Making a Difference: 2019 Annual Sustainability Report

Related Expertise: Globalization

Seven Lessons from the Corporate Frontlines

By Nikolaus LangRami Rafih, and Abdeljabbar Chraïti

As countries across the globe emerge from economic lockdown, companies are now entering the second, or Fight, phase of the COVID-19 crisis. This is the phase in which they will need to consolidate and forge a transformation plan (or map scenarios) that will position them to seize advantage in adversity. In China, where COVID-19 has been reined in and business is resuming, companies have already started down the road to recovery. What can others learn from their experiences?

To find out, BCG recently studied more than 100 companies that are on the other side of the curve. Through analyzing their response to the extraordinary and unrelenting challenges of the crisis, we have distilled seven lessons—illustrated through a sample of companies whose rebound strategies and bold actions have enabled them to successfully resume operations. The lessons tend to be broad, cross-functional, and relevant across industries. Well before the economies in which they operate reopened, the companies highlighted here moved decisively to safeguard their workers, secure their customers, shore up funding, seek alternate supply sources and routes, and shift to e-commerce and digital channels (some almost overnight). Many have advanced themselves by giving a leg up to the stakeholders and ecosystem partners that contribute to their success. Others have stepped in to provide support and resources for their governments and the public.

By presenting these stories, we aim to help companies transition promptly and purposefully from crisis mode to stability, and to help them adapt to the new reality. In this most uncertain and unprecedented of times, these stories can give hope and direction to companies just starting to resume operations and re-engage with the world. Read about our seven lessons below.

Stabilize Manufacturing & the Supply Chain

To stabilize manufacturing and the supply chain, nimble companies take three broad steps. They ensure transparency in the supply chain—exploring alternate delivery networks, identifying multiple suppliers, monitoring changes in the supplier and distribution ecosystem—and adjust accordingly. These companies also implement a dynamic supply and inventory management process, redirecting supplies to high-demand markets and revising product-purchasing plans to optimize inventory levels. They ramp up production to meet changing demand, which among other things, entails repurposing production lines, keeping suppliers in the loop, and enhancing operations through shift adjustments and digital technology acceleration.

HONDA

Agile shifts and alternate supply networks helped the company resume and ramp up production quickly.

Honda’s three plants in Hubei province account for one-half of the automaker’s China production, which in 2019 totaled 790,000 units. Last year, the three Hubei plants collectively manufactured one car every 50 seconds. Throughout Q1 2020, however, they produced only 1,000 cars, or around 7 cars per day. Operations resumed March 11, and by the end of April—even before lockdown restrictions were eased in the province—all three plants were operating at full capacity. Meanwhile, the production of the Honda Accord in China was launched without interruption on April 1.

Honda’s plants ramped up production in stages. At first, the company ran one shift with about half of its workforce; then it switched to rotations, adding 1.5 hours to each worker’s shift. It has since added new shifts to make up for lost production. By early May, 12,000 employees—98% of the workforce—were back on the assembly line. The company’s 500-plus tier one suppliers are now back in business, too. 

Honda’s restart required careful groundwork. By the end of January, weeks before the virus had peaked in China, Honda had already developed a reopening plan with health safeguards, including daily temperature checks and physical distancing on assembly lines. The company arranged chartered transportation to ensure employees impeded by travel restrictions could get to work. To stabilize the supply chain, it established five highway and rail transportation networks to connect to suppliers outside Hubei province.

Decisive moves include:

  • Implementing alternative networks and delivery modes to steady the unstable supply chain.
  • Accelerating production, accounting for rising but shifting demands.
  • Establishing rigorous health and safety protocols.

Manage Costs, Cash & Liquidity

With revenues and cash flow squeezed, resourceful companies move swiftly to consolidate their financial position. They know that speed is crucial to success, particularly in a downturn. Through a central team, they streamline costs according to strategic necessity, guided by a zero-based budgeting mindset. They make structural changes to amass cash, ensuring they have the resources in place to ramp up their digital capabilities and the reserves to capitalize on buying opportunities.

