“The human condition is incredibly resilient” — John Risley, CEO of CFFI Ventures

Published by Speaking of Business Podcast on

Transcript

Goldy Hyder:
Welcome to a special edition of Speaking of Business. I’m Goldy Hyder of the Business Council of Canada. The COVID-19 pandemic has affected us all, as individuals, as communities and as a country. In this special podcast series, we’re exploring the impact of the crisis on Canadian businesses. My guest today is practically a legend in his home province of Nova Scotia. John Risley got his start in the 1970s selling lobsters out of the back of a pickup truck. He co-founded Clearwater and built it up into one of the world’s leading seafood companies. Today as Chairman and CEO of CFFI Ventures, he’s involved in a wide range of different industries from skincare to space, talk about range. He’s a leader in philanthropy and a mentor to many, many young entrepreneurs and startups. Welcome to the program, John.

John Risley:
Pleasure to be here Goldy.

Goldy Hyder:
Now John, you’re a Nova Scotian born and bred and I can’t start this conversation without expressing our condolences to all Nova Scotians for the terrible tragedy that you experienced a week ago. How is everyone?

John Risley:
You can imagine it’s been a shock to everybody in Nova Scotia. These are not the sorts of events that, we don’t want them to happen anywhere, but certainly never expected to happen in a community in Nova Scotia where people don’t lock their doors.

Goldy Hyder:
My first trip to the East from Alberta was to New Waterford, Nova Scotia and I still say to this day, I’ve never met any people nicer than I did then. So I know exactly what you’re talking about. Then in addition to the tragedy, you’ve obviously been dealing with the impact of the virus and the pandemic itself. Talk to us about the effect that this is having on your business.

John Risley:
I don’t worry so much, strangely, about the impact on our business. We’re managing across a variety of our businesses, some are more impacted. Then most of those that depend, if you like, on retail, you mentioned skincare. One of our businesses has its largest customer as Sephora and all their stores are shut, and so the only way to buy from them is through ecom. There are many companies, I think, sort of struggling through this. One worries a bit about the productivity associated with trying to get everybody to work from home and, clearly, we are missing something, if you like, by not being where you could sort of put your pin around somebody’s store and have a chat. I think fundamentally business is going to change as a consequence of that. I travel a great deal, always did, and now I’m having many, many sessions, a user of video conference calls for the first time and finding that we can do many things without physically being there. So we’re struggling but hoping that this is going to get over soon as it needs to get over soon.

Goldy Hyder:
I think you’re in the same shape as a lot of businesses here in terms of trying to figure out both the short term and the longer term. What about the demand side and the supply chain issues? Because you are very global in your operations.

John Risley:
We definitely see China coming back and I wouldn’t say that it’s back to where what is, for instance, let’s say in early December but it’s certainly rebounding and things are getting back to normal. Japan, in which demand was sort of holding up reasonably well, seems to be softening of late. South Korea softening still, rest of Asia generally soft, Europe in trouble still as is North America.

Goldy Hyder:
John, you’ve seen a lot during your business career. How does this compare?

John Risley:
No-one has ever seen anything like this. I don’t know that we’ve ever seen demand fall off a cliff in the same manner it has here. I don’t just mean in the energy space, the restaurant business, the retail business. Generally, as you know Goldy, we are a consumer-led economy. Something like 70% of our GDP is consumer driven and consumer demand. Obviously food at retail is still okay but food services is dead and nobody’s ever seen anything like this.

Goldy Hyder:
You’re a big believer in mentoring young people in business. What advice do you have for them during this crisis in particular?

John Risley:
Keep your eyes and ears open. Listen to what other people are doing. This is not going to last forever. Be careful about the changes that are likely to happen as a consequence of this. Let’s hope governments are beginning to understand that the cure may have been worse than the disease. Let’s hope that while obviously public health has got to be a dominant concern, we cannot afford to continue to operate society in the manner that we are attempting to at the moment and we’ve got to get the economy going again. There are no ifs, ands, or buts. It has to happen. Governments cannot afford to continue to do what they’re doing, anywhere.

