Search
Close this search box.
Search
Close this search box.

Whether Competitors Or Colleagues, CEOs Collaborate During COVID-19

Emerson Electric CEO Farr exemplifies how chiefs of companies big and small have been pulling together during the crisis.

Much as government officials across the country have never had as much to do with one another as they have while trying to tamp out COVID-19, the coronavirus also has America’s CEOs talking among themselves in an unprecedented display of cooperation and coordination.

David Farr has been a prominent figure in CEO conversations as chief of Emerson, an $18.4-billion diversified global manufacturer based in St. Louis and former chairman and continuing board member of the National Association of Manufacturers.

“In the environment we’re in now, CEOs need to touch base and find out what each other’s strategies are for dealing with certain situations, and make sure you line up.

“It’s not unknown for us to pick up the phone and talk to each other, of course,” Farr said. “But we’re doing much more of that right now—at small, medium and large companies. Sometimes even with competitors and frenemies, where we’re working together now even though we compete against each other.”

Much of why CEOs are stepping up their conversations revolves around accelerated efforts to produce ventilators, personal protective equipment and other items to battle COVID-19 and other contingencies that have been created by the nation’s crash program to defeat it.

“We’re all trying to do our normal jobs and at the same time many are being asked to do extraordinary things for the country, or do things at the normal speed where you study things and call in consultants,” Farr told Chief Executive. “So CEOs who have relationships with each other are picking up the phone and saying, ‘I know you’re working on this project relative to making masks, and we talked with the president; how can I help accelerate that?’

“The only time I can recall like this was after 9/11. It arises after a real crisis. And as a long-time CEO, I was brought along to believe that in these situations you talk with other CEOs.”

Alex Gorsky, chairman and CEO of Johnson & Johnson, is one of those CEOs. His company is working on producing a COVID-19 vaccine that would be produced in both the United States and Europe, Farr said, and Emerson is a “major supplier to the pharma industry. We’re working with them to be closely aligned to how they get that capacity up and running.” Similarly, Farr said, his company is working with Daniel O’Day, CEO of Gilead Sciences, which also is working on a vaccine.

President Trump actually jump-started much of the current chatter among company chiefs “by bringing in CEOs” to staff his Great American Economic Revival Industry Groups, Farr said. “We’d make contacts to help each other. We were all in crisis mode to help each other, and now we’re doing it to get the economy open. We’re sharing what works and what doesn’t work.”

This has involved sudden cooperation among CEOs who aren’t used to dealing in quite that way with each other. He and Honeywell CEO Darius Adamczyk—whom Farr calls his “frenemy”—had to work out coordination of each company’s facilities to help meet the White House task force’s demand for ramping up production of N95 masks.

“In that kind of situation you can’t be satisfied with just what a procurement guy says,” Farr said. “CEOs have to ask other CEOs, ‘What are you personally committing your company to?’ And then you have to make sure that your people will move heaven and earth to live up to your company’s commitment.”

Over the last couple of weeks, Farr and dozens of other CEOs mounted a sort of grass-roots campaign to get the federal government to pressure Mexico to enable production to continue at some of its plants that produced key components of medical equipment that was final-assembled in the United States.

“The president of Mexico was missing in action,” Farr said. “I started calling CEOs about how we get the Mexican government to wake up and support us and do the right thing … What’s different is that we’re going outside our normal process to make contacts, and we’re using our relationships to make those contacts.”

The growing group of CEOs—which eventually numbered 326—enlisted National Association of Manufacturers’ President Jay Timmons to draft a letter to the White House, which in turn expressed their sentiments to Mexican President Andrew Manual Lopez Obrador. The execs urged him to allow continued operations of facilities owned by these companies, and their suppliers, in Mexico that supported medical-equipment manufacture.

But CEOs’ growing discussions have been extending beyond efforts to ramp up medical-equipment production. For example, Farr said, a St. Louis-area CEO called him last week to discuss ideas with him about how to bring white-collar personnel safely back to work in offices. Beginning today, Farr expanded Emerson’s staff meeting at headquarters to about 50 or 60 people from about 15 people who manned an auditorium-sized room while physically distancing.

Other CEOs called Farr to discuss balance-sheet responses to the pandemic, recalling Emerson’s early steps during the onset of the Great Recession in 2008, which was caused by the collapse of major financial firms. “They remembered that we were doing things faster than others to cope with things back then,” Farr said.


MORE LIKE THIS

  • Get the CEO Briefing

    Sign up today to get weekly access to the latest issues affecting CEOs in every industry
  • upcoming events

    Roundtable

    Strategic Planning Workshop

    1:00 - 5:00 pm

    Over 70% of Executives Surveyed Agree: Many Strategic Planning Efforts Lack Systematic Approach Tips for Enhancing Your Strategic Planning Process

    Executives expressed frustration with their current strategic planning process. Issues include:

    1. Lack of systematic approach (70%)
    2. Laundry lists without prioritization (68%)
    3. Decisions based on personalities rather than facts and information (65%)

     

    Steve Rutan and Denise Harrison have put together an afternoon workshop that will provide the tools you need to address these concerns.  They have worked with hundreds of executives to develop a systematic approach that will enable your team to make better decisions during strategic planning.  Steve and Denise will walk you through exercises for prioritizing your lists and steps that will reset and reinvigorate your process.  This will be a hands-on workshop that will enable you to think about your business as you use the tools that are being presented.  If you are ready for a Strategic Planning tune-up, select this workshop in your registration form.  The additional fee of $695 will be added to your total.

    To sign up, select this option in your registration form. Additional fee of $695 will be added to your total.

    New York, NY: ​​​Chief Executive's Corporate Citizenship Awards 2017

    Women in Leadership Seminar and Peer Discussion

    2:00 - 5:00 pm

    Female leaders face the same issues all leaders do, but they often face additional challenges too. In this peer session, we will facilitate a discussion of best practices and how to overcome common barriers to help women leaders be more effective within and outside their organizations. 

    Limited space available.

    To sign up, select this option in your registration form. Additional fee of $495 will be added to your total.

    Golf Outing

    10:30 - 5:00 pm
    General’s Retreat at Hermitage Golf Course
    Sponsored by UBS

    General’s Retreat, built in 1986 with architect Gary Roger Baird, has been voted the “Best Golf Course in Nashville” and is a “must play” when visiting the Nashville, Tennessee area. With the beautiful setting along the Cumberland River, golfers of all capabilities will thoroughly enjoy the golf, scenery and hospitality.

    The golf outing fee includes transportation to and from the hotel, greens/cart fees, use of practice facilities, and boxed lunch. The bus will leave the hotel at 10:30 am for a noon shotgun start and return to the hotel after the cocktail reception following the completion of the round.

    To sign up, select this option in your registration form. Additional fee of $295 will be added to your total.