LVMH

The French conglomerate and world’s largest luxury goods maker quickly tightened its belt and launched e-commerce campaigns, preserving liquidity while expanding online sales.

For even the most diehard shopper, discretionary spending is a low priority in the midst of a crisis. So, when COVID-19 erupted, LVMH—known for such storied brands as Louis Vuitton, Dom Pérignon, Dior, and Bulgari—was squeezed from all sides. In China, where one-third of all luxury goods are sold, LVMH’s factories and shops were shuttered. Travel bans throughout the world prevented customers from buying the company’s goods elsewhere.

Leaders implemented sweeping cost cuts to safeguard LVMH’s financial health and its proposed acquisition of Tiffany & Co. scheduled for later this year. These include major reductions in advertisement spending, the cancellation of fashion shows this summer, and retail layoffs. The CEO and all executive board members will forgo two months’ worth of pay, as well as all variable remuneration for 2020. In April, the company proposed a 30% cut in its dividend payout for 2019, and it expects to cut capex spending this year by about 40%. Leaders have negotiated rent reductions for the closed retail stores while lockdowns remain in place and are delaying some store openings and renovations. At the same time, Louis Vuitton has instituted price increases in some product lines.

Meanwhile, the company has turned its sights to e-commerce sales. Among its initiatives: the livestream introduction of new products on Xiaohongshu, the 300-million-strong social media and e-commerce platform. The product launch attracted 15,000 viewers in less than an hour. To spur brand recognition, Louis Vuitton rolled out its “Love has no fear” marketing campaign on Weibo, the popular social media platform. The brand also launched a separate goodwill campaign that featured celebrity brand ambassadors recording videos to encourage Wuhan residents and support frontline medical personnel.

Decisive moves include:

  • Making significant cuts in capex, overhead, executive compensation, and advertising spending.
  • Increasing focus on e-commerce, resulting in substantial online sales growth.

Organize Your People for the New Reality

First and foremost, standout companies implement strict safety and security measures to get employees back on the job safely. These measures include requiring physical distancing, conducting health checks, providing protective equipment, and crafting protocols for potential outbreaks. These companies adopt smart ways of working such as allowing remote working on a longer-term basis and providing the infrastructure and tools needed to enable their people and teams to work effectively. They also take steps to build a more flexible workforce, in order to maintain productivity while keeping people motivated and engaged.

SAP

This global leader in enterprise software leveraged its own tech-based solutions to create tools to mobilize employees for a new environment—and enable them to serve customers’ shifting needs.

SAP has been well-positioned to weather the pandemic, given that many companies have switched to remote work. So, from day one, the company has been in high gear helping its customers and governments make this transition. For instance, SAP has offered clients the use (free of charge) of SAP Ariba Discovery—its e-commerce procurement solution—to link companies with suppliers. It has developed customized online platforms to help customers manage the surge in online shopping. More recently, the company has organized online workshops to show customers how to use its software to monitor employees’ health and adapt their work goals.

SAP has also provided software to help hospitals screen patients, support health care workers, and manage information flow. In Germany, it has developed a solution to coordinate urgently needed hospital beds and, along with Deutsche Telekom, is developing the Corona-Warn-App, a tracing app, on behalf of the German government.

These efforts, along with SAP’s ability to secure the health of its own business, were possible because of the multiple measures the company implemented to mobilize its own people for the new reality. SAP immediately established a cross-functional task force to develop health and safety guidelines for employees. It has provided training courses on various collaboration and communication tools for working remotely (which it also offers to partners and customers). SAP even created a video of employees sharing their experiences working from home to boost morale and alleviate the sense of isolation.

More than 95% of SAP’s global workforce can now work from home, thanks to a new virtual-sales and remote-implementation strategy. SAP’s global pandemic task force oversees remote-working protocols, coordinates employees’ movement, and provides contingencies for scheduled events.

