Growing during an sector downturn is understandably counterintuitive to incorporate into a line of reasoning and action. How long will it last? How large of an impact will it have on our business? How can we plan meaningfully with so much uncertainty? How can we factor the slowdown and a corresponding plan into a medium-term budget? These questions are complex. That said, the most sophisticated companies get through them and grow at multiples during this time.
A sector downturn causes tectonic shifts in the industry. During this time, many companies see margins erode, lose market share, become vulnerable to the competition, and some deplete their financial resources. But that doesn’t have to be the case. Some firms capitalize on the downturn and exit winners. What makes the difference? They engage in a pattern of vision and preparation before, and timely execution during the downturn.
Prime examples of companies that emerged as winners in their respective industries in the aftermath of the 2008 recession include TMSC, Ford, AB InBev, Home Depot, and Verizon, to name a few. Here is what they did.
- TMSC: While every chip manufacturer was scrambling to protect against the 2008 recession, TMSC invested heavily in manufacturing, positioning itself for robust growth ahead of the economic recovery. Eventually, it emerged from the downturn ready to manufacture large orders as competitors were catching up. The strategy was so successful that by 2017 market capitalization surpassed Intel for the first time at $226 billion vs. $216 billion.
- Ford: Before the 2008 recession, CEO Alan Mullally started to focus the company on strengthening its core brands, and sold Volvo, Aston Martin, Jaguar and Land Rover. He went on to restructure the company to turn around its massive losses and declining market share. During this period, Ford was able to retain sufficient liquidity to fund its operations. Eventually, the company invested in fuel-efficient engines and lightweight, aluminum-bodied trucks (the F-series and Super-Duty pickups), emerging from the recession well ahead of GM and Chrysler.
- AB InBev: During the 2008 recession, AB InBev continued to pursue its long-term strategy of acquisitions to build leadership and concentrate the beer market. In 2009, the company bought Anheuser-Busch for $52 billion, the world’s largest brewer at the time whose stock had been stagnant for years. The acquisition made AB InBev the world’s largest brewer, creating one of the top five consumer products companies in the world.
- Home Depot: In 2006, company sales were slowing down as the housing sector had begun to slide ahead of the recession. CEO Frank Blake saw the slowdown as an opportunity to run the business more effectively. The company instituted rapid deployment centers to
manage distribution and inventory more effectively across all stores. It also improved data analytics to evaluate merchandise and display. As the economy began to recover, the company opened more stores, eventually outperforming its sector as the country’s largest
home improvement retailer.
- Verizon: In the middle of the 2008 recession, Verizon Communications bought Alltel for $28.1 billion. The strategic rationale was for Verizon to reinvent itself as a wireless versus a wireline company, and become the largest U.S. cellular telephone provider. Eventually, the deal catapulted the company to the top spot, ahead of AT&T, Sprint Nextel, and T-Mobile.
These strategic moves are not the sole province of large companies. The common thread among these firms is an approach based on timing a sequence of actions.
Companies that capitalize on a sector downturn and exit winners follow a simple formula: build a position of strength in anticipation of the downturn, and then use this strength to launch growth initiatives as the economy swings into recovery. As easy as the approach sounds, few companies get it right (Exhibit 1).
Step 1. The first step is to protect the financial position of the company, i.e., stabilize your business in line with slowing revenue growth, reduce cost, defend against downside risk, and ensure that it has adequate cash flow and access to capital.
Step 2. Only then can the firm turn to the second step of identifying ways to capitalize on the downturn to take advantage of weakened competitors. This strategy plays out in two forms: (1) expanding market share, and (2) taking advantage of opportunistic acquisitions.
Exhibit 1. Approaching an Economic Downturn
Timing is critical. A firm that executes these steps late or out of sequence makes a devastating error: it will undergo a drastic drop in performance during the crisis, and start cutting cost during sector recovery instead of expanding market share. The consequence of missing the mark has an overwhelming impact on cyclical businesses, including metals, mining, chemicals, automotive parts, aerospace, heavy equipment, building products, construction, machinery, materials, and logistics.
EXPANDING MARKET SHARE
As the sector begins to recover, it makes sense for the company to plan to expand market share. This strategy requires exploiting a substantial competitive advantage in a growth market. Such exploitation can involve new technology, new products, cost leadership against competitors, a lock on the delivery system, control of the value chain, and many other forms of advantage.
Expanding market share functions on investments above the level of what regular market growth requires, with the aim of strengthening market position. Investments fund activities such as new market entry, channel expansion, regional or global expansion, penetration of new customer segments, gain in share of customer spend, product development (next generation, complements, support services), expanding steps in the value chain, and increased marketing and sales.
These are the actions and responsibilities for head offices, divisions, and business unit management teams. Their concern is to improve performance, deliver annual growth, maintain market positions, and defend profitability against competitors.
Sector recovery offers the best opportunity to activate M&A as a major lever of growth. The reason is that valuations are low and competitors are weak. So, during this time, a well-positioned company can take advantage of M&A to grow along different axes of expansion, including the following:
- Establishing industry leadership
- Redefining the business scope and business model
- Transforming the industry structure
- Leading active market consolidation
- Shifting into related industries
- Adding size through bolt-on acquisitions
These are long-term strategies and responsibilities that pertain to the CEO and the board. They comprise significant moves in the industry and answer the complex question of where to look for growth in the long-term. An economic recovery makes these M&A strategies more attractive and much easier to execute than normal times.
Company leaders must be able to confront industry cycles effectively even though the timing and duration of a downturn may not be forecasted with exact precision. Strategic action is about vision and preparation and not an exact science. The issues at stake are paramount and must not go unresolved. The worse course of action is to do nothing which will land the company in a ditch.
The right approach is to reduce cost and improve competitiveness first, followed by investing in growth during the economic recovery. The downside of acting too early is low: at the most, the company will have advanced its focus on cost and cash management 6 to 12 months ahead of time. Conversely, the downside of acting late is devastating.
During a downturn, the context is the same for all companies; some sectors worse than others. The essential point is to prepare and perform better than your competitors. The merit of a comprehensive approach is not only to survive the downturn, but maximize your performance, and seize an advantage for long-term growth.
What is your approach to the economic downturn?
What is your growth strategy?