Goldy Hyder:
So let’s talk about that because that’s the topic du jour in terms of a restart. We heard Saskatchewan announced last week and today Ontario came out with its plan. Quebec has indicated what its plans are and PEI closer to your neck of the woods. Where is Nova Scotia at?

John Risley:
Still waiting to follow. I don’t expect the Nova Scotia government, being a smaller province, to take the lead in all of this. I think we have largely escaped the kinds of ravages that have beset other communities and that’s good and all credit to the government for that. We are a very rural population and so one would expect that to be the case. There’s a lot of nonsense going on. I mean, it’s just crazy that we’ve closed all our parks. So it’s okay to walk on the sidewalk outside a park, but it’s not okay to walk in a park. I mean it’s bizarre, some of the things.

Goldy Hyder:
How concerned would you be though about a rebound and a second shutdown potentially?

John Risley:
Look, I think we’ve learned a lot. There’s still a lot to learn and I don’t mean to suggest we have all the answers but we do know that this impacts the senior population more heavily than the rest of the population. We do know that people that have some sort of medical precondition have to be much more concerned, particularly those with some sort of respiratory illness. So I think we should take those lessons away and make sure that people who consider themselves to be more vulnerable than others take appropriate precautions. That doesn’t mean that we have to impose those same rigid conditions on the rest of the population. We need to get kids back in school.

Goldy Hyder:
All right, well I guess we’ll see how it plays out. Why don’t we look further on down the road here. What does your crystal ball tell you about the changes that are going to come to the economy and to trade potentially a few years down the road?

John Risley:
I certainly think that governments and businesses are going to become much more aware of supply chain vulnerability than we ever have in the past. Is it okay, for instance, and I’m not answering the question I’m simply asking it, that we should source most of our pharmaceutical products from China? I don’t think that, in my own view, that’s probably not something that we’re going to be prepared to do in the future. That’ll have a big impact on things like drug manufacturing.

Goldy Hyder:
Especially if everybody else in the world is doing the same thing, John?

John Risley:
Yeah, and that’s going to have a big impact on pricing too. I mean the manufacturing that is in China is there because of cost and if we’re going to move it elsewhere it probably means there’s a cost implication. Obviously travel is going to be affected. I would not want to be an investor or shareholder in an airline or a conventional hotel business. I think that if you look at the margins of the hotel business and certainly at the high end, I think the high end will come back over time and I think the low end will come back. I think the mid-range that catered to the frequent business traveller, the sales folks for instance, I think that is going to suffer for a long time.

Goldy Hyder:
Well, I want to find a positive note to end on. John, tell me something positive so we can wrap positively.

John Risley:
The human condition is incredibly resilient and we should not despair at the ability of society to get over this. We’re all sort of glued to the latest COVID news and I saw somewhere that there were over 60 companies around the world working on a vaccine. We will have a vaccine, we will have therapies, we will be able to test people at will. We will be able to get immediate responses to those tests. We enjoy intermingling. We will never shut down retail completely because people enjoy shopping, they want to touch and feel and they want to be in that milieu, if you like, of the shopping experience. So is it going to be as bad as we think? No, absolutely not. Will there be changes as a consequence? Yes and you know what? Lots of people survive and thrive in a change-inspired environment. We just need to make sure that Canada is amongst those countries that does that.

Goldy Hyder:
And we will get through this. That’s a great note to end on, John. Thank you so much for doing this, we appreciate it.

John Risley:
Not at all, my pleasure Goldy.

Goldy Hyder:
John Risley is the chairman and CEO of CFFI Ventures. If you would like to hear more of our Speaking of Business conversations about the COVID-19 crisis, you can find them all wherever you get your podcasts or go to our website, SpeakingOfBiz.ca. Until next time, I’m Goldy Hyder, thanks for joining us.

In light of the COVID-19 emergency, we’ve temporarily suspended our regularly scheduled series of conversations with Canadian CEOs. But we’re not going away. Instead, we’re going to pivot to the health emergency itself. We’re going to explore the impact on companies and workers across the country. And we’re going to find out how business leaders are responding to crisis.

Longtime businessman, philanthropist and mentor John Risley of CFFI Ventures shares his thoughts on how business in Canada will change after COVID-19

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