Results achieved include:

  • More than 95% of the workforce switching to a work-from-home model.
  • Q1 revenue increases in cloud services of 27%; and total year-over-year revenue increases of 7%.
  • Acquiring 300 new customers for the company’s latest enterprise resource planning system (Q1).

MEITUAN

The Chinese e-commerce delivery company rolled out contactless delivery for its multicategory instant-delivery business while maintaining broader organizational continuity.

The number of customers of Meituan’s food delivery business (which represents 56% of the company’s revenues) fell almost by half when the pandemic struck. As trucking capacity plummeted, the company struggled to maintain intermodal deliveries, so it quickly refocused on grocery delivery (including fresh food and supermarket items). It pursued this typically locally oriented business model to mitigate the reduced demand for its other services. Meituan also diversified its roster of fast-delivery offerings to include personal care items and other fast-moving consumer goods. It waived commission fees for restaurants and other customers on delivery.

To promote its food delivery service among corporate customers, Meituan introduced contactless protective cardboard shields. The company found ways to minimize direct human contact—including introducing the use of unmanned vehicles to handle some deliveries—across the value chain.

At its offices, Meituan divided the workforce into three shifts, allowing only one team in the office each day. It regulated traffic in break areas, required masks, implemented temperature screenings at entrances, and conducted daily health questionnaires through its internal app. Like customers, employees were given contactless shields during lunch. These health measures have been as important in protecting Meituan’s employees as they have been in winning business.

Results achieved include:

  • 80% to 95% of deliveries were contactless by early February.
  • Engaging 54,000 delivery people to service Beijing during the outbreak (more than 85% of normal rate).

Manage the Top Line & Drive Customer Engagement

In facing the abrupt, often radical, changes in customer behaviors, savvy companies promptly shift gears, adapting and transforming channels. For some, this moment prompts their comprehensive, long-delayed push into e-commerce. Companies ramp up their commercial efforts significantly to seize market shifts. They apply data-driven insights to guide them in accelerating their digital capabilities. By tapping into social media and with the help of third-party partners, they keep existing customers engaged and spending, and forge connections with new ones.

PEPSICO

To serve new habits and consumption patterns, the food and beverage giant quickly pivoted—launching consumer-direct e-commerce platforms as part of this effort.

In the earliest days of the COVID-19 crisis, PepsiCo, with its long history of corporate sponsorship and philanthropy, contributed millions of dollars in aid for people and communities to acquire food and other resources. The company also provided 90,000 of its frontline employees with extra compensation and guaranteed three months’ full pay to the employees of any facility that might be shut down.

Dealing with the sudden closure of its key retail channels was no small matter. As restaurants and food services outlets closed, and convenience store traffic ground to a halt, demand for PepsiCo’s beverages dropped sharply. The company immediately focused on finding ways to stay top of mind and fuel demand among its now-homebound customers.

PepsiCo immediately streamlined production across its otherwise large portfolio (22 of its brands each generate more than $1 billion in sales annually). By simplifying SKUs, PepsiCo was able to shift its emphasis to blockbuster products, ramping up production to keep these items available on store shelves. This move contributed to the broader effort of catering to consumer’s new habits and consumption patterns, such as the increased demand for breakfast foods and snack products. In addition, the company adjusted its advertising to align with consumers’ new way of shopping: people were making fewer trips to the grocery store and stocking up more on each trip. This change in shopping habits, along with a newly narrowed band of SKUs, allowed PepsiCo to cut promotional activity.

With big gains in ecommerce sales—a 45% increase in Q1—PepsiCo reallocated resources from other areas toward its e-commerce channel. Leaders saw that the consumer-direct channel could be an inexpensive way to supplement their broader e-commerce push while maintaining brand visibility during a time when consumers have been sticking close to home. In May, the company launched PantryShop.com and Snacks.com in the US (an effort that went from concept to launch in fewer than 30 days). In the Netherlands, where public interest in waste reduction is strong, the company launched Unwasted.NL, so that consumers can buy bundles of favorite brands that are nearing expiration date at discounted prices, which are then delivered to their doors.

