Rarely, if ever, in the last 100 years, almost the entire population of the world, all countries and businesses have been faced with the same challenge at the same time, like this time.
Whilst the challenges COVID 19 has posed or is posing have been well discussed, and so also the positives of self-awareness and mindfulness that COVID has made us human beings realise, the question regarding, what needs to be done when we are free from Lockdown, is still open.
This article aims to give a broad strategy for businesses, on actions that may be considered, post the last lockdown. The timelines mentioned for the 3 stages below are only indicative and will be different for different businesses. They are not as important as the specific actions that the business must take through each stage.
The strategy has been divided into 3 distinct Stages:
Stage 1: Survival: Discussed in detail below as only that businesses that survive will go to Stage 2 and 3.
Stage 2 :Stabilisation: Discussed in some detail as those businesses which stabilise will proceed to reap the benefits of the next stage, growth.
Stage 3: Growth: Discussed summarily as the growth strategy for each business and sector is specific to that sector. In any case, there is enough material available on how to grow your business in a favourable external environment.
(Note: Government-mandated rules and regulations for opening up, are not discussed or mentioned here as these are common for all businesses and need to be followed regardless, as long as mandated by the authorities)
Stage 1: Survival stage: Opening up (immediately after Lockdown upto 6 to 9 months after the LAST LOCKDOWN- May 3rd may not be the last Lockdown)
- Conserve cash and maintain liquidity at comfortable levels of at least 60 days expenses by reducing all non-essential expenditures (CFO will make a presentation about the same), aggressively but sensitively collection of overdue, negotiate with Bank to increase WC limits (better to have extra than short) and reduce interest rates, dispose of all scrap etc at factory or office and convert to cash, divest or keep locked down businesses which have a negative cash flow cycle and take any and all actions to conserve, conserve, conserve cash. Business daily cash inflow and outflow to be monitored, also month to date and year to date. Detailed Cash flow (both inflow and outflow) planning will be crucial at this Survival stage.
- Ramp up only to the extent to ensure that you maintain the flow in the business. This means the elements that will impact the flow of value delivery in the Business, need to be balanced: Demand, supply chain (includes manpower) and logistics. All 3 need to be balanced as much as possible to ensure smooth flow For a manufacturing company, for example, If the customer is not willing to honour or take delivery of orders, the ramp-up of supply chain and logistics should be done accordingly. If the supply chain (which includes raw materials and manpower) isn’t available adequately, the commitments to customers should be made accordingly. If logistics is a major bottleneck due to unavailability of trucks etc. Both the commitments to customers plus the purchasing from supply chain needs to be managed accordingly to ensure optimal cash flow. For service and other industries, the elements that need to be balanced to ensure flow will be different. Businesses need to identify the elements in their business that impact the flow of value delivery and ensure that these elements are balanced.
- Communications with all stakeholders (employees, creditors, bankers, others) regarding the crisis being faced by the company should be continuous and transparent. They should be assured that their interests will be protected but only if the business survives. Open discussions should be had with all the stakeholders on what the business is doing to mitigate its risks and what support the business requires from them during this critical time.
- Ensure that suppliers credit is increased wherever possible and MSME supplier’s payments are taken care of in a timely fashion, so their operations aren’t negatively impacted.
- Avoid reducing permanent manpower, however, inform employees that the company expects the highest level of commitment, integrity and discipline in these times and strict action (including termination) to be taken against those who don’t comply with directives. It’s a good time as any to remove any dead wood (employees who don’t align with the company’s values or expectations of performance)
- Be in touch with Loyal and key customers more often than before (at least two to three times as often as before COVID 19) and ensure that competitors don’t poach on these important customers. As the demand for many products is likely to be negatively impacted, good customers will be much sought after by the competitors and the need to protect these good and loyal customers is paramount.
- STOP supplies to all customers who don’t pay on time or delay payments beyond reasonable periods or where the customer is likely to default. It’s very important to keep an eye on the financial health of all customers to whom the business gives credit. If a customer goes bankrupt, obviously it will adversely affect the cash flow, which can be avoided with proper monitoring.
- No increments to be considered for anyone in this stage. In fact, if feasible transfer a part (20 to 30%) of the fixed pay of top earners in the company to variable pay which would be payable if the company achieves it’s budgeted figures. This would be a temporary transfer and would be reversed in stage 3 (18 months from the last Lockdown). Top performers who need to be retained need to be informed that they will receive increment some time in stage 2.
- Keep abreast of all developments and information about your specific industry. Especially what your competitors are doing not just in India, but also around the world, what support (if any) the government has published which could be useful for your business etc. Basically stay connected with your industry groups so that you are aware of how other businesses have reacted to this crisis.
- Create 3 different scenarios for the business going forward: Pessimistic, Realistic and Optimistic. In these three scenarios, the revenues, expenses and profitability of the business are estimated as per the 3 different outlooks. It is necessary to do this to realise which of the 3 scenarios your business is currently going through so you can plan accordingly.
