14 CEOs on how to reopen businesses in the coronavirus economy

We asked Fortune 500 chief executives in an array of industries to share how they are thinking about next steps in dealing with reopening during the coronavirus pandemic.
May 18, 2020, 8:30 AM UTC

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Call it a marshmallow test for executives: During the novel coronavirus pandemic, how long can a business leader keep his or her organization functioning under emergency protocols before the urge to resume normal operations becomes too great to ignore? Though the curve of global COVID-19 cases is flattening (and the economic pain of mitigating its spread beyond comprehension), the risks of prematurely reopening for business are too great to entertain. That is to say: No one wants to show up early to the post-pandemic party. We need only let history be our guide. Most deaths from the 1918 Spanish flu, which infected about a third of the world’s population, arose from a “second wave” of infections, when troop movements during World War I undermined nations’ efforts to mitigate the disease by shuttering activity at home. So how to reopen for business this time around? We asked 14 Fortune 500 CEOs in an array of industries to share how they’re thinking about next steps. All of them advocate caution. Many are using the moment to focus on fundamentals. And a few see a glimmer of opportunity at an otherwise dreadful moment for humanity. To learn more, read on.


1. Jim Hackett, CEO, Ford

Take it one step at a time.

Our mindset going into this was that we were going to see a V-shaped curve. That is up for intellectual debate, so we tried to protect as many jobs as we could. At the top of the company, we took pay reductions. The idea is to get everyone back to work. I suspect we’ll have a stepped approach. One of our factories has 7,000 people in it; they can’t all show up at the door one day and expect to be productive. So we have to turn it on in waves. We need the economy to respond from a demand perspective. So we’re talking to people in government and saying, If you could create some incentives at the end of this, that would be helpful to the whole industry. —As told to Susie Gharib

2. Sonia Syngal, CEO, Gap

Use this moment to rethink the future.

Cayce Clifford

When covid-19 hit, we saw a meaningful acceleration in our online business. For us, the opportunity of this crisis is using our omnichannel capabilities to help store teams quickly prepare to open to the public as well as manage inventory against online demand. In the meantime, we are in active discussions with our landlords. It was a strategic call to not pay rent in April for stores closed by public health orders. We’re also using this as a moment to think about what we want our fleet to look like. We’ve announced a series of safety measures for our stores. In this new world, everybody has a responsibility to each other, and we have a responsibility to provide a safe retail environment. The government’s job is to advocate for that and to enable that. As for sales trends? The casualization of how Americans are dressing and the focus on activewear have accelerated in the COVID-19 crisis. And kids and babies continue to grow in any environment. Last time I checked, people put on clothes every morning. It’s a need. —As told to Phil Wahba

3. Heyward Donigan, CEO, Rite Aid

Accept the new normal.

Alex Brandon—AP

The world never went back to normal after Sept. 11, 2001, and we won’t go back to the old normal now. We’re rethinking our supply chain. We are not going to allow ourselves to ever be in short supply of gloves, masks, or hand sanitizer. We will have a broad and diverse supply chain for immunity boosters, like vitamin D and vitamin C. We’ve picked up market share in grocery, too, and generally when you pick up market share, you keep it. —As told to Emma Hinchliffe

4. Christopher Nassetta, CEO, Hilton Worldwide

Be wary of a new wave.

Kevin Dietsch—UPI/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The biggest obstacle I’m seeing is the tension between a desire to get back to our old routines and concern about the continued spread of the virus. The best way to address it is to build confidence that consumers can move about safely by offering robust testing and doubling down on containment. As we gain a greater understanding of those who are most vulnerable, we need to do everything we can to protect them. —As told to Rey Mashayekhi

5. Steve Mollenkopf, CEO, Qualcomm

Andrew Harrer—Bloomberg via Getty Images

It’s amazing how quickly our organization adapted to a new working environment. Part of it is that we had already been instrumented to be able to do something like that. I think if we had [nearly everyone working remotely] 10 years ago, the industry would have fallen apart.As told to Clifton Leaf

6. Lynn Good, CEO, Duke Energy

Remember what’s important.

Cassi Alexandra—Bloomberg via Getty Images

When you’re in the midst of a crisis like this, priorities become clear very quickly: Take care of your customers and employees. Make sure you provide essential services they need. Beyond that, think about scenarios and outcomes over the longer term: financial results, for example, or policy changes. As we go forward, we will respond to longer-term economic impacts. We understand the importance of delivering certainty to our investors. —As told to S.G.

7. Margaret Keane, Synchrony

Follow the money.  

Courtesy of Synchrony Financial

People are spending. I think the real test is going to be, How long are people going to be out of work? Do we see a bounce back? What worries me—what I lose sleep at night about—is that there are an enormous number of small businesses out there that are shut. I do think we have to start opening businesses up to get people back working. For us, the factor is really going to be how quickly people can get a paycheck and get back to work. —As told to S.G.