Results achieved include:

  • A 7.7% rise in global revenues (Q1).
  • E-commerce revenues jumping 45% globally (Q1).

Forest Cabin

When the pandemic struck, the cosmetics company went from pure brick-and-mortar retail to online sales almost overnight—and proceeded to more than double its prior year’s results.

Shanghai-based Forest Cabin sells skin care products made from essential oils. When the pandemic struck, the company (until recently known as Lin Qingxuan) was forced to close half of its 337 stores throughout China. The CEO figured they’d be lucky if in March 2020 the company hit 50% of its March 2019 sales. Worst case, the company could well be out of business within two months. Instead, it ended up beating its March 2019 sales numbers by 120%.

Forest Cabin, which effectively had no e-commerce presence, moved swiftly to implement an online-working model for its 2,000-person workforce. It redeployed its 100 retail beauty advisors to become online influencers who would engage customers virtually and drive online sales. The company had no formal partnership agreements with online platforms, so the beauty advisors relied on WeChat and other social media to connect with customers and nurture relationships. Successes came quickly: on January 31, one beauty advisor was able to attract nine online viewers; by February 14, she had 3,000 viewers.

The rest of the company’s employees went through online training to learn how to identify customers’ skin care needs and develop sales opportunities. The company mobilized staff to produce online content, such as photos, texts, QR codes, short videos, and mini shopping guides to support its brand communications.

Forest Cabin worked with Taobao’s DingTalk, an intelligent working platform backed by Alibaba, for streaming and coupon distribution. Online video streaming became its new go-to marketing tool. More than 60,000 customers showed up for one shopping event, at which the company sold 400,000 bottles of its popular camellia oil. At the first-ever live (real-time, online) shopping festival, launched by Taobao, Forest Cabin topped the list of bestselling cosmetics. Another live broadcast, the “Spring New Experience,” featured on the Weimeng live streaming app, was viewed by more than 310,000 people and generated sales of more than 2 million items. By late April, the company’s CEO figured that 99% of sales were the result of its online efforts, and that even offline sales were being triggered by the company’s live shopping events and the company’s new online-shopping guides.

Results achieved include:

  • 200% year-over-year sales growth in Wuhan and 120% overall (March).
  • Selling more than 400,000 units online via a livestream event.

Accelerate Digital & New Ways of Working

Rapid shifts in demand mean companies need to accelerate their digital transformation efforts. Companies primed for the new reality ensure customer touchpoints are digitized, and they redesign customer journeys and sales processes accordingly. They introduce contactless delivery of products and services. They create new ways for their people to create, innovate, and interact, internally (across business and functional areas and regions) and externally (with customers, suppliers, partners, and other stakeholders).

BUDWEISER BREWING COMPANY APAC

With restaurants shuttered and nightlife halted, Budweiser APAC lost major sales channels. The beer maker has rallied by creating digital and virtual events to reach its target customers and by ramping up e-commerce sales channels.

In the early stages of the pandemic, Budweiser APAC’s leadership team moved swiftly—to get employee safety plans in place, to prepare the company’s breweries for reopening, and to resume supply chain activities. At the same time, it was also faced with the sudden loss of important sales outlets for its brands, as restaurants, bars, clubs, and other physical venues were closed. Immediately, the company linked home delivery with its loyalty program to stimulate repeat purchases from regular customers.

In China, Budweiser APAC shifted its sales efforts to e-commerce and an omnichannel approach. Through DJ livestreams, e-gaming events, and digital influencers who conducted online sales, the company was able to reach not only existing customers, but also new ones that may have overlooked the brand in their traditional hangouts. It launched an online clubbing platform in partnership with Tmall, a B2C website with more than 500 million monthly active users. The platform allows customers to order beer online while attending online performances. Budweiser APAC also tapped consumers and employees to be brand representatives and group-buying coordinators for certain residential developments. To further secure loyalty, the company launched a coupon-based discount program for customers to use when bars and restaurants reopen.

