Exit Interview: Gary Reedy ‘feels good about the choices’ he made for American Cancer Society

The global pandemic will likely make it easier for Gary Reedy to retire.

Like the rest of the American Cancer Society staff, Covid-19 has forced him to work remotely for more than a year.

That means no emotional goodbyes. No final look at his corner office. No last walk out of the organization’s downtown building across from Centennial Olympic Park

“That would be really, really hard,” Reedy told Atlanta Business Chronicle.

It’s the people he will miss the most, but he hasn’t had much time to dwell on that.

Since announcing his retirement last fall, Reedy has hardly had time for a break. He is working “right up to the last minute” of his April 27 end date, to ensure his successor will be prepared.

Karen Knudsen takes over June 1. She will be the organization’s first female chief executive in its 107-year-history. She is also the first scientific and oncology researcher to serve in the top spot.

Reedy will pass Knudsen a more streamlined organization that came from intentional efficiencies he launched prior to the pandemic, and also as a result of unexpected coronavirus-related cutbacks.

“As I’m finishing up my tenure as CEO, I don’t feel great about the reductions we had to take, that’s one of the toughest things about being a CEO,” Reedy said. “But I feel good about the choices that we made and the way we’re positioned to move forward.”

As his tenure winds down, Reedy said his to-do list is just as full as when he became CEO in 2015. He was already familiar with ACS and its mission: to save lives, celebrate lives and lead the fight for a world without cancer.

Reedy had spent 15 years volunteering for Atlanta’s third-largest nonprofit.

“Volunteers have been a big part of our DNA and how we get the work done,” Reedy said.

One of his goals was to “give the organization back to the volunteers,” all 1.5 million of them. He said by engaging helpers on the ground, the ACS’s programs would be more relevant to the local community, and reflective of the times.

Founded in 1913, the ACS has a rich history in the fight against cancer. But Reedy said moving forward, the nonprofit cannot solely lean on its legacy.

“If we are relevant, if we are demonstrating the impact that we’re having in this fight and people are seeing the benefits of that, then they’ll want to join the fight with us and they’ll want to support us,” said Reedy, who also leads the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network, an advocacy affiliate.

Covid’s toll on cancer treatment

Like many organizations, before the spread of the coronavirus, ACS had high hopes for 2020, entering the year with a strategic plan and a balanced budget.

But Covid-19 had a “devastating impact on revenue,” Reedy said, reducing it by 30% and causing the organization to cut back on operations and trim as many as 1,000 jobs.

ACS ended the year with revenue of a little more than $500 million.

Reedy estimates 2021 revenue could reach $600 million.

While forced to focus on financials as CEO, Reedy is clear that the most important metric is the “number of lives we are helping.”

The ACS is the largest, private, nonprofit funder of cancer research in the country. The organization typically funds $100 million annually in cancer research.

But the pandemic cut funding in half and laboratories were put on lockdown.

Researchers are beginning to gradually return to labs, socially distanced, Reedy said, and ACS is ramping up efforts to encourage people to go to the doctor.

“This pandemic is horrible and it has brought a lot of things to a halt, but cancer is not one of them,” Reedy said.

ACS estimates as many as 22 million people have postponed cancer screenings during the past year.

Incidents of breast cancer and colon cancer are expected to increase, leading to as many as 10,000 deaths all tied to delayed care during Covid.

During the past year, the pandemic has shown a spotlight on Atlanta and its concentration of healthcare-related organizations, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the region’s hub of hospitals and public health nonprofits.

While ACS is known around the world, when Reedy became CEO, one of his goals was to raise awareness of ACS in the organization’s hometown. The society moved from New York to Atlanta in 1989, but it was not as connected to the community as Reedy had hoped. He said he worked to change that.

“The way I look at it, if you don’t engage, it’s kind of your own fault,” he said, adding that Atlanta and its business community are “very engaging and inclusive.”

This time it’s for real

Reedy tried to retire once before, and “failed.”

In 2015, he stepped away from his long-time career at Johnson & Johnson (NYSE: JNJ). About a month after retiring from the pharmaceutical giant, ACS named him CEO.

At age 65, Reedy plans to spend time with family and travel while continuing to live in Atlanta with his wife, Cindy. And Reedy said he will remain involved with ACS.

“I started as a volunteer and I’m going to return to the volunteer ranks,” he said.

Reedy said during the past few weeks he has been working continuously to tie up loose ends before he retires.

He plans to get it right this time.

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