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T-birds Leading Through the COVID-19 Crisis – And Whatever Comes Next

June 10, 2020

As CEOs of multinational companies, heads of governments, and leaders of intergovernmental organizations, there is perhaps no group better positioned to share insights into managing through crisis than T-birds. To celebrate Thunderbird Founders’ Day, a group of alums gathered virtually to offer a glimpse into what it’s like to be at the helm during the COVID-19 crisis – and what comes next.

Opening the discussion, Thunderbird Director General & Dean Sanjeev Khagram said, “This is a time to really connect alums around the world and to hear your perspectives on the major impacts of COVID-19 globally, nationally and locally; on how it changes the ways we work and live, lead and manage; and the opportunities potentially arising in a post COVID-19 world.”

 

Do What It Takes to Weather the Storm 

Jimmy Masrin ’87 is Managing Director at PT Lautan Luas Tbk, a distributor and manufacturer of basic and specialty chemicals, based in Indonesia. “We're doing the same things now as we did during the Asian Financial Crisis. We’re in ‘cash is king’ mode. We're on burn rate management, meaning we're trying to weather the storm. We're having to furlough. We're having to retrench. We're already having to restructure banking debts. It is an unprecedented time. It’s very difficult to manage this situation. We just have to weather this storm and hold our breath for the next three to six months.”

Many leaders are in a similar position. Charu Modi ’98, CEO of Modi Academic International Institute, based in India, explained, “All companies that I know of right now are in dialog about looking at voluntary wage cuts, especially at the executive levels. I do expect that this will continue until the end of the year, if not longer.” 

Ken Valvur ’88 sees governments taking the same kind of “weather the storm” approach. Valvur is Founder & Chairman of Bento Sushi and Founder & President of Ontario Spring Water Sake Company, both based in Canada. He said Canada is in a “‘self-induced coma’ as people were referring to this. Our economy is essentially in lockdown mode.” But the country is well-equipped to handle it. “We do generally have a quite stable financial system, which I think leaves most of us confident that even though there'll be some screw-ups initially, we’ll be able to hunker down for however long we have to hunker down.”

Other countries are less able to weather the storm. In Indonesia, the government response has entailed debt restructuring, where principal and interest repayment has been relieved, Masrin said. “Rental payments for some businesses has been relief as well. It's very different than 1997/98 in the sense that then we had other countries or other regions that were able to help. But in this case, it's a global pandemic and everybody's facing the same thing.”

Certainly, it’s a big storm to weather. Walid Badawi ’92, Resident Representative for the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), said, “To quote my secretary general, this the biggest crisis since the founding of the U.N.”

“We just have to weather this storm and hold our breath for the next three to six months.” Click to tweet

“Split Screen” Impacts 

Not every company, or even division, is impacted in the same way. Ken Valvur, who is in the food and beverage business, explained, “Where we sell to large retailers like supermarkets and state-owned liquor stores, it’s not quite business as usual but the wheels are all moving and we can keep on employing people and servicing customers. But when it comes to our own retail premises in shopping malls and on Main Street, those are virtually all shut down now.”

Sanjyot Dunung ’87, CEO & Founder of Atma Global, sees bifurcation in the impact to her business as well. “We’re a digital content company. We create educational content. We’ve seen some mixed results from COVID-19. For example, our travel, airline, and hospitality business is on hold. I don't like to use the word decimated, but we clearly see it as on hold for a year. On the other side are our learning tools, which offer unique and expanded opportunities for blended learning. That’s where we've seen a lot of energy and enthusiasm in the last month or so. So as a company we're already seeing a split screen in terms of our markets.”

For Mark Smucker ’96, President & CEO of The J.M. Smucker Company, business is booming, but that’s not without its own challenges in this environment. “We make pet food, a lot of coffee, and peanut butter and jelly, mainly concentrated in Canada and the U.S. Our business is on fire. We have a very important responsibility to continue to secure the food supply chain in the United States and Canada and continue as best we can to get these products to consumers and the general population.” 

“We have about 7500 employees, two-thirds of whom are either involved in manufacturing or distribution,” Smucker said. “We have actually been doing a very good job keeping our plants running at full capacity. The fact that you see empty grocery store shelves is primarily a function of the fact that there continues to be panic buying. There is not a shortage theoretically of food in the U.S. and Canada based on the amount of products that all of our industry is able to produce.”

Take Advantage of the Opportunity

While the well-known adage ‘Never waste a good crisis’ might go too far, many T-birds agree that there are opportunities in the COVID-19 crisis. Charu Modi explained, “I do feel that this is a great opportunity. On a personal level, it’s really a great time to go inward. It’s an opportunity for self-growth and self-learning.”

In addition to leading through the crisis as founder of E3 Display, a Mexico-based manufacturer of cardboard displays for CPG brands, Antonio Solis ’11 also had to deal with having COVID-19 himself. Seeing the shortage of hospital beds for sick patients, Solis and his business partner, who also had COVID-19, transformed their plant to create cardboard hospital beds. 

The crisis is also an opportunity to rethink the relationship between employers and employees, said Michelle Senecal de Fonseca ’87, Area Vice President at the software company Citrix. “I think employers will have to support their employees more, whether it be mental health, physical well-being, or safety. I think we're also going to see the relationship with the physical office change over time. For those who haven't thought about it in terms of employee engagement, worker safety, the comfort that you have from your own home, how can that be integrated? Offices will become places more for social gathering, collaboration, learning as opposed to a place where you maybe do a functional job. Those are just going to be one of many, many things that I think companies are going to have to actually adapt and change as a result of this crisis.”

Also, Senecal de Fonseca said, “When you go through an event like this, you'll see who the strong leaders are. And I think there will be some changes within our businesses to reflect those who could manage and change direction in a very quick way. I also think there's going to be lots of opportunities. Unfortunately, there will be entities that don't survive but then there will be new entrepreneurial opportunities.”

“Employers will have to support their employees more, whether it be mental health, physical well-being, or safety.” Click to tweet

Madji Sock ’00, Global Operating Partner at Dalberg Advisors, which specializes in global development, hopes the crisis will be an opportunity to continue strengthening emergency preparedness. “I’m based in Dakar, Senegal, and my work covers West Africa. When we went through the Ebola crisis, I was working to help some of our governments establish public health emergency operations centers. There's a commitment within the WHO framework for all countries in Africa to set one up. But it's been a long, difficult process, and it’s still ongoing.”

“Unfortunately, this emergency space gets a lot of attention when there's a crisis. But as soon as things subside, we tend to go back to our day-to-day and forget. So there's a lot of effort to make sure this stays on the agenda,” Sock said. “We will get through this. But how do we make sure the strengthening of the emergency preparedness does not fall off the agenda when this is over?”

Globalization Will Look Different Post COVID-19

“We will not get out of this pandemic without global solidarity, global collaboration and cooperation,” said Walid Badawi. “The disease knows no borders. Overcoming it will invariably require an international framework. And that's why we see renewed vigor in the multilateral system. And this is where I think perhaps in the future we might see a reverting back to strengthen multilateralism as a key pillar of international norms and global cooperation.”

“We will not get out of this pandemic without global solidarity, global collaboration and cooperation.”Click to tweet

Sanjyot Dunung agreed that globalization will persist, but change. “I don't think globalization itself will disappear. People have been trading together for thousands of years. But I do think we're going to see a new model of it, whether it is technology, whether it's about new kinds of supply chains, whether it's even about cooperation in science and technology. We're going to see a revamped version of globalization. And I don't think anybody sitting here today can predict it. But we can be aware of it. Be ready for it.” 

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