Growth 2020 CEO Summit

How corporations can do good during a public crisis. Like, say, a pandemic.

A crisis may be the best time to be a good Samaritan, but watch how you handle corporate virtue-signalling

Growth 500: Canada’s Fastest-Growing Companies
Illustration by Genevieve Ashley

Illustration by Genevieve Ashley

A tone-deaf business is always vulnerable to public scrutiny. In March, a high-end grocer in Toronto preyed on the panic-buying public with some price gouging, selling a can of Lysol wipes for an eye-popping $30. When the price tag hit social media, a flurry of critical tweets sent the business into hiding. Its Twitter account has been locked ever since.

But many, many other companies are choosing to help out, rather than take advantage for profit’s sake. In difficult times, businesses have the resources and talent to do significant good.

In May, tech darling Shopify assisted thousands of small businesses in setting up online stores. Companies like Labatt and Canada Goose (No. 216 on Growth 2020) reshaped production lines to produce hand sanitizer and medical scrubs, respectively.

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Canada Goose and others may be making personal protective equipment (PPE), but the many businesses that had to stay open desperately needed masks, shields and hand sanitizer during the severe shortage in the spring. Brandon Luft had enough to worry about before his phone started ringing. “We had our clients calling me directly, saying, ‘Brandon, you have to stay open,’ ” the CEO and co-founder of Shipfusion recalls. His business handles inventory management for e-commerce clients, who rely on Shipfusion (No. 4 on Growth 2020) to send goods to customers and manage wholesale orders.

Working from his Toronto home with his wife and two young children, he had to figure out how to source masks and hand sanitizer for his employees in warehouses across North America. Shipfusion’s vendors helped them get the PPE, and the warehouses stayed open. Then, Shipfusion returned the favour, coordinating with other firms to create CAPES, the Canadian Alliance to Protect and Equip Seniors Living, to provide long-term care homes with 15 million units of PPE that they could buy at cost.

“As a company that was allowed to operate—and essentially considered an essential service—we definitely felt a responsibility to utilize our infrastructure,” Luft says. The company’s corporate social responsibility (CSR) efforts extend further. Shipfusion has partnered with many of its clients to provide complimentary fulfillment services for the organizations of their choice. These organizations range from providing healthy foods and supplements to front-line workers across Canada and the U.S. during the COVID-19 pandemic, to providing containers of lightly worn shoes to refugees in Uganda.

Watch the bottom line

These admirable efforts come with a real cost. Spending resources on good deeds can eat into revenue during a period where most businesses have experienced deep declines in sales. Darren Dahl, a business economist and professor of marketing at the University of British Columbia, says brands need to make “a strategic trade-off” when deciding how much help to offer. “You want to be doing these things. It’s the right thing to do,” he says.

“But you need to think about the long term. Are you going to be able to pay the bills six months from now? A year from now?” It’s a fair question. Companies are trying to survive while adhering to public health orders, which save lives. Few would blame a business for putting itself first. But for those who can afford it, a crisis may be the best time to be a good Samaritan.

Boost morale

Elias Torres was used to his Winnipeg company, eshine Cleaning Services (No. 105 on Growth 2020), being an afterthought. “Cleaning was the last thing any office would throw in their budget. Now it’s pretty much the first thing,” he says. “Being a cleaning company during COVID, we are now looked at as heroes,” says Torres, whose clients include Lactalis Canada (formerly Parmalat Canada), Giant Tiger, Shoppers Drug Mart and restaurants. “We have been able to bring services such as fogging for COVID and disinfecting practices.”

That new-found gravitas has served as a morale boost for employees at eshine, many of whom are recent newcomers. “I have a lot of Latin people that come to Winnipeg,” says Torres, who is Nicaraguan. “[For] a lot of them, this is their first job in Canada.” Torres has also invested in PPE and raised wages.

Be authentic

“I think that the [companies] doing it right are the ones who led with empathy, who were authentic about it, who put employee relations and communications first above all else,” says Melissa Lantsman, vice-president of national public affairs for Enterprise Canada Inc., a PR firm in Toronto.

It’s all too easy to become the story for being a bad boss. Take the Calgary Flames: “They announced plans to cancel shifts for minimum-wage workers at the Saddledome when the [NHL] season closed [because of COVID]. And they were sort of forced to backtrack,” Lantsman says.

Even if your firm doesn’t faceplant into public embarrassment, Lantsman says organizations should use the pandemic to reassess their operations. “If you’re not treating this as a moment where your company can do better, I think you really missed the boat,” she says. “The crisis tests you, it tests your employees, it tests your workforce.”

The crisis hasn’t been the only test. The death of George Floyd, a Black man from Minneapolis who was killed by a police officer, has forced companies to grapple with race relations and social justice.

“When society really hits a rough patch, there’s almost a realignment of what your priorities are,” Shipfusion’s Luft says. He thinks issues like employee health and inclusivity are always important, but even more so now. “One would hope that those types of concerns will start to become more part of a company’s way of thinking versus just the bottom line.”