We are now into our third month of lockdown, and are starting to see the widespread economic impact of the COVID 19 pandemic. In South Africa, lockdown restrictions have eased a little, with most sectors returning to work and strict health protocols in place. However, we are far from where we were at the beginning of March, when COVID 19 seemed only like a remote possibility. It now seems like we might be entering the worst economic recession since the Second World War. In light of this, how will businesses prepare for the already uncertain future?
A recession worse than last year
According to the South African Reserve Bank, the South African economy is expected to contract by 7% in 2020. Many sectors have been hard hit, with sectors such as manufacturing being particularly affected. Manufacturing itself was already struggling before the pandemic hit: in February it reported a 2.1% year-on-year decrease in production volumes. The loss of production during the lockdown has further slowed some manufacturing sectors, such as the automotive industry, making their future uncertain.
The struggling sectors, combined with the the fact that many South African’s have lost their jobs and will be spending little in the economy. Initial research shows that up to 14% of South African consumers have lost their jobs, with a further 37% saying that their work hours have been reduced. Many of them will be forced to cut expenditures dramatically in order to make ends meet, further shrinking the economy.
Since a recession seems inevitable, how can businesses weather the storm? The following are three suggestions.
- Look critically at your business strategy
Those businesses that are flexible in either their operations or their offering will be the most likely to survive economic recession. We’ve seen this first hand: the closure of businesses that were successful but unable to adapt to the lockdown situation, and the success of businesses that make the most of the opportunity. Because no one saw this coming, it is those businesses that quickly adapted that got this aspect right.
During a recession, essential, basic-needs items remain, whilst luxury, non-essential items are prioritised less by consumers. Pivoting your business strategy in order to meet the needs of consumers is important. In a business that focuses on industrial manufacturing, see if there are opportunities for operational efficiencies, such as making a basic necessity from the by-product of an industrial process, such as South African Breweries changing their manufacturing processes during the nationwide alcohol ban to produce much-needed hand sanitizer.
- Cut operational expenditure
Cash flow is an essential to surviving a recession, and the reason that even profitable companies go under: without the cash to pay off operating expenses or salaries, businesses can quickly become bankrupt. One way to cut expenses, before the difficult decisions to retrench staff members, is to start with operational costs. In manufacturing and other industries, the easiest way to cut these expenses is to look to utilities – electricity and water – to ensure they are not spending more than necessary on these items.
Start by evaluating the business for any potential inefficiencies: is it possible to shift production slightly later, to avoid peak hours? Can you implement a staggered start up of the plant, to avoid kVA surges and the associated costs? Have you made sure that energy inefficient lighting and heating have been taken care of? Once these factors have been examined, it is easier to identify how to proceed with reducing operating costs.
One way that is very helpful to cut operating costs is through procuring solar PV electricity through a Power Purchase Agreement or PPA. This allows your business to benefit from lower electricity tariffs during the sunlight hours, and can be particularly beneficial if you can shift the bulk of production to happen during the day when the sun is shining. The one great thing about solar PV is that, even in the context of a global recession, prices are predicted to continue rapidly dropping.
- Make sure your staff are engaged
Although there has been much written about employee engagement over the last few years, this “buzzword” does translate to the bottom line. A study conducted globally found that companies with highly engaged staff members had 17 % returns than those with low engagement levels. Therefore, in a recession where the bottom line is under threat, ensuring that employees are engaged could have a significant financial impact. (This also translates to employee turnover, by the way – about 40% of employees at low-engagement firms were likely to be looking elsewhere for jobs).
So how do companies create high employee engagement? This goes beyond basic employee wellness interventions, and translates back to genuine employer-employee value. If your employees believe that you are genuine about investing in them, they will be more likely to invest themselves in their job, which will translate into financial returns.