As companies emerge from a protracted crisis mode, business leaders are looking ahead to plan for a post-pandemic world. Many senior corporate leaders have noted that an unprecedented pace of change has occurred inside their organizations, that they’ve accomplished more fundamental shifts in their business in the last four months than the last four years.
The landscape in which they operate has been similarly impacted. Trends that existed prior to the pandemic have accelerated and evolved, challenging businesses to keep pace and refocus their strategies. That new reality is driving transformative advances in technology, data digitalization and communications across a range of industries. The lockdown phase of the pandemic fuelled explosive growth in online commerce, video and electronic communications technology, and innovative healthcare research and applications, to name a few.
How business leaders address the strategic challenges before them will determine the success of their organizations for years to come. They will need to continue to be innovative, nimble and ready to act in real time to address new and emerging realities.
Greater government involvement is here to stay
Throughout the pandemic, governments have played an unprecedented interventionist role. They have imposed wide-ranging public health measures, enacted new regulatory responses and provided massive stimulus, all in a manner without parallel since the Second World War. The effectiveness of these measures has been critical in shaping the ability of countries to protect their citizens and economies.
The degree of government intervention to date has met with relatively little public criticism. Increased regulation across the economy will likely be sustained, and governments will likely need to continue to provide financial and regulatory support to key businesses and industries. Businesses should anticipate and understand evolving legislative and regulatory changes and factor them into their strategic calculations. Accordingly, government relations capabilities will become an even more important aspect of the corporate strategic toolkit.
Capital raising will remain a critical concern
Access to sufficient capital on reasonable terms remains essential for businesses to preserve their viability and strengthen their balance sheets for what is likely to be a long and uncertain recovery process ahead. Government stimulus programs and low interest rates are fostering favourable debt capital market conditions for corporate issuers. Debt issuance transactions are proceeding at a healthy clip across a wide range of industries. However, the return of equity markets is needed to restore balance sheet equilibrium and allow issuers a more traditional suite of financing options to support growth projects and acquisitions. When and how equity capital markets will reopen in a broad-based manner for new issuances remains uncertain.
Acknowledging the limits of globalization
The pandemic has profoundly challenged widely held assumptions that globalization is a beneficial, continuously advancing process.
Open international travel accelerated the spread of the virus, businesses experienced major disruptions in offshore supply chains and countries faced a shortage of domestically available personal protective equipment (and witnessed an international bidding war to obtain scarce supplies). As a result, governments and businesses are now considering how to diversify supply chains and strengthen domestic capacity for key industries, including through the growth of national procurement strategies. Meanwhile, the pre-pandemic trend toward less free and open global trade and investment flows continues.
Since the installation of the Trump administration in the United States in 2016, we have grown accustomed to the “America first” refrain. Here too, a “Canada first” sentiment is gaining momentum, with public support pivoting toward self-interest, protectionism and a preference for domestic sourcing and investment. Many cross-border mergers and acquisitions and investment transactions will become more politically sensitive and challenging to complete.
At the same time, the relationship between many Western countries and China has come under increasing strain. This is posing a major challenge to Canadian and U.S. businesses that are now balancing the need for access to and growth in the Chinese market with the need to mitigate the growing risks of supply chain over-reliance, China’s increasing restrictions on the activities of foreign firms and increasing trade and political friction.
The need for higher government revenues will drive ongoing tax changes
In order to pay for the massive fiscal stimulus unleashed during the pandemic, governments will be looking to raise taxes and identify new sources of revenue. They can be expected to discourage companies from moving to lower tax jurisdictions, challenge offshore tax structures and maximize tax revenues from e-commerce and other “new economy” activities within their borders. As a result, business leaders are likely to reformulate their offshoring and supply chain strategies in favour of diversification, redundancy and reduction of tax and political risk.
Focus on the individual and social concerns
The COVID-19 crisis has heightened focus on the individual and key social concerns. Unlike the 2008 financial crisis, the primary focus of government intervention – from both a public health and economic aid perspective – has been on individuals rather than businesses and the economy as a whole. There has also been intensified and sustained public focus on key social issues, most significantly on civil rights, anti-racism and reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples.
Business leaders will need to find ways to ensure their corporate strategies reflect these trends, lest they end up on the wrong side of them. These factors will likely encourage a broader stakeholder view of corporate legitimacy, where corporate directors’ and officers’ attention will shift toward embracing broad principles of stewardship, sustainability, employee well-being and long-term value.
Confronting new risks
Businesses will need to prepare to address emerging risks in data security, litigation and employee misconduct.
The pandemic has brought on heightened awareness of the importance of data security issues, such as developing corporate best practices around digital platforms for payments, privacy and cybersecurity. These matters have become pressure points for organizations as they navigate the accelerating shift to digitization of business services.
With contractual relationships around the world disrupted by COVID-19, litigation is on the rise and likely will be for the foreseeable future as consumer class actions and other litigation commences across Canada and the United States.
Employee misconduct/white collar crime (alleged or actual) is an ever-present risk for organizations. When it comes to internal risk mitigation, organizations will want to assess their current compliance and investigations infrastructure to address vulnerabilities and be ready to respond.
Lessons for the future
While the COVID-19 pandemic continues to pose a fundamental challenge to our economy and society, a number of key lessons have become apparent. In navigating the unprecedented economic and social disruption, most businesses have exhibited a significant degree of resiliency and ingenuity. The crisis has accelerated major changes already underway in markets and facilitated critical changes within organizations. It has also exposed flaws in the architecture of globalization and social structures, which can now begin to be more effectively addressed. If heeded, these lessons can help businesses harness new opportunities and respond to other inevitable challenges that they will face.
Robert Prichard is the non-executive chairman of Torys LLP.
Michael D. Amm is co-head of Torys LLP’s Mining and Metals group and a member of their M&A and Capital Markets groups.
A version of this article first appeared on Torys.com.