19 hit, McKay acted quickly, temporarily closing hundreds of RBC branches and enabling nearly 90 percent of employees — more than 75,000 across 36 countries — to work from home. The CEO was rewarded for his response to the pandemic by buy-side analysts, money managers, and sell-side researchers at securities firms and financial institutions, who ranked McKay first among chief executives in the financial institution sector in Institutional Investor’s sophomore All-Canada Executive Team

At Canadian Pacific Railway, chief executive Keith Creel was also focused on supporting staff, or who he called the “Canadian Pacific family”: the frontline, essential workers who continued to deliver services and goods during the pandemic. Creel worked with unions to top-up benefits for Canadian Pacific’s furloughed employees in return for shorter recall times, so that they could get back to work sooner. “While we didn’t always get everything right, I can tell you we have approached every decision with our Canadian Pacific family in mind,” he said.

Elsewhere, the sudden drop in customers as people retrenched indoors forced what Air Canada chief Calin Rovinescu described as “the most painful decision of my career”: laying off half of the airline’s workforce. “Given the disappearance of more than 90 percent of our business, we regrettably had to retrench and downsize,” he said.

In the face of great challenges, all of Institutional Investor’s top ranking CEOs embraced innovation. “Crisis is the motherhood of invention,” Creel said. Lower volumes allowed Canadian Pacific to build longer and heavier trains — efficiencies the company has been able to retain as volumes have ramped up again. Meanwhile, RBC deepened its digital relationship with clients as people turned to online services at a more rapid pace. It took three years for the bank’s online financial planning platform MyAdvisor, which enables clients to receive insights and counsel in real time, to reach one million clients — and only one year to surpass the two million mark. 

At Air Canada, Rovinescu said all aspects of the business have been adapted to the new paradigm, including ramping up air cargo even as revenue from passenger flights “disappeared.” The airline removed seats to create extra space, completing 3,000 cargo-only flights in the first nine months of 2020, something Air Canada “did not do at all” before Covid-19. “Managing this sudden and prolonged disruption forced us to act in ways we would have never anticipated in a highly compressed timeframe,” Rovinescu said.

After a year of extremes, some chief executives are simply happy they made it through. “My solace is the certainty our airline will survive and that we will rebuild,” Rovinescu said. “Covid-19 will reshape our industry leaving fewer, more competitive players.”

Keith Creel, Canadian Pacific Railway

What has been the greatest challenge for your sector this year?

The Covid-19 global pandemic changed the world at a rate we have not previously seen. We focused on controlling what we could control. Canadian Pacific’s operating model is resilient, and our diverse book of business demonstrated its strength. This resiliency is what gave us the confidence to continue to provide earnings guidance throughout the year despite the uncertain macro environment. The true differentiator for Canadian Pacific continues to be our Canadian Pacific family: our frontline, essential workers who have banded together and continue to serve and deliver essential goods for the North American economy in its time of exceptional need. It’s truly an honor to serve alongside them and lead this iconic company. 

What was the toughest decision you made in 2020?

It is not the challenge that defines us; it is how we respond. Every decision we made this year was to protect our people. Whether it was sending staff not in critical operating roles to work from home or significantly enhancing our cleaning protocols, we put our people first. 

Have there been any unexpected opportunities for your business this year?

Crisis can be the motherhood of innovation and this year saw a lot of innovation from the Canadian Pacific family. The lower volume environment allowed us to operate more efficiently and to build longer and heavier trains. As the volume is coming back, we are retaining those efficiencies. We continued to invest record capital into the business and found ways to stretch our capital dollars, setting records in terms of capital efficiency. We also used the decreased volume environment as an opportunity to pull forward capital spend originally planned for 2021, which sets us up extremely well as the volume and economy continue to recover.

How is your company innovating?

We are innovating on multiple fronts — be it with our patented cold wheel technology that allows us to detect more defects than a standard brake inspection or our broken rail detection in dark territory, which allows us to identify a broken rail before an incident occurs. Our innovation is focused on improving what is always our top priority: safety. Canadian Pacific has been North America’s safest railroad the past 14 years and we’re focused on continuing to improve. Safety is a never-ending journey. We made great strides in the ESG space this year with being included on the Dow Jones Sustainability North America index, and being recognized by Corporate Knights’ 2020 Clean 200. We are also innovating by building a solar garden that will power our head office operations beginning in 2021. 

What is the greatest challenge that lies ahead for 2021?

The continued uncertainty surrounding the pandemic certainly stands out. We will continue to focus on what we can control. We're in the middle of a pandemic, but I am optimistic we will get through this.

What opportunities do you see for 2021?

2021 is full of opportunities. We have a strong pipeline of new business coming online that will create growth for years to come. We have a thousand acres of strategic land assets to develop over the next five to ten years. We have been the fastest-growing railroad for the last three years, and we plan to continue to leverage that momentum into 2021. I’m excited about what lies ahead.

David McKay, Royal Bank of Canada

What has been the greatest challenge for your sector this year?

First and foremost, the biggest challenge was ensuring the health and safety of frontline workers, including many of our employees, clients, and community members. That was priority number one. 

I believe we have an important responsibility to help our clients, communities, and society move forward toward a better future. We actively supported our customers – advising millions of personal, commercial, and institutional clients and making available billions of dollars of financial relief to protect jobs and bring stability to so many lives. Alongside these efforts, we provided support to our communities at their most vulnerable, including so many who are helping create a fairer, inclusive, and more sustainable world.

