‘You have to be prepared’: How the CEOs of Chevron, Nasdaq, Cisco, and Flex dealt with the pandemic
In gathering for the 2021 edition of the Fortune Global Forum, business leaders reflected on the one inescapable topic that has dominated the agendas of their companies, and the wider world at large, over the past 15 months.
There is hardly a facet of the global economy that the coronavirus pandemic has not touched, impacted, or transformed—an influence that continues to be felt even as the world gradually reopens and recovers in 2021. (After all, this year’s Global Forum remains a virtual one, with speakers and attendees continuing to participate virtually.)
Corporate leaders from a diverse array of industries spoke of the unforeseen obstacles imposed by the pandemic, including macroeconomic headwinds, supply chain disruption, and internal organizational challenges. Difficult as those issues have been, they also noted how COVID-19 forced companies to adapt and innovate like never before while also presenting new opportunities—in many cases leading to positive outcomes and more efficient ways of doing business.
“The pandemic reinforced a few things: number one is that you have to always be prepared,” Chevron chairman and CEO Michael Wirth said. He noted that the energy giant “had a pandemic response plan on the shelf” and had done drills for such a situation, no matter how unlikely. “It reinforced our commitment to preparation.”
Of course, Chevron also had to deal with a collapse in oil prices last year as a result of the pandemic’s depressing effect on demand, with crude oil veering into negative territory for the first time in history. But even in that respect, Wirth says Chevron was “prepared for a down cycle in commodity prices,” and was able to “take advantage of acquisition opportunities” like its purchase of Noble Energy.
With oil prices now climbing back up to their highest levels in several years, Wirth said the industry is now seeing an uneven rebound in demand across varying industries and national economies. While gasoline demand has spiked as more drivers return to the roads, demand for aviation fuel continues to lag amid a slower recovery for commercial airlines—with a similar dynamic between countries that are well into reopening (like the U.S.) and those still under lockdown measures (in Europe and Asia). For Chevron, Wirth said the company must “make sure we can operate reliably even as economies are moving forward at different rates.”
The pandemic also disrupted supply chains globally, forcing many companies to rely on more local sources of materials and services. It was an abrupt evolution that Revathi Advaithi, CEO of electronics manufacturing firm Flex, said will likely linger for some time after companies were forced to recalibrate their supply chains on the fly.
“The pandemic showed that people don’t want to be reliant on global supply chains,” she noted—though conceding that it’s “not possible for some companies in various manufacturing sectors,” as evidenced by an automotive industry currently struggling with a shortage of semiconductors. With large swaths of the global economy now reopening, Advaithi said consumer demand is now “looking fantastic,” but that “the big question moving forward” will be how quickly companies are able to procure the supplies and labor they need to return operations to pre-pandemic levels.
In the realm of finance, last March’s historic stock market selloff was a worrisome time for investors and financial services providers alike. “A lot of fear was entering the markets,” Nasdaq president and CEO Adena Friedman recalled. “It was stressful, but also a proud moment for us and others in the industry to know that we could weather that storm.”
As Friedman noted, pandemic prompted innovation as far as the IPO process for companies pursuing a public listing was concerned. What was traditionally a two-week-long “roadshow,” in which companies would travel the country meeting prospective investors, was transformed into a condensed, remotely conducted process that turned out to be much more efficient for all involved.
“That all went online, so it was all done over videoconferencing and it was much more efficient—instead of two weeks, it took three days, and you could get so many more meetings in,” Friedman said. In turn, the pandemic may well have permanently overhauled one of Wall Street’s traditions; Friedman says she hopes that the expedited, digitally-enabled roadshow experience remains moving forward, as it allowed the exchange to manage significantly more IPOs. Nasdaq set a record last year with more than 300 public listings—a record it has already shattered halfway through 2021, with roughly 350 public listings to date this year.
But in no way did the pandemic disrupt how companies operate more than how they manage their own people. Remote work, a model long viewed skeptically by many businesses, rapidly became the default as employees were forced to stay at home. Now, as companies have seen firsthand the benefits of the work-from-home model, it’s unlikely many ever return to the former status quo.
Instead, a hybrid model that would see employees split their time between working at the office and from home is likely “the way of the future,” Cisco CEO Chuck Robbins said—with those whose jobs require more in-person collaboration, such as engineers, likely to spend more time in the office.
Robbins added that the pandemic has prompted his tech conglomerate to rethink how its workforce is dispersed. Moving forward, he said Cisco will look to develop “satellite R&D offices,” including in lower-cost metropolitan markets where it can attract and retain talent outside of high-cost-of-living coastal tech hubs. In any case, Robbins noted that it’s now clear that companies are no longer living in a world “where the people that work for us are punching clocks.”
“It was a whole lot easier to send people home than it will be to bring them back [to offices],” he said.