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Navigating a Pandemic from Your First Day on the Job

Gap CEO Sonia Syngal was appointed to the top role as the pandemic began. Her agility and ability to execute helped her company thrive.

August 21, 2021

Agility and execution. Two qualities successful CEOs needed to possess this last year as the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted business plans and forced many businesses to shutter. Imagine then, earning that top spot just as the world was about to change. That is the case of Gap Inc. (NYSE: GPS) CEO Sonia Syngal, who was promoted to the role of CEO in March 2020 after leading the Old Navy business since 2016 and a 16-year career with the company.

Starting a new job is hard enough, especially one where you are leading a multi-billion-dollar company. It takes a minute to get your footing and put your team and initial goals in place, even if you are being promoted from within. The already struggling business was planning to close over 200 Gap stores after mixed holiday sales for 2019. Then all stores were required to close, if only temporarily, as the world moved into quarantine.

An engineer by training, Syngal worked at Sun Microsystems and Ford (NYSE: F) before joining Old Navy to lead their global supply chain and product-to-market model. She stepped into the role of CEO with the goal to turn things around, little did she know what she was truly up against. But she had the two qualities, agility and execution, not to mention other valuable leadership qualities that helped Old Navy earn the title “Great Place to Work” three years in a row during her tenure.

That agility enabled Syngal to quickly pivot, immediately shifting production to make cloth masks and then creating B2B sales channels, selling cloth masks to businesses and governments when there were otherwise supply shortages. She quickly shifted all brands to offering a curbside pickup service that could satisfy customers while keeping them safe. With a background in systems operations and management, Syngal brought a new distribution facility online two months ahead of schedule to accommodate the shift from in-store to online distribution. This new facility included innovations in automation and robotics to enable processing of one million units per day and to support multi-channel (in-store and online) distribution simultaneously.

Syngal also needed to help redefine the business which had become increasingly disparate and find its collective focus. She executed on that core value – inclusive by design – and made sure it was used to guide all future decisions, big and small. That also permeates into her team and having that diversity present so that different points of view, those of her customers, could be represented. In October 2020, Syngal delivered her “Power Plan 2023” – which focuses on the power of its brands, its platform, and its portfolio, which she plans to execute with her team to return Gap Inc. to profitability in 2021.

That execution is paying off. First quarter 2021 sales (they announce Q2 results after this article is published) increased 28% year-over-year and by 13% over 2019. By quickly moving to an enhanced digital experience, online sales increased 82% since 2019. Gross profit in Q1 2021 was $1.63 billion, up 21% from Q1 2019.

Here are some of the other initiatives Syngal implemented since becoming CEO:

  • Introduced body-positive lines, with Athleta expanding sizes from XXS-3X to include bodies of all shapes and sizes
  • Announced plans to build a new distribution center for online sales channels.
  • Sold Intermix and Janie and Jack to refocus on core brands.
  • Partnered with Walmart (NYSE: WMT) to introduce Gap Home for exclusive sale at Walmart stores.
  • Integrated membership program to include all four Gap, Inc. brands.
  • Introduced AthletaWell digital platform to enhance female wellbeing and maintain brand loyalty and engagement.

Even during a pandemic, Sonia Syngal was able to lead Gap Inc. into a position of recovery and growth. Growth through strategic execution of Syngal’s Power Plan 2023 is expected to continue, even as COVID-19 and variants surge. While many CEOs (even those of private companies and small businesses) had to work above and beyond during the pandemic to keep their businesses alive let alone grow, Syngal displayed leadership, agility, and execution while she was putting her team and plans in place. Rewarded investors should give Syngal the applause she deserves.

Interested in learning more? Click here to see how some recent smart moves by CEOs of several active 7investing recommendations will pay off for shareholders going forward.

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