Most companies still focused on survival, not recovery

Jun 16 2009 by Nic Paton Print This Article

The white heat of the economic and financial meltdown may be behind us but, with "just" two thirds of managers still focused almost solely on survival rather than three quarters at the start of the year, any talk of recovery needs to be taken with extreme caution.

A global poll of nearly 570 executives by consultancy Ernst & Young has found that, while there are signs of increased optimism, most managers feel that we are most definitely not out of the woods yet.

Nearly half – 43 per cent – felt that their operating model had been permanently altered by the events of the past 18 months, with a similar 45 per cent suggesting there had been only a temporary impact.

More than half said their risk management processes had been permanently altered and 45 per cent said their regulatory framework had also changed fundamentally.

A fifth said they had seen what they expected to be permanent changes around price sensitivity, profitability, competitive sensitivity and economic stability.

Compared with a similar study carried out by the consultancy five months ago, there were signs of improvement, but you had to look hard.

Just as back in January firms were still seeing huge competition on price and significant numbers of bankruptcies and competitors withdrawing from their sector. But, more positively, there was an increase in organisations reporting new entrants in their sector.

Overall, the mood remained sombre. Although nearly two thirds had been able to make cost reductions, a third had also improved revenues and more than a third said the environment was more positive in terms of making strategic acquisitions.

Nearly six out of 10 had seen deterioration in revenues and more than half had seen a similar deterioration in profitability.

Only a fifth had seen an improvement in investor confidence with a similarly low number seeing any improvement in accessing affordable capital or credit.

Scott Halliday, UK and Ireland country managing partner at Ernst & Young said: "Not only does this research show the permanent impact of the change that has taken place in the last 12 months it also demonstrates how rapid that change has been and how very few people saw this coming. More than three quarters of the executives we surveyed were surprised by both the severity and speed of the downturn."

Intriguingly, given the vast injections of cash into the system by central banks around the world, cash was, if anything, more of an issue now than at the start of the issue for many of the executives polled.

While back in January more than a quarter said cash was not an issue, this had now slipped to fewer than a fifth.

There had been an increase in communications to lenders and rating agencies but less talk of companies disposing of assets purely to raise cash.

Instead, more companies were focusing on renegotiating their debt covenants, with three quarters saying their company had undergone a top-down review of working capital management and cash flows.

"Without easy access to credit, cash management becomes an even more essential discipline – sharpening the focus on customers, tightening the approach to suppliers and constantly reviewing the amount of cash that is 'stuck to the machinery'," said Halliday.

In response, nearly nine out of 10 of those polled had accelerated cost reduction programmes, with more than half speeding up their restructuring plans and more than a third pushing the button on a "significant employee reduction programme".

But there were also signs that, yes, the worst ravages of the recession may well be behind us.

In the January study, more than eight out of 10 said the focus of their business was on restructuring their business to deal with the recession and three quarters were looking merely at survival of the present operations.

Those figures had declined to 74 per cent and 65 per cent respectively, still of course remarkably high, but nevertheless down on what they were.

But, combined with an increased in the proportion of companies who said they were "taking advantage of the recession to pursue new market operations" (up from 59 per cent to 69 per cent), this did appear to suggest more companies out there were now "bargain basement" hunting.

"Many assets are at much lower prices than two years ago, which will bring opportunistic buyers to the table," said Halliday.

"The number of executives in our survey intending to carry out strategic acquisitions in new areas of business was up seven per cent on January to nearly a quarter. Given the continued relative scarcity of cash, we anticipate more creative deal structures and alternative financing arrangements," he added.

As to when the upturn would finally come, more than four out of 10 felt there were already some signs of life in the global economy, or would be by the end of the year.

However, more than a fifth – 21 per cent – pessimistically saw no recovery before the second half of 2010 at the earliest.

Some sectors were more optimistic than others, notably telecoms, power, oil and gas. But others saw a longer downturn, among them asset management, real estate and construction. By and large, respondents in Europe were more negative than those in Asia or the Americas.

Finally, in terms of looking post-recession, the executives polled were pretty evenly split between expanding into new geographies, increased use of strategic alliances, acquisitions, and speed to market and divesting non-core business.

"In our earlier report we identified that, contrary to expectations, the crisis had actually accelerated reshaping trends. This has continued and we are now seeing even more companies with active plans to fundamentally change their business," said Steve Varley, UK and Ireland markets leader, Ernst & Young.

Moving from survival mode to one where economic recovery was the main focus was likely to be a long and painful road, he stressed. "Given the pressures that these corporates are under it is remarkable that a slim majority had seen their business either improve or stay static over the past 12 months. The management challenge over the coming year will be to act even more quickly and decisively."