Medline reflects on leadership during COVID disruption

Empire CEO shares the three priorities the company focused on during the pandemic
Michael Medline

The early days of the pandemic showed how quickly Canadians can do things when they pull together, but there are signs the solidarity is disappearing, says Michael Medline, president and CEO, of Empire and its wholly-owned subsidiary Sobeys.

“There’s so much we could do if we work together, and if we start carping at each other all the time, it’ll make our country weaker, and it will hurt our people,” he said.

Medline and Scotiabank president and CEO Brian Porter were speaking April 27 at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management.

Both contributed to the book Unprecedented: Canada’s Top CEOs on Leadership During COVID-19, featuring first-person stories from 29 CEOs.

Medline said he is seeing corporations demonized regularly today “and I don’t think it’s fair in some cases.” Companies have a role to play “and they’re doing the best they can.”

Setting priorities 

At the start of the pandemic, Sobeys had only three priorities, Medline said.

One was to keep customers and staff safe and healthy.

Another was to keep the shelves stocked “because people have to eat, and I don’t think people know how close we were to dire consequences.” Only the solid job done by farmers, suppliers and competitors averted a food supply catastrophe, he said.

The third was to support favourite charities “because they were in really bad states.”

Making decisions on the fly

Medline said companies that were disciplined and well-structured were in good stead when the pandemic began. But “if you were uncomfortable making decisions quickly or without full information, you were doomed.”

Rapid decision-making served Sobeys well with the expedited launch of Voilà, its online grocery delivery service, during the pandemic. “We rushed Voilà to market even faster than we thought we could.”

Recognizing excellence

He added he is travelling with his chairman and company executives across the country to give out 56 awards to frontline workers who excelled during the pandemic. “I could’ve given 56,000 awards to people who did extraordinary things,” he said.

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