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Eye of the storm

Kathy Bardswick, recently retired as CEO of The Co-operators Group, championed sustainability and an authentic cooperative spirit during her leadership tenure.

As a captain of corporate sustainability, Kathy Bardswick is a tenacious champion of ethical business practices and responsible decision-making. A moral steward, if you will. So, it is somewhat ironic that the former president and CEO of The Co-operators Group first got her foot in the door under the pretense of a false identity. True story.

In 1978, Bardswick was graduating from McMaster University’s MBA program with substantial student debt, having gone straight to grad school after obtaining an undergradu- ate degree in mathematics from the University of Manitoba. Her mother Annastasia — worried that she’d have to support her daughter financially — saw an ad in the paper for an underwriter’s position and applied on her behalf. When someone from The Co-operator’s called to follow up, her mother pretended to be Kathy and aced the initial telephone conversation, later telling her daughter, “By the way, you have a face-to-face interview.”

“I could have been red,” Bardswick recalls with a laugh. “Years later, I saw my HR file. She had handwritten a cover letter to go with my resume. Her handwriting is totally different than mine.”

Fortunately for Bardswick and the Guelph, Ont.- headquartered, $44-billion insurance conglomerate that she more than ably led for almost 15 years, the cooperative industry is one that, by nature of its democratic ownership and governance structure, is able to take a long-term view to concentrate on the bigger picture — whether that is overlooking her mother’s well-intentioned impersonation or the survival of the planet.

Some CEOs toss and turn at night, worrying about their golf handicap. For Bardswick, it is the much larger issues of global sustainability — not just hurricanes, floods, drought and the other natural disasters wrought by climate change — but also justice and poverty that keep her awake. “The insurance industry is in the eye of this storm,” she says, explaining the philosophy that marked her leadership at The Co-operators, from which she resigned last December, at age 59, after 38 years with the company. “We are here to help people manage risks and those risks are changing.” The Co-operators is also a cooperative, she notes, one driven by values, not just profit. “We don’t deserve to be a leading insurance company if we don’t take a leadership role. This is our responsibility.”

Under her tenure, The Co-operators embarked on a sustainability journey that transformed the organization into one of the country’s greenest employers (member of The Green 30 and currently ranked No. 3 on the 50 Best Corporate Citizens). Bardswick helped develop groundbreaking insurance products that changed the course of the industry, including comprehensive water-damage coverage for homeowners devastated by overland flooding. She was a leader on the world stage, representing Canada on the advisory council of the United Nation’s Environment Program’s Inquiry into the Design of a Sustainable Financial System. And she was one of the first signatories to the Smart Prosperity Initiative, a virtual think tank launched last year by a coalition of 26 corporate executives, environmental activists, First Nation representatives and labour and community leaders to accelerate Canada’s transition to a stronger, cleaner economy.

“We don’t deserve to be a leading insurance company if we don’t take a leadership role. This is our responsibility.” – Kathy Bardswick

“She has helped to make the world a better place,” John Harvie, chairperson of the board at The Co-operators, extolled, without a word of exaggeration, when announcing her resignation.

But for all that, sustainability has defined Bardswick’s professional legacy — her own personal awakening came from a private place. It was her children — she has four sons with husband, Bernie Mutter – who began challenging her around the dinner table. “I got this growing sense that I wasn’t doing enough personally and I wasn’t doing enough as leader of this organization.” Ultimately, this was the driver leading to the creation of a strong framework of sustainability that remains firmly embedded in the insurance organization.

Bardswick may have retired but she is carrying on with several industry-related commitments. She is on the board of the Canadian Co-operative Investment Fund and a founding member of the Insurance Development Forum, a new international partnership between the United Nations, The World Bank Group and the insurance industry.

Bardswick is confident that The Co-operators is in very capable hands under her successor, Rob Wesseling, the former vice-president of property and casualty operations for the Co-operators General Insurance Company. “He really gets it,” she says, noting that he led the development of the company’s pioneering flood coverage. And she was “thrilled” to see an internal candidate appointed, someone with a strong sense of cooperative values.

Perhaps it is a lesson that Bardswick inadvertently learned from her mother: the idea of being true to your identity is one she hopes the cooperative industry doesn’t lose. “There are many wonderful publically traded industries but I am so convinced that we also need a strong cooperative community. We need leaders, particularly in the CEO roles, who truly believe in the cooperative form of governance. When I look at failures in the system, it sometimes has to do with business acumen. But more often than not, it’s because they’ve lost their cooperative identity.” ◊