- These list of actions is by no means exhaustive. Every business and every sector has its own specific need, which only those within the business know best. The Managing team of every business needs to keep thinking, talking, reading and ideating within the team and add to this list of the actions needed for survival.
Stage 2: Stabilisation stage ( 6 to 18 months post last Lockdown)
- The actions in stage 1, if taken and monitored diligently will ensure that your business reaches this stage 2 in which the aim should be to stabilize the business post-COVID 19 Lockdown and establish new normals and processes which were not existing before CV19.
- The business I should look at returning to full capacity during this time. At this time out of the 3 challenges mentioned in Stage 1 for the manufacturing company, customer demand, supply chain (including manpower) and logistics, possibly only one will remain -that of customer demand. However, If you have ensured that you have nurtured and retained your loyal and key customers, they should have ramped up to full capacity by now and therefore customer demand too may not be a big challenge. We should look at the market scenario and be very agile and focussed to respond to market demand and needs in terms of delivery, service, pricing etc. The sales team has to be geared up to respond quickly to the changed environment post CV 19. All changes are not predictable however some changes like performance expectation (of customers), antipathy towards Chinese products, less face to face meetings, faster turn around time for delivery, higher price competitiveness, more emphasis on lower inventories at customer’s end (and therefore timely deliveries will be very important) etc. are few things which are likely to happen and need swift responses from the sales team.
- If you conserved cash diligently, as indicated in stage 1 above, we should be ready to take advantage of lower input costs from our supply chain. Basically, you can have expectations from your suppliers, as per point 2 above, of better service, lower price, timely delivery and lower inventory holding costs. This should help you in reducing your input costs that will help us preserve margins.
- Some of the postponed expenses of Stage 1 that are critical to the business delivery may be considered to be made during this period, especially to prepare for the next stage, Stage 3- Growth However all such expenses should be screened and discussed at a senior level Committee for this purpose and only those expenses absolutely necessary to either stabilise the business or increase the business in stage 3 Should be considered and approved. In any case, any large capital expenses that require additional long term borrowing should not be made even at this stage.
- Even at this stage cash is to be spent very wisely and conservatively. Business daily cash inflow and outflow to be monitored, also cash flows on a month to date and year to date. Any decision or expenditure that impacts cash negatively by more than say ₹ 5 lacs (this can be different for different businesses) b to be considered by a committee and not one person or the CEO.
- Planning for Stage 3 (Growth) should begin at this stage. New markets, new customers, New products etc. Can be identified and actions can be taken for being ready to take advantage of the same in Stage 3.
- Few customers with good credit records can be added and their credit may be increased based on the usual safeguards.
- Some high performers in the company may be considered for reasonable increments to retain them. But only the high performers, especially those who aren’t at market salaries. This is basically to retain talent.
- Some new talent that may be necessary for stage 3 can be considered towards hiring. Again this decision shouldn’t be left to one person to ensure that the hiring is really necessary for the growth phase.
Stage 3: Growth phase ( anytime after18 months from the last lockdown)
Those businesses that survive Post COVID and manage to stabilize (while adapting to the new normals) post-COVID, will be able to enjoy Growth thereafter in a market that would be hungry for consumption that would ultimately lead to growth. The beauty, if you reach this stage, is that there is likely to be less competition (as many unfit businesses would not survive), capital availability for growth ( as banks would be looking for funding growing businesses) and a market that is ready for consumption, so arguably better margins.
As every business would have different challenges and considerations for growth depending on the sector, some things that need to be kept in mind in this phase are common to all businesses:
- Don’t forget the lessons you learned from COVID 19, the more important of which are that we are living in a highly uncertain world and the next calamity or pandemic could be round the corner. So don’t overstaff your company (stay lean) and don’t over-leverage (keep debt low or close to zero).
- While the ability to take risk is inherent to entrepreneurs, ensure that the risks you take for your business are commensurate to the size of your business. In fact, if you are the top decision-maker in your company, define the monetary value limits of any decision that you can make singularly, which should not be typically more than 5 % of the net worth of your company. Any decision beyond that should be referred to a committee of senior managers who have cross-functional expertise.
- As far as possible stick to the business in your domain expertise for the next few years and grow the main business by exploring opportunities for tie-ups with foreign companies or looking at new export markets that would open up. With the likely forecasted sentiment of anti- China and many companies planning to set up or move their base outside China, is there an opportunity which can be exploited.
- Look at what innovations are possible in your industry. Get together a cross-functional team of innovation that should have more youngsters than experienced people and let them ideate. Tie up with a research or technical institute to see what is possible. Indian brains are excellent at innovating, however, most companies don’t lay enough emphasis on innovation and are satisfied with incremental improvements.
As mentioned at the beginning of the article, the actions for Stage 3 growth are different for different sectors and therefore it cannot be discussed in detail here.
The list above is by no means exhaustive and go ahead, add, change delete, what you think is necessary for your specific situation. However, every company needs to have a post-COVID strategy without which it would be not only difficult to operate but even survive.