8. Ed Bastian, CEO, Delta Air Lines

Prepare for more turbulence.

Erik Tanner—The New York Times/ Redux Pictures

Business is bouncing along the bottom right now. There’s not much lower we can go. That’s the good news. We’ve got to rebuild and instill confidence in the traveling public that it’s safe to travel again. We’re rethinking the entire customer experience. We’re implementing all the social distancing measures you can take. We’ve changed the entire boarding process—it’s not safe for the people in front to have people parading past them, so we’re now boarding from the back of the plane. We cap load factors—we will not board a plane that’s more than 60% full in the main cabin or 50% full in first class. We’re sanitizing—our cleaning scores are through the ceiling. We’re taking the opportunity to rethink what the business will look like in the future. We’re not necessarily going to build back what we had. We’re saving cash to get through a difficult winter and maybe two years of difficulty. We’ll see it through by preserving our financial flexibility and building up a pretty big nest egg. —As told to S.G.

9. Giovanni Caforio, CEO, Bristol-Myers Squibb

Walk the walk, don’t just talk the talk.

Returning to normal life is going to happen in stages. We are going to have to learn as we go. It is possible that the reopening of society and the economy will result in an increase in the number of infections. We have educated our workforce to recognize signs and symptoms of the disease when there is an employee reporting symptoms of concern. We have a mechanism for that employee to be tested, and we also have the ability to track the contacts that that person may have had in a plant to alert the people who may have been in contact with them. That strategy has been very successful because we’ve been able to enable our people that we need to be in the plant to stay safe and healthy. —As told to Sy Mukherjee

10. Kevin Johnson, CEO, Starbucks

Leverage what you’ve learned so far.

Kyle Johnson—The New York Times/Redux Pictures

Learning from our stores in China, we began taking progressive steps to contain the spread of the virus in late February. Now our U.S. business is transitioning into the “monitor and adapt” phase. We are reopening stores with safety protocols and modified formats. We are promoting social distancing by directing customers where to stand and limiting the number of customers in a café, providing partners with protective equipment, maintaining elevated sanitation procedures for the foreseeable future, and promoting low-contact channels for customers. Our app will optimize for curbside pickup, entryway handoff, improved drive-thru experiences, and voice ordering through Siri. We will shift toward more cashless experiences and predict that our mobile app will become the dominant form of payment. Our belief is that these impacts are temporary, as evidenced by our continued recovery in China. We believe the focused actions we are taking will help to restore upward momentum in our U.S. business. —As told to Rachel King

11. Michelle Gass, CEO, Kohl’s

Put your best foot forward…

We need customers to adjust to this new normal. We’ve been able to maintain strong relationships with them while stores have been closed. We know customers are ready and excited to return. Job number one for us is to welcome them back. If you show how much you care by creating a safe and comfortable shopping experience, you can expect business to return over time. But no one exactly knows when; no one has navigated a global pandemic like this. For us, it’s getting back to our core tenets. We’re not in malls. We’re easy to come in and out of. We have spacious stores. We’ve historically attracted mission-driven customers [who go to the store for specific items]. All of this plays to our strengths. —As told to P.W.

12. Charles Scharf, CEO, Wells Fargo

…but don’t get ahead of yourself.

Tom Williams—CQ Roll Call, Inc. via Getty Images

It is important that we begin to open the economy, but it needs to be done in a way that protects the public’s health. We should remind ourselves that the virus is not gone. The improvements we’ve seen are due to the measures taken to control its spread. If we go back to previous behavior without the proper controls in place, we will likely see new waves. I know that at Wells Fargo, we will be thoughtful as we begin planning for an eventual, phased return to the ­office. —As told to R.M.

13. Jeffrey Gennette, CEO, Macy’s

Play to your strengths.

Jeenah Moon—Bloomberg via Getty Images

We’re cutting back on our spend as we look at 2020 and 2021. But I can tell you what we’re going to amplify: digital. Still, there is still a huge role for stores. When we come out of this, people are still going to want to go to stores. Customers want better experiences and better brands. That is of the same order of opportunity as digital. We’re going to be smaller and we’re going to be more leveraged. But we have a path forward. —As told to P.W.

14. Chuck Robbins, CEO, Cisco

David Paul Morris—Bloomberg via Getty Images

My peers have made comments like, “If you had told me in January that 95% of my employees would be working from home and the firm would be running as well as it is, I would never have believed it.” Now that we recognize what’s possible, that paradigm shift is going to stay with us.—As told to C.L.

A version of this article appears in the June/July 2020 issue of Fortune with the headline “How to Reopen.”