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Leading with Resiliency: Highlights from BMO’s Forum for Executive Women

COVID-19 Insights March 04, 2021
COVID-19 Insights March 04, 2021
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The BMO Forum for Executive Women is an opportunity to recognize the power and contributions of women leaders and how they shape the future generation of leaders.

If any overwhelming leadership attribute has come to define the past 12 months, it’s resiliency. Our featured speakers this year have all had first-hand experience in leading through truly challenging times.

Katie Kelley, Vice Chair BMO Harris Bank US, spoke with Stacey Cunningham, President of the New York Stock Exchange, the first woman to hold leadership of the exchange.

Jennifer Wendrow, Managing Director, BMO Harris Bank Food, Consumer & Agribusiness Group, hosted a virtual fireside chat with two highly respected business leaders: Debra Cafaro, Chair and Chief Executive Officer of Ventas, an S&P 500 real estate investment trust specializing in life science, senior living and healthcare facilities with an enterprise value exceeding $30 billion; and Carrie Jones-Barber, Chief Executive Officer of Dawn Foods, a family-owned, global manufacturer and distributor of bakery ingredients.

They discussed how they responded with their unique sets of skills in the midst of a crisis. Following is a summary of their discussions. 

Adjusting on the Fly

With a global pandemic, a level of civil unrest that we haven't seen in decades, and the struggles of the global supply chain, 2020 was a year for the ages. All of these events demonstrated why corporate leadership is more important than ever. Cunningham’s position at the NYSE provides her with a unique line of sight into how corporate leadership fared through these challenges.

"What we saw was very swift action from companies,” she said. “They needed to look for solutions and try and help solve the problems that so many people were facing, and that's true across industries. We saw major automakers very quickly turning their assembly lines [and] their manufacturing lines into creating ventilators because the hospitals needed ventilators at the time. And we saw so many companies donating or creating and crafting PPE because there was a shortage of masks.”

Leaders also had to step up for their own companies’ future. Dawn Foods had been gearing up for a great 2020 as the company entered with big plans for its 100th year. They were working on a major strategic acquisition, in the middle of a strategic divestiture, and had teams preparing for e-commerce launches in two countries. By mid-March, of course, things changed.

Dawn Foods sells ingredients to over 50,000 customers in foodservice, supermarket bakeries, artisanal bakeries, and small-to medium size manufacturers in the U.S., Europe and Latin America. That international reach helped it understand what was coming down the pike and make adjustments as quickly as possible.

"One of the things that emerged really quickly was we found that our leader in our Latin America business had gone through the swine flu epidemic,” Jones-Barber said. “He was able to give us the playbook. We followed the rules of the playbook that he had used before, we ran different kinds of models, and we had to determine which of those models was going to be most closely linked to what actually happened to us. We really began seeing that impact to our business, and we were able to get out in front of it.”

Dawn’s global and regional crisis teams prepared to respond to what Jones-Barber called a “tidal wave” of closures in the European market. In the short term, the company lost as much as 80% of its business in some European countries. And with the exception of Mexico, Dawn’s Latin American markets all but vanished.

“It's like they put the closed sign on the door, because we didn't get an order for three months out of that part of our business,” Jones-Barber said. “So the severity was quite different, the responses were different, but luckily for us, we pulled out all the stops and put great plans in place in advance.”

Thanks to its plans, Dawn experienced significant recovery after the initial drop in sales. Part of those plans included taking a different approach to product innovation. “We had product launches ready to go; they take us about a year. We put everything on hold, and that was the right thing to do. Our products are very versatile, [but] our customers needed simplicity. So, we worked with our technical bakery teams and came out with promotions and programs that were more turnkey, because our customers didn't have employees either. So we had to help them get product on the shelf with fewer SKUs and yet as much versatility as our products could offer.”

Staying Ahead of the Game

Like Dawn Foods, Ventas was excited at the start of 2020, as fundamentals in the senior living market, which represents approximately half of its 1200 strong property portfolio, started to stabilize. The company was also in the midst of integrating a multibillion-dollar senior housing acquisition it had completed in 2019. In early 2020, Cafaro had been in contact with friends who run multinational corporations in China and Europe about what they were doing in response to the pandemic. So by mid-February, she was anticipating drastic changes to the business.