By quickly shifting its resource allocation, Budweiser APAC managed to increase its e-commerce lead in March to almost twice the market share of its next-closest competitor. In e-commerce overall, sales volumes grew in the double digits, and in the small but fast-growing new online subchannels such as Meituan, Ele.me, and Hema, volumes grew in the triple digits. While in-home sales and total revenues declined substantially in Q1, the company gained market share by value, thanks to strong performance in its premium and super-premium segments. Anticipating an extended decline in demand from the restaurant and bar business, and the consumer shift to home entertainment and e-commerce, Budweiser APAC plans to strengthen its digital offerings.

Key results achieved:

  • Leading e-commerce market share by a rate that is nearly double of the next competitor.
  • Double-digit sales volume growth in e-commerce; triple-digit sales volume growth in new retail subchannels.

Drive Strategic Advantage in Adversity

Proactive companies read the signs and seek ways to capitalize on their strengths in this ever-shifting environment. They identify untapped areas of opportunity within their own industry and ecosystem and selectively invest in areas where opportunistic M&A is possible. They plug capability gaps and develop strategies for exploiting the growing availability of talent. Some decide to move boldly to shift their portfolio of products or services as new opportunities arise.

ANSELL

As the need for medical protective gear skyrocketed around the world, Ansell shifted its production and supply chain strategically—and simultaneously augmented capacity with a regional acquisition.

Australia-based Ansell sells protective clothing and gloves for health care and industrial environments, including laboratories, manufacturing plants, and medical facilities. This gear is produced primarily in-house through its Microgard subsidiary, acquired in 2015. When COVID-19 struck, demand for medical body suits and surgical gloves soared, and the company ramped up accordingly. 

In early February, Ansell announced a 50% acquisition stake in Careplus, a Malaysia-based latex and gloves maker that would immediately expand its capacity to produce surgical gloves. The timing helped the company meet the burgeoning demand for protective gear in China, the first nation to grapple with the COVID-19 outbreak. In fact, Ansell redirected the entirety of its supply chain processes and production in China to medical gear. Chinese authorities granted the company “priority facility” status, which allowed it to import raw materials and get its workers back on the job quickly.   

In March and April, as the pandemic began peaking further west, Ansell redirected a significant portion of its production to Europe and other countries that were under siege. 

As the outbreak subsides and business operations restart, demand for Ansell’s medical-grade products might decline. So might demand for its industrial protective gear, as the recession continues. But until a vaccine emerges, all that could change rapidly. Bracing for the challenges of the post-COVID economy, the company plans to make further acquisitions to enhance synergies, expand production capacity, and accelerate growth. 

Decisive moves include:

  • Making a regional acquisition, early on, to meet burgeoning global demand for surgical gloves.
  • Adjusting production capacity and supply chains dynamically as the pandemic spread geographically and needs shifted.
  • Maintaining an opportunistic stance, with an eye for future acquisitions, as the economic impacts of the pandemic alter products in demand.

Partner with Government and Society

Astute companies recognize that contributing to the fight is both good citizenship and good business. They offer resources and expertise in whatever ways they can, whether through their medical response, by supplying essential goods for society, or by playing a positive economic role. Many help by supporting government policies and responses, shifting production to critically needed supplies. Some help keep workers employed, some ease payment terms for customers, and some extend financial aid or create backstops for cash-strapped suppliers. Others use their innovation prowess to focus on solutions to the COVID-19 crisis or cures.

Lenovo

This leading global manufacturer of computers and devices lent equipment and support to hospitals, health care workers, and communities worldwide in the fight against COVID-19. It also took steps to keep its suppliers and distributors afloat.

