(Bloomberg) — HSBC Holdings Plc’s chief executive officer for Canada, Linda Seymour, spent her first year on the job as what she calls “a virtual CEO.” While Seymour is looking forward to that phase of her tenure being over, the experience has validated her priorities at the helm of one of the country’s biggest banking operations.
Seymour, who took over as president and CEO of HSBC Canada last Sept. 1, has spent the year designing a new work environment for her staff, helping commercial clients expand abroad and moving forward on sustainability programs — just as she’d envisioned. But the prolonged pandemic has upended how those tasks have played out at a firm whose C$117.3 billion ($93 billion) in assets would make it the country’s seventh-largest bank.
“One of the first jobs you have to do as CEO is figure out what are you going to focus on,” Seymour, 54, said in an interview. “The issues that I wanted to make my priorities didn’t change, but the way that we executed it changed.”
Take, for example, HSBC Canada’s plan to move the staff at its dual Toronto and Vancouver headquarters into new offices late this year. The plan for the 1,400 employees in Toronto, announced in 2018, already involved re-imagining the ideal office environment, but a widespread move to remote and hybrid working arrangements, and a continued need for distancing measures, changed the project.
Seymour said she has instructed the site’s builders to make the space as “Lego-like” as possible, with movable walls and electronic whiteboards that can be adapted to staff’s changing needs and work patterns. The new offices will open in December, and employees will move in en masse in January. Similar considerations are playing into the plan to move HSBC’s 1,700 Vancouver staffers into their new location on a similar timetable.
Even before that, the bank will have to navigate bringing employees back to their current locations in the middle of September as the delta variant’s spread complicates many businesses’ return-to-office plans.
“I honestly don’t believe anyone knows what the future is going to hold at this point, given how the past 18 months have played out,” Seymour said. “So we need to have the flexibility to adapt to how our people want to work. Day one will be different from day two.”
The bank, which has more than 135 branches across Canada, is mandating that workers get vaccinated, following government guidance regarding employees of federally regulated enterprises, Seymour said.
The pandemic also changed the bank’s work with commercial clients, its largest business in Canada and the unit Seymour headed for about eight years before becoming CEO last year. Seymour, a Canadian, joined London-based HSBC in 1988 as a graduate trainee in commercial banking and moved into progressively senior roles in commercial banking, retail and wealth, operations and risk.
Even as CEO, Seymour tries to have at least one customer meeting a day to stay attuned to their concerns. She said Canadian companies — perennially focused on expanding beyond the nation’s small domestic market — now are similarly seeking guidance on their supply chains after the pandemic roiled global production and snarled trade routes.
“If you have anything that has an electronic board in it, good luck replacing it right now,” Seymour said. “Even for things like bicycle components, it is very, very challenging. So we’re seeing some of our customers struggle a bit because of supply chains being fractured, and we’ve been able to help a lot of our clients diversify and look to other markets for suppliers.”
The other topic that frequently comes up in those meetings is sustainability, whether it’s helping clients install new, more efficient equipment or assisting them in the overhaul of their products, Seymour said. The bank has already introduced loans and commercial mortgages with environmental components, and is working on a “green deposits” product, she said.
Perhaps the biggest score for HSBC Canada on the sustainability front came in June, when the bank was selected as one of two structuring advisers for the Canadian government’s first issuance of green bonds, along with TD Securities.
“When HSBC and one other Canadian bank — not two Canadian banks — get that structural lead, that speaks to the reputation we have globally and the experience we have,” Seymour said. “So we’re really trying to leverage that.”
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