Michael Sylvester, FIEAust, CPEng, EngExec.
How many leaders took on the challenge of transforming a company one month before a worldwide pandemic changed everything?
Michael Sylvester became CEO of Blueline Laundry in February 2020. The unexpected crisis that happened next became the greatest test of resilience, adaptability, strategic marksmanship, and leadership.
Blueline Laundry is a 127-year-old registered charity that creates meaningful employment opportunities for people with disabilities and disadvantages through the operation of commercial laundries. It was founded by the Sisters of the Good Shepherd in 1893 to provide employment for disadvantaged women and young girls. The organization is the now the longest-serving commercial laundry in Tasmania, employing almost 240 staff across the state, of whom 35 percent are working with a disability and 20 percent are culturally and linguistically diverse.
After almost 20 years in corporate leadership and non-executive director roles across power, water, manufacturing. and aquaculture, Michael was ready to seek a more purposeful role in an organization where people come before profit. Aligning his professional experience with his personal values, Michael’s passion for social justice was a perfect fit with the purpose of Blueline Laundry.
At the start of 2020, the mandate from the board to the incoming CEO was to restore financial sustainability and to build a robust commercial operation capable of underpinning the charity’s purpose in its own right, providing stable, long-term employment for the most vulnerable people in the community.
“There was a high sense of urgency due to the historically poor financial performance of the organization, so the first turnaround script had to be executed quickly,” Michael explains.
However, there was no time to implement the turnaround strategy that Michael had successfully used in previous CEO roles. Within a month of Michael taking on the role of CEO, the impact of a global pandemic radically changed the nature and requirements of the CEO role.
As the effects of COVID-19 took hold, core operations serving the hospitals and aged care facilities continued; however, the hospitality industry disappeared instantly when Tasmania went into lockdown and closed its borders, resulting in Blueline Laundry losing 83 percent of its business. Just 10 days after Michael had presented a new strategic direction to the Board, he was forced to stand down 60 percent of the workforce.
“For a business whose purpose is about employing people, the forced stand-downs really hurt; it went against the very essence of the business. However, this just made me motivated to the core, to ensure a rapid rebuild of the business and a return to work for our highly marginalized and vulnerable staff,” he says.
Michael faced two unprecedented challenges. First, the immediate viability of the commercial laundry enterprise. Second, managing a vulnerable workforce through stand-downs and the increased risks of laundering potentially infectious linen from the hospitals, aged care homes, and quarantine hotels.
“The business had no survivability plan in place at the time, so we had to think on our feet really quickly and be extremely agile,” Michael says. “The first dance was ensuring continuity of essential service production for the primary health and aged care sectors while rapidly shutting down every cost centre not directly related to production effectiveness.”
The second episode was critical for the state’s infectious control regime. Even as a laundry experienced in servicing the major public and private hospitals and aged care facilities statewide, the sudden emergence and virulent spread of the coronavirus highlighted that a leadership attitude of zero-tolerance to quality control non-conformances was required.
“There was no room for error and we quickly became an advisor to Public Health as we embedded our procedures to identify, control, and manage the laundering process of infectious linen while simultaneously implementing new workplace protocols to protect the health of our workforce,” Michael explains.
A key factor in the success of managing this crisis is that all of Michael’s judgements and decisions have been bullet-like in their speed and accuracy, and while still only early days in the rebuild phase, the results are speaking for themselves. The foundations for financial sustainability were restored in just a few months and the organization can now breathe, with over 95 percent of its revenue earned from its commercial operations—a remarkable achievement in the midst a global pandemic.
For the new CEO, some positive lessons have emerged out of the challenges of the pandemic crisis. First, the place for compassion. “Reflecting on my plan from four months ago, I can see that although the context has significantly changed, the backbone of the plan hasn’t. Its core focus has always been people, as both employees and customers. Truly embracing compassion in the workplace in balance with prudent commercial acumen is an art that is going to be an essential part of the recovery for this business and for my own development as CEO,” Michael says.
The second lesson, the value of real and unparalleled diversity. “The senior leadership team was tasked with exploring untapped creativity within the business. I have used this all-hands-on-deck approach before, so I suspected what the outcome was going to be. We discovered that among our casual staff pool of culturally diverse workers, there were 25 employees with 31 bachelor degrees or higher. We can now fill capacity gaps with professionally qualified staff that were right under our noses the whole time.”
“The opportunity for Blueline Laundry is that we can embrace diversity to an extent never previously adopted by the business, and truly allow the diverse talent from the 15 cultures within our business to shape our thinking and build a stronger future,” he explains.
The third lesson learned is the importance of instilling confidence in the senior leadership team. “We had a rather poor record of delivering positive change within the organization, so at the time of crisis, our confidence seemed pretty low,” Michael says. “Knowing how the behaviours and language of a CEO intimately influence a team, I focused on the resilience that has seen this enterprise weather 127 years history of global crises, and reinforced that the decisions made today would see us in business for another 127 years – that was the only acceptable outcome.”
With Blueline Laundry’s financial stability restored, Michael continues to focus on its full transformation into the benchmark Disability Services Enterprise, embedding its value of “people before profit” through initiatives that enhance people’s resilience and reduce their own vulnerabilities.
“I am proud to lead Blueline Laundry through these challenging times, embracing change and ensuring that we find a new normal,” Michael says. “I feel such a responsibility to lead this enduring business and being at the helm of a charity that changes people’s lives for the better. We must, and we will, get through this.”
Michael Sylvester, FIEAust, CPEng, EngExec.
Chief Executive Officer
59/61 Creek Road
New Town, Tasmania 7008 Australia
LinkedIn: Michael Sylvester