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South China Morning Post

Downturns loaded with opportunity

Downturns loaded with opportunity

The tumultuous events of the past few weeks have battered financial markets and created huge uncertainty.

  • min read


Downturns loaded with opportunity

The tumultuous events of the past few weeks have battered financial markets from the United States to Europe to Asia and created huge uncertainty that companies will be reckoning with for months to come. But in the turbulence lies opportunity.

Like dangerous curves on a racetrack, economic downturns create more opportunities for companies to move from the middle of the pack into leadership positions than any other time in business.

Unlike straightaways where leaders can thrive on raw power alone, steep curves require strategic finesse. That often results in dramatic differences in performance as leaders steer out of the curve.

Some companies have already moved with lightning speed to seize the opportunities that the latest downturn has thrown up. Take Japan's Nomura Holdings: It swooped down on Lehman Brothers' Asian and European operations in September, just days after the collapse of the fourth-largest US investment bank. Japan's largest brokerage saw these acquisitions as a strategic move to fulfil its vision of becoming a global investment bank.

About 24 per cent more firms moved from the back of the pack to the front in the 2001 downturn compared with the subsequent period of economic calm, according to an eight-year Bain study that analysed the net profit margins and sales growth of more than 2,500 companies.

Meanwhile, about one-fifth of all leadership companies—those in the top quartile of financial performance in their industry—fell to the bottom quartile. By comparison, only three-quarters as many companies made such dramatic gains or losses after the recession.

Recessions hit some industries harder than others, so staying alert matters. The variations get amplified in a globalising, interdependent economy. That adds both opportunity and complexity. The opportunity is to shift focus to economically healthier regions, as Johnson & Johnson, GE and IBM did in the second quarter of this year, reporting solid performance outside the US. The complexity arises from having to make long-term investments in global operations with less certainty than ever about where you will be exposed when the next downturn hits.

Many industry leaders fall from the top during recessions because they assume that a strong market position is an insurance policy against trouble. That approach breeds overconfidence. Executives postpone taking precautions or reach for the same levers they pulled in the past—like hedging their bets by diversifying. When the downturn hits hard they usually overreact. They cut costs and staff indiscriminately, trim capital expenditure, squeeze suppliers, and avoid strategic acquisitions. Then, when conditions improve, they must spend heavily to regain momentum.

The better approach: slow in, fast out—like a good driver heading into a sharp curve.

Winners in recessions tend to brake quickly heading into a downturn by managing costs carefully and consistently—it's like shifting to a lower gear to slow momentum and increase responsiveness. They focus on what the company does best, reinforcing the core business and spending to gain share. They aggressively monitor the competition to ensure they have the best possible line through the curve. That sets them up to accelerate at the apex of the curve, when the economy starts to improve. The farther you can see and the quicker you can turn, the faster you can safely round the corner.

For most industries, the optimal time to hit the brakes and downshift was months ago. The questions to be asking now are: Where is the apex of the curve, and how hard should we accelerate to take advantage of competitors' mistakes? Who is in trouble and dumping valuable assets to survive? Can we add great people who are now available?

The companies with the right answers will have the inside track coming out of this downturn.

Steve Ellis is Bain & Co's worldwide managing director, Paul Meehan is regional managing director for Asia-Pacific and John Sequeira is a partner in Tokyo, leading the region's mergers and acquisitions practice.


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