Time to cheer up


The next few months are clearly not going to be easy. Yet, despite everything, nearly two thirds of chief executives around the world remain confident they will increase revenues over the next year and more than nine out of 10 are upbeat about their prospects over three years.

Perhaps it's human nature, perhaps CEOs are eternal optimists, or perhaps we're simply at risk of morosely talking ourselves into a global depression when the reality may be bad, but not that bad.

For example, even within the relentlessly bleak headlines of job cuts and insolvencies it is still possible to spot at least a few "good news" stories, such as, in the UK, holiday camp Pontin's decision to create 2,000 new jobs and, similarly, supermarket chain Asda's announcement of 7,000 new jobs.

Or how about the prediction by Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao that he is confident his absolutely vital economic powerhouse will maintain economic growth at "about 8 per cent" this year?

Whatever the reason behind this optimism, a poll of 109 chief executives around the globe by PricewaterhouseCoopers has found confidence among CEOs is still remarkably robust.

While there has been a significant drop in the number who have a rose-tinted view of the year ahead, there has not been a wholesale collapse in confidence, the Global CEO Survey found.

This time last year 86 per cent of CEOs polled said they were confident or very confident about the prospects for increasing their companies' revenues.

In this year's poll this had fallen to 64 per cent, but rose to 93 per cent when CEOs were asked to rate their confidence when it came to potential for revenue growth over the next three years.

The top three opportunities for this growth were through geographic expansion, penetration of existing markets and new product development, they said, and did mark a change in emphasis by the CEOs polled, argued PwC global industrial manufacturing leader Graeme Billings.

"Last year CEOs accorded these three opportunities equal weight. However, this year new product development ranks much lower on the boardroom agenda. Despite the downturn, industrial manufacturing CEOs are also still looking for suitable deal-making opportunities," he said.

Mergers and acquisitions remained high on the agenda, with more than a third saying they intended to complete a deal over the next 12 months. Also important on the list was technical improvement, with six out of 10 citing innovation as critical.

"Many companies have been forced to scale back their research and development budgets, meaning management will have to look for creative ways in which to support innovation such as collaborating with supply chain partners, customers and clients," argued Billings.

Among CEOs within industrial and manufacturing organisations, more than eight out of 10 argued that access to information was the key to effective R&D, with more than half saying they wished to have more information and more than a tenth complaining their information they received was inadequate.

Lack of natural resources also emerged as one of the issues concerning these CEOs, with more than four out of 10 worried about the world's dependence on carbon-based energy and the potential negative impact this might have over time.

Many, however, said they were already taking steps to alleviate the situation, with nearly nine out of 10 seeking operational improvements to reduce energy consumption, nearly six out of 10 investing in energy efficient technologies and more than half turning to renewable sources of energy.

Unsurprisingly, given the world-wide job losses and recruitment freezes seen over the past few months, talent and skills, which were high on the agenda in last year's survey, had dropped down the CEO priority list.

Nevertheless, nearly half – 47 per cent – of those polled still said they were worried about talent shortages, against 62 per cent last year.

In another positive sign that not everything is doom and gloom, nearly four out of 10 CEOs also said they anticipated increasing their headcount over the next 12 months and that they experienced many of the same problems finding good people.

"CEOs will have to ensure they do not focus on short-term risks to the exclusion of long-term risks like climate change, shrinking natural resources and the impact of demographic shifts on the talent pool," pointed out Billings.

"They recognise the need for new business models to address the challenges being faced currently," he added.

The poll echoes research carried out last month by consultancy Deloitte that found more than eight out of 10 UK chief finance officers felt there were potential opportunities to be had from the downturn.

Its survey of 86 chief finance officers from a sample of FTSE-100, 250 and small cap companies argued that, while there remained challenges around a shortage of credit and the contracting economy, for the canny operator there could well be opportunities, often through the possibility of snapping up struggling rivals cheaply or acquiring other assets at bargain prices.