In late January, Lenovo swung into action to support China’s COVID-19 fight. It created epidemic prevention, control, and emergency-management teams to coordinate the installation of all the IT equipment needed for the temporary emergency hospitals built in Wuhan. From the beginning, the company has provided resources and expertise to help communities, both in China and around the globe. These include computers, tablets, and other essential IT equipment for hospitals and school districts; 24/7 onsite service support to medical institutions throughout China; and devices to students in low-income families to access e-learning. The company has also provided support to research a cure for COVID-19.

Although its Wuhan facilities were shuttered early in the crisis, Lenovo reopened plants in other provinces in accordance with government guidelines. Still, the shortage of available workers and the supply chain gaps resulting from suppliers’ own labor shortages could have seriously hindered production.

To stem supply chain disruption, Lenovo mobilized more than 30 in-house and third-party manufacturing sites around the globe to adjust to capacity changes and rebalance production, ensuring the company could continue manufacturing and delivering customers’ orders. It developed an AI-powered epidemic-management platform that uses big data processing and IoT technology to predict future rework trends, track capacity resumption rates, and plan and monitor its production resumption schedules at its factories. Lenovo threw a lifeline to distributors and solution providers within its supply chain in the form of a “partner stimulus package,” which offered them faster payouts and extended financing to accelerate cash flow. The company even provided temporary jobs for Chinese workers whose employers were sidelined during lockdown. These strategies have not only allowed Lenovo to maintain production, but have also boosted business and economic activity within the tech industry and in sectors and regions further afield.

Decisive moves include:

  • Creating epidemic prevention, control, and emergency-management teams to coordinate installation of IT equipment needed for Wuhan’s temporary emergency hospitals.
  • Providing computers and other essential IT equipment to schools and hospitals.
  • Offering 24/7 onsite support to medical institutions around the country.
  • Launching a partner stimulus package to accelerate payments to distributors and solution providers in its supply chain.

Ant Group

The innovative online payment giant has kept funds flowing to small- and medium-sized businesses and introduced COVID-19 insurance coverage. It has also made its platform available for hosting the government’s health code service, which is helping companies throughout China reopen safely.

Ant Group, along with its worldwide e-wallet partners, serves 1.2 billion users. The company (of which Alibaba holds a minority stake) is the world’s largest mobile and online payment platform. Its Alipay app hosts financial services offered by partner financial institutions, such as asset management companies, banks, and insurers, and is expanding to enable more lifestyle service providers to go digital.

Early on, the company committed more than $1.4 billion to mitigate the impacts of the outbreak. Through MYbank, its online bank for small- and medium-sized enterprises, Ant Group made borrowing easier and more affordable for 300,000 medical suppliers and millions of businesses. To help Hubei province’s hard-hit businesses, it waived first-month interest for Wuhan companies and gave a 20% interest rate reduction for businesses elsewhere in the province. It has also launched a special loan program for small and micro e-commerce merchants.  

Ant Group provided free COVID-19 insurance to customers of its online mutual aid offering. Its blockchain-based claims processing platform allows payouts to be made quickly. The company has also played a direct role in the fight against COVID-19: pandemic control-and-prevention authorities in more than 200 cities have made their health code services available on the Alipay platform. Companies throughout China have relied on the service to help reopen plants and offices safely.

More recently, Ant Group opened its blockchain platform to small businesses and developers, expanded its interest-free and low-interest loan programs throughout China to support the recovery, and collaborated with companies and local governments to issue coupons on Alipay as a way to encourage spending. And to help some 40 million Chinese service providers adopt its technologies (such as its payment, anti-fraud, and customer insights systems), the company announced plans to work with 50,000 independent software vendors over the next three years.

Results achieved include:

  • Launching a health code service on Alipay’s platform in more than 200 cities.
  • The waiving of interest fees for 360,000 offline businesses.

Acknowledgments

The team would like to thank Suzana Amoes (senior associate, Luanda), Yanga Tyikwe (knowledge analyst, Johannesburg), and Ibrahim Zaaimi from Infomineo for their contributions.

If you’d like to learn more about how the 100 companies we studied have set themselves up for success in the new reality, please contact one of the authors.

Seven Lessons from the Corporate Frontlines

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