“In a crisis environment, having even a week’s or a month’s advance warning puts you so far ahead of everybody else, it's really an important advantage,” Cafaro said. “We understood much earlier than others in real estate that the pandemic was a thing, that this was not just nothing, which is what a lot of real estate people thought. And we geared up in mid-February and understood the magnitude of what could happen financially and clinically, and we did everything we could to get ready for it. There was nothing we could do obviously to stop it, but we did lots of crisis management activities in preparation for remote working and other things I've never done before in my career. And it was incredibly helpful when the rest of real estate caught up into realizing that we had a global crisis on our hands.”

Digging Deep  

Cafaro has led through crises before, including the aftermath of 9/11 and the 2008-2009 financial crisis. But the magnitude of the pandemic presented unique challenges that required her to take action outside her comfort zone.

“What was really difficult was the clinical aspect in seeing seniors, patients, physicians and frontline workers getting sick, and seeing our tenants close and not be able to run their businesses,” Cafaro said. “We spent a lot of time on public policy and outreach to policymakers about real estate and about healthcare. We put the full weight of the firm behind trying to assist our tenants and the residents and frontline workers.

“I've been through a lot of financial crises before, but this was so different,” Cafaro added. "It was and continues to be a very heavy experience of understanding the confirmed cases that were in our senior living communities, in the frontline workers, in the hospitals, and getting reports every day about how many people who were lost to COVID. I've never had to experience that before, and it's something we're still fighting the good fight about. We concluded that we would do everything within our power, even though we are not the care providers, to enable things like testing, to procure PPE for the workers, to give financial support to tenants so they could pay overtime to workers and procure PPE.”

Building an Arsenal of Resiliency

Like many organizations, the NYSE had to quickly pivot to a remote workforce. That it had to do so during a period of intense market volatility is even more impressive. That kind of improvisation requires a certain amount of planning.  

“Thriving during periods that require resiliency requires that mindset ahead of time,” Cunningham said. “You need to be ready for stress. You build all of the mechanisms that you introduced for security, whether it be for our markets, or your own business, or your own personal life. You're building that bank, and then you tap into that bank when crisis strikes.”

Building that bank, Cunningham said, comes through having the mechanisms in place to respond to a crisis, and then following through on those procedures when crisis strikes. That came into play during the initial wave of extreme market volatility in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, when some investors were calling on the NYSE to shut down the market.

The exchange had longstanding measures in place to respond to different levels of market activity. It was Cunningham’s job to reassure investors, and the public at large, that the NYSE was taking all the appropriate steps.

"We've tested, as an industry, all of the mechanisms to operate the markets remotely, to trigger market-wide circuit breakers during extreme volatility, to trigger our business continuity plans and close the trading floor—all of that has been tested,” she said. “And you say, This is something that we've done. Don't panic, don't worry, we're going to get through this. That was my focus, just ensuring that people understood we had been planning for this and we were testing it, and we weren't going to make rash decisions. Those predetermined actions exist to limit market risk so that people know how the markets are going to behave and [provide] that level of certainty.”

For Ventas, resiliency comes through diversification. In addition to senior living communities, the company’s vertical markets include life sciences, medical office buildings and hospitals. Cafaro said the pandemic has only strengthened its commitment to diversification.

“We know that the unexpected does occur on a regular basis, so we've built the company to be able to weather shocks that are unexpected,” Cafaro said. “It really did reinforce our commitment to diversification in terms of keeping the company on a level, steady path even during a really severe external shock.”

Rising to the Challenge

If the events of 2020 have proved anything, it’s that strong leaders can dig down and find they’re even more resilient than they would have expected. Dawn took bold, decisive action early in the pandemic and made the best decisions it could for its business, team, and customers. 

“I found that my leadership style, which is trusting and based on integrity and the rest of our values, really lived up to what it needed to be. Sometimes you’ve just got to reach down, and you don't even know how resilient you are.”

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