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Pivoting through a pandemic

In conversation with Priyal Thakrar of Infrastructure Ontario

Priyal Thakrar, chief financial officer and executive vice president of Lending & Technology, reveals what strategic pivots Infrastructure Ontario made, both financially and operationally, and how doing so has made it stronger than ever before.

It wasn’t easy for most organizations to go remote in March 2020, and it was no different for Infrastructure Ontario (IO) as it contemplated the work-from-home mandate not only from its own staff’s perspective, but from that of its many contractors on construction sites and in government-owned buildings.

The Crown agency that oversees the province’s major public infrastructure projects often has people on the ground at work sites, and it had to determine which projects would continue despite the ambiguity triggered by pandemic. We spoke with Priyal Thakrar about how the organization has remained resilient—and how it’s put itself in a good position to deal with whatever’s next.

Deloitte: How has the pandemic affected Infrastructure Ontario, and what are some of the challenges you’ve faced?

Priyal Thakrar: We do so many different things at IO. We manage real estate on behalf of the province. We lead capital projects, transit projects, subway projects, and do things like building hospitals, bridges, and other large infrastructure projects across the province. We lend to municipalities and not-for-profits to support their infrastructure builds. There are a lot of entities and organizations that are dependent on us on a day-to-day basis. That’s a big mandate that keeps everyone quite busy and challenged. When the pandemic struck, we were instantly forced to reimagine everything that we do and how we do it.

For us, the first step was simply being connected. We had made investments prior to the pandemic that enabled our IT team to get our entire organization online in very short order.

Priyal Thakrar: We were then forced to quickly think about our financial viability and liquidity, and working with our partners to ensure we had resources coming in and the ability to pay suppliers and staff. Then we had to address all the projects that were in-flight and the core work we were delivering day-to-day. That meant extending that connectivity to all of our stakeholders across all business lines, making sure that facilities we manage remain open and are cleaned properly, that we have safety protocols, and that construction sites and work sites are open and safe. There’s such a breadth of activity that had to happen in such short order. I wouldn’t say it was seamless, but I would say that we were able to pivot quite quickly.

Deloitte: What did that kind of pivot look like?

Priyal Thakrar: The big pivot for us was just the way in which we operate. We established a series of broad cross functional group of people pretty early in the process and we would meet daily to talk about different issues that were coming up.

We had to create these connectivity forums to ensure that we were thinking about all the potential issues and addressing them. We certainly had a mandate, but when something like this happens, you have to confirm that the things that were important to IO and to the province before the pandemic still remained priorities.

Deloitte: Can you tell us what some of those priorities were?

Priyal Thakrar: Well, one simple example is that we pivoted quite early with the government to try to solve the problem of getting more long-term care beds into the system. The traditional approach to long-term care can take many years to implement. We’ve actually come up with a solution where we’re going to be building rapid long-term care facilities that will be up and running by next year, adding over one thousand beds into the system. That’s an example of things that have come up because of COVID where we’ve been able to pivot with government and help solve a problem together.

Deloitte: How does making a strategic decision like this differ when responding to a crisis?

Priyal Thakrar: It’s very fluid and occurs with a lot of different stakeholders, primarily with government and with different agencies. For example, when you have things like transit projects, the first thing you want to think about when you have a sudden event like a pandemic is if that is still the near-term priority. So, we have those kinds of conversations.

Uncertainty accelerates innovation

Deloitte: Let’s talk more about resilience. Is it a word you used before the pandemic?

Priyal Thakrar: We had talked about resilience in some way, like most organizations had, but what’s happened in the last year changed the way we think about it. Very few organizations would have modelled scenarios like the one we’re living through right now, where you have this type of extended shutdown and work-from-home model. It forces you to take a step back and become laser-focused on the impacts that really matter to your business. Financial resiliency has always been top of mind, but I don’t think we’ve always thought about things like liquidity or our sensitivities to certain market impacts in the way that we do now.

Deloitte: What are some examples of things you’re doing now that are building resiliency going forward?

Priyal Thakrar: When you think about things like lending agreements or legal agreements, pre-pandemic they would be documents that were signed by hand and couriered around to different parties. That isn’t practical in a pandemic. In March of last year, we were looking at approving loan agreements or funding for things like transit projects and we had to come up with a way to digitize these processes, and also ensure that we had ways to electronically meet all of our funding obligations. You’re really forced to build processes on the fly that have the appropriate controls, while also trying to meet all the constituent needs. That to me is one example where you have to all of a sudden move away from the way things were done in the past and fast track into what a future process should look like and build it in real time. Those are processes that are going to live forever now. We’re not going to go back.

Deloitte: That’s interesting, especially when you think of the degree of change in such a short period of time. Given this dramatic shift in core processes, have conversations around resilience become more of a priority for your board?

Priyal Thakrar: They definitely have. One of the first things we did, like most organizations, was prepare an enterprise risk assessment of COVID. It’s a document that looks at the impacts of COVID across all of our business lines and all of our functions. It’s a bit of a living and breathing document that we still keep fresh and we still take to the board at every board meeting. The reason we do that is because it’s just good to have that running inventory of how we’ve evolved and progressed through the last 12 months, and because there are so many things that happened a year ago that we could still learn from. It forces the dialogue at the board level, and the board has been intimately involved in all of our progress and in all of our conversations around what COVID could look like for us and what the impacts are.

Taking a holistic approach

Deloitte: More personally, how have you grown or changed as a leader over the last year?

Priyal Thakrar: We always want to be continuously growing as leaders, but I think the honest answer is that there’s a natural inclination during a crisis to put your head down and think about what needs to get done and move forward. When you put your CFO hat on you just think about the financial issues very quickly and the risk associated with the pipeline of activity. But as a leader, you take a step back after a time and you think about the impact that all the things around you have on your people. And everyone has been impacted by COVID, in many different ways. Some people miss social interactions, some have competing demands with young kids now at home or spouses who are frontline workers, or people in their families who have been sick. It’s really important to spend the time with your teams and really understand how they’re being impacted by not only the work but also the other circumstances, and demonstrate empathy for their situations. Because this is just an extraordinary time that no one’s been trained for.

Deloitte: And what about IO itself–do you think it’s emerged stronger over the last year?

Priyal Thakrar: There’s no doubt we have. We’ve certainly become a lot more rigorous and a lot more connected. We do a lot of different things with very large portfolios and I think we’ve moved away from managing all these things separately and are now an organization that manages them all in an integrated and more holistic manner. The takeaway for all of us is that this organization has been amazing in the way it has managed through this crisis. A lot of our success is also related to IO’s purpose, which drives our people, who care deeply about what they do. When you’re going through a situation like this, it’s a learning opportunity for everyone to focus on what’s really important and what drives the business.

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