The global pandemic and the ensuing economic challenge tested society, and Royal Bank of Canada, like never before. I’m proud of the meaningful difference we made in the lives of so many.

What was the toughest decision you made in 2020?

I wouldn’t describe this as the toughest decision we had to make this year, but one of the most necessary. 

It became very clear to me that we need to do so much more – as leaders, individuals, and organizations – to stop long-standing and systemic racism, intolerance, and discrimination against Black, Indigenous and people of color in our society. While we can’t change the past, we can and must take advantage of the opportunity in front of us to change the future.

This year, I spent a lot of time listening to people inside and outside the bank, including candid and uncomfortable conversations with BIPOC and other underrepresented employee groups at RBC. 

We knew we couldn’t move on without addressing this problem and that’s why we announced new commitments that will play a role in tackling the root causes of social injustice and encouraging a more inclusive economic recovery in the markets we serve, including a $100 million commitment in small business loans over five years to Black entrepreneurs. 

Have there been any unexpected opportunities for your business?

The pandemic inspired us to focus on bigger things – to reevaluate the things that don’t add as much value as we might have thought in the past.

Overall, this crisis unquestionably accelerated our culture of change and our journey to continue to reimagine our services and how we create value for clients.

How is your company innovating?

RBC is always innovating. We’re continuing to invest in our differentiated technology platform and are focused on helping our clients thrive in this economy. From teaching seniors to bank online and offering solutions that enable businesses to harness smart technology, to advocating and leading the way on the responsible and ethical use of AI.

We’re also using data analytics and digital platforms to understand and meet clients’ needs, and deliver new solutions. For instance, our Capital Markets AI-based electronic trading platform, Aiden, executes trades based on live market data, and dynamically adjusts to new information and learnings from each of its previous actions.

At the same time, our “beyond banking” focus is creating new and differentiated services through RBC Ventures. For instance, over 25,000 entrepreneurs have used Ownr – an RBC venture that allow users to register and incorporate – to launch and begin to grow their business.

As we move ahead, we’ll keep creating more value through our tech and data strategy to help bring our clients greatest ambitions to life.

What is the greatest challenge that lies ahead for 2021?

The uncertain duration of the pandemic is one of the most difficult challenges ahead, straining individual, business, and government financial resources in the communities we operate in around the world. 

It’s so critical we stay focused on balancing the need to protect health and safety, while also protecting the economy through this phase and into 2021. This includes the role we can all play as individuals in following the advice and guidelines of our local public health experts.

What opportunities do you see for 2021?

Many people worry the pandemic may shift priorities away from tackling one of the most pressing issues of our age – climate change – and the need for a strategic plan to move towards net zero.

I believe the financial system needs to be leading efforts to support clean economic growth and the transition to a low-carbon economy. That includes an aspiration to help the world meet its energy needs and move to increasingly cleaner fuel sources. Royal Bank of Canada’s climate strategy is focused on working with our clients and communities, using our capital as a force for positive change. Our $100 billion sustainable finance commitment by 2025 is balanced with investments we are making in our energy and natural resource clients. This enables them to continue investing in innovation to reduce emissions and remain leaders on the global stage.

Calin Rovinescu, Air Canada

What has been the greatest challenge for your sector this year?

The global shutdown of air travel due to Covid-19 is our industry’s greatest challenge in its entire history. Virtually overnight, 90 percent or more of our revenue disappeared as people stopped traveling and governments imposed travel restrictions. Managing this sudden and prolonged disruption forced us to act in ways we would have never anticipated in a highly compressed timeframe.

What was the toughest decision you made in 2020?

In the most painful decision of my career, we were forced to reduce our workforce by half after adding more than 10,000 jobs over the previous decade. My solace is the certainty our airline will survive and that we will rebuild.

Have there been any unexpected opportunities for your business in 2020?

One segment that has thrived is air cargo. First there was a demand to ship PPE and other essential medical supplies, and beyond this there has been an increased demand for air freight due to online retailing and to fill the gap left by the disappearance of so much of the commercial flying that normally shipped cargo.  

How is your company innovating?

In response to air cargo demand, we modified several aircraft, removing seats to create extra cargo space. We flew 3,000 cargo-only flights in the first nine months of 2020 — something we did not do at all before Covid-19. Beyond this, we have adapted all aspects of our business including new financing deals, new touch-less airport services and onboard protocols for biosafety, and developing new revenue streams, such as operating commercial flights on our all-Business Class Jetz aircraft, which were previously only for charter flights. 

What is the greatest challenge that lies ahead for 2021?

Our focus will remain on managing Covid-19 as its ill effects will continue, but we are pivoting to a more proactive stance. For example, we have initiated various Covid-19 testing trials and pilot programs aimed at increasing safety while making it more convenient to fly by showing governments that they can safely reduce quarantine times and other restrictions. As well, we are looking to start restoring our network and to begin rebuilding our company.

What opportunities do you see for 2021?

We have been managing Covid-19 with an eye to this future, for example retiring older, less efficient aircraft and moving forward key initiatives to attract new customers, such as the launch of our transformed Aeroplan loyalty program. We are also being prudent with our balance sheet, maintaining liquidity so that we have the financial wherewithal to compete.


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