Crisis management program and app rolled out to guide employees through stressful situations
Jennifer Suess, SVP, general counsel and corporate secretary
Even though a company can be successful without having a general counsel on staff, adding one certainly can make a difference as to how effectively and efficiently the business operates on a day-to-day basis. When a crisis happens, it’s especially beneficial to have a leader with the vision to steer the company through it. That’s a lesson RioCan REIT has learned since adding Jennifer Suess to its management team.
Suess, who holds the title of senior vice president, general counsel and corporate secretary, is the first general counsel in the company’s 25-year history. While RioCan’s founder and CEO, Edward Sonshine, is a lawyer himself, he realized that it is finally time to bring in somebody to define the legal priorities of the company.
One of the first projects Suess undertook was a reworking of the company’s crisis management protocols. At the time, RioCan was strictly focused on retail properties, particularly shopping malls. (The company has since added residential and office buildings to its portfolio.) While the company had experience managing every type of crisis imaginable, including bomb threats, hostage situations, power outages and severe weather situations, the team had previously not envisioned using technology to streamline responses.
“What we tried to do is give [the planned response] a higher degree of visibility, and make sure that the senior executive team was also well aware of everything that was going on and had input into how to handle these situations as they arise. We just made it more of a formal effort than I think it was previously,” says Suess.
The resulting Crisis Management Program and App, which was rolled out in 2018 — less than a year after Suess was hired — breaks a crisis situation down into six stages: identify the incident, triage the situation, mobilize the most effective response team, communicate what is happening (both internally and externally), resolve the situation and then recover. The software identifies and lists contact information for local response teams and the senior crisis management team. It includes information about dealing with the media and a crisis hotline number. It also outlines exactly what steps to take depending on the situation (shelter in place instructions, directions for dealing with first responders, etc.). The app is designed to walk RioCan employees through stressful and trying situations in a step-by-step manner and gives them the tools to communicate through the application, and yearly training sessions reinforce the best ways to use the tool. Now, the next step is to launch a version suitable for use by the residential side of the business.
Suess also adopted a more structured and formal approach for common business situations. She oversaw the creation of standard form templates for the business units. By eliminating the need for the eight-person legal department (Suess, two lawyers, four clerks and a senior administrative assistant) to be involved in every rental default situation or lease renewal, for example, it frees up the in-house team for other work while empowering the business team to be more efficient and autonomous. This, in turn, gave the legal team an opportunity to work on issues that were formerly sent to external counsel, which resulted in an overall reduction in legal spending in 2018.
Establishing standard approaches to dealing with retailers who want space in RioCan properties also permitted the company to promote its corporate values. One of these is sustainability, and under Suess, the legal department has begun including a “green clause” in its leasing agreements. So far, approximately 200 leasing contracts have been signed that include a commitment to sustainable practices.
“It’s quite simple, and I think it is almost expected in this day and age that you ask your tenants and require them to be responsible for the resources that they consume, and that you build in incentives for the tenants that are more prudent when it comes to utilizing the resources that benefit all of us,” says Suess, adding that “we have over a 90-per-cent success rate in executing leases with these clauses. It’s not something that tenants are resisting, but if we hadn't put it in, I don’t know that they would have asked for it.”
Another value that is important not just to Suess but to the company is ensuring that women have equal opportunities in the workplace and on the company’s board. Suess began the women’s initiative soon after joining, and now the company holds quarterly events and has an internal mentoring program.
“What I had said initially is that this is very important to do, but it only works if the men agree to show up, because the women already know what needs to happen. We need the men to actually buy into this, and they have at every level. I've been very lucky, I think, from a timing perspective — both socially and at RioCan’s point in history — and it's just been a very happy moment to be able to bring forward an initiative of this nature."
Additionally, she has worked to support the board of directors in its efforts to increase the number of women in its ranks. Currently, one-third of its members are women, a percentage that is higher than average in the general Canadian business landscape and, according to Suess, especially uncommon in the real estate world. Suess says offering advice to the board includes providing information on the latest academic research about diversity and inclusion and reports on board management best practices.
Suess also revamped the company’s existing whistleblower program, which resulted in “a tremendous uptake in people who started using the program in a very effective way.” Suess explains that part of that retooling involved putting her own face front and centre as the representative of the legal department, reassuring staff members that there were robust policies in place to deal with whistleblower situations and spending time educating them about the process.
“I think it gave [employees] some comfort when I stood up and said, ‘here is the anonymous hotline that anyone can call if there’s anticipated or suspected breaches of the code of conduct,” she says.
“We want to do the right thing as an organization, but we can't act if we don't know [about problems].”