Survival Guide: How Marcy Syms prepares for board meetings
By Directors and Boards

Marcy Syms: Director, Rite Aid; Benco Dental; ERA Coalition; NPR Foundation; Women’s Forum of New York

Marcy Syms goes into board meetings with one thing on her mind — profitability. Not only profitability for shareholders, but for all stakeholders. She considers this the difference between short-term and long-term goals.

“Corporate America is on a destructive course that shareholders are final arbiters,” Syms says. “It’s a losing proposition to stay the same. It is not an option.”

But she says while shareholders may lose shares or money, directors have their reputation on the line whenever they make a critical decision. Those decisions are made for the “success” of the company, a bigger concept than dollars and cents.

An effective board member must have, she says, three C’s: “character, courage and commitment.”

Syms, a great supporter of the Equal Rights Amendment, says discussions in the boardroom are also diving “rightfully” into issues like sustainability, greater social responsibility and diversity.

“Knowledge of technology and impact on the environment has leaped exponentially in a way that we couldn’t imagine and may not be catching up with fast enough.”

Management and directors need to ask, “What world do you want your grandchildren to live in?,” she advises; something she keeps in mind when she’s considering board issues.

“You want your grandchildren to live in a world where they can experience health, opportunity and community. You need to find those broader issues to have a holistic view of the future. That’s not political, it’s human.”

This moment in time, she explains, may be the best opportunity to fix the problems created by the industrial revolution. It’s possible that decisions made today could lead to something like repurposing or re-engineering to make all plastics disappear, affecting waterways, landfills and the greening of America.

Activist shareholders who are just looking for bigger profits are undermining what Syms considers the responsibility of a corporation to the community, to work, grow and prosper, and to contribute taxes.

Syms is also a founding board member and president of the Sy Syms Foundation, a nonprofit focused on supporting education which was established in 1985 by her father Sy who started Syms Corp, an off-price chain of retail stores she helped her father take the company public in 1983. She served as president and COO and became CEO in 1998. In 2011 Syms voluntarily reorganized and is now a real estate trust traded on the Nasdaq under the name Trinity Place Holding.

In addition to a strong social equity focus, she brings a wealth of board experience to the table. Of the company boards she sits on, she says, “each of those positions is different; no one size fits all in being a director.” She is also on nonprofit boards and is an investor and adviser to two start-up companies in the biotech and the B-to-B tech markets.

To stay abreast of disruptive forces, she looks to the start-up companies she advises to inform her on the latest in technology. She says they keep her current when it comes to tech industry news so she can speak knowledgably in the boardroom when issues related to cybersecurity, innovation and integration of IT come up.

To keep up with changes, Syms says a key to being a good board director is “80% listening and 20% talking.”

In addition to listening, she also reads the Harvard Business Review to keep up to date on the latest trends in business and governance. She also regularly takes refresher courses at NYSE.

“Board directors have to keep learning,” she says. “You cannot sit on yesterday’s news.” — April Hall

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