As the financial crisis spreads across the globe, businesses are recasting plans to deal with uncertainty. Recessions tend to shuffle the deck: When business slows, the opportunities to make mistakes or take advantage of weaker players increase. Companies make more dramatic gains and losses in recessions than in boom times, and those that make major gains are more likely to sustain them. The challenge is to anticipate where slowing momentum will hurt a business the most, then act to blunt the effect and position the company for a fast turnaround.
Some Asian companies have learned that by preparing for the worst, they can open new doors, improve market positions, and accelerate into the next up cycle. A prime example is Malaysian Airline Systems. A few years ago, government-owned MAS faced spiraling fuel costs and intensifying competition. By 2005, MAS was losing money so fast it only had three months' worth of cash left. Enter new CEO Idris Jala, who had spent much of his career turning around troubled business units at Royal Dutch Shell (RDSA). A little more than a year later, MAS was breaking profitability records-without a government bailout. In the first 29 months after he joined, the carrier reported six consecutive quarters of profits. In 2007 it earned $264 million.
Companies facing difficult times encounter four critical pressure points. The most obvious one is cost. In a downturn, price becomes more critical—and stands to benefit low-cost competitors. As sales decrease, companies that have carefully reduced their costs in good times and bad often discover that they have even more built-in advantages than usual. Cost laggards find that they are even further behind than they thought.
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Mark Gottfredson, based in Dallas, leads Bain & Co.'s Global Performance Improvement Practice and is co-author of The Breakthrough Imperative: How the Best Managers Get Outstanding Results (HarperCollins, 2008). Till Vestring is managing partner of Bain's Southeast Asia practice. Manny Maceda is chairman of Bain Asia Pacific.