How to Grow in Hard Times

It’s never-ending winter in the developed Western world, or so it appears to almost everybody trying to make a living in the region. The ground is frozen. The snow is deep. The winds are bitter. And whenever spring beckons, another storm blows in.

The macroeconomic environment has not been as hostile to growth since the 1930s. The International Monetary Fund has argued that crises like the one we have just been through — crises that are synchronized across the developed world and driven by financial calamities — tend to be both deeper and longer than normal recessions, perhaps “two to three times as deep and two to four times as long.” And that is before you throw political risk into the equation.

The euro zone is proving to be incapable of dealing with the contradiction at its heart: the single currency cannot work properly without more centralization of decision-making but European countries are unwilling to cede the authority to make that decision-making possible. And the United States is proving to be equally incapable of dealing with a fiscal deficit that is eroding its long-term competitiveness. The Republicans refuse to raise taxes while the Democrats refuse to cut spending. Japan has now endured almost two decades of stagnation, thanks to its dysfunctional political system. There is a strong possibility that the same thing will happen to the West.

Microeconomic conditions are equally hostile: governments have responded to a succession of crises by imposing much tougher regulations on the corporate sector. America’s share of the global IPO market fell from 67 percent in 2002, when Sarbanes-Oxley passed, to 16 percent today. But the damage done by Sarbanes-Oxley is likely to be dwarfed by Dodd-Frank, a monstrously complex piece of legislation that entwines the entire American corporate sector, not just the financial companies that were at the heart of the crisis, in red tape. But for all their faults, regulation-spawning governments were only doing the people’s bidding. Even if the Occupy movement is fading, the 99 percent continue to regard companies as malefactors of great wealth.

Western consumers are likely to be strapped for cash for years to come. The consumer boom that powered Western economies in the 1990s and early 2000s was built on a mountain of debt. People spent like drunken sailors despite the fact that Americans’ median household income was stagnant and European unemployment was high. But those days are gone. The American housing bubble has burst. And European governments are raising taxes and cutting back on benefits. In many industries — cars are an obvious example — we are likely to see a return of the old-fashioned Marxist crisis of overproduction as too many products chase too few consumers.

The two most common responses to tough times — increasing efficiency and turbo-charging innovation — are proving to be less efficacious today than they were in the past. Most companies have done so much to fine-tune their operations — re-engineering their core functions, slimming their work forces and tightening their supply chains — that there are no obvious efficiencies to be gained. Innovation has become the corporate mantra de jour in much the same way that re-engineering was in the 1990s. Hardly a week passes without a new book appearing on the subject. But the problem with innovation is that it’s incredibly hard; for most companies it remains a pious hope rather than a key to success.

And what happens if you manage to turn that key? What happens if you produce some brilliant new product or process? Banks are reluctant to lend to small companies. Big businesses are sitting on huge piles of cash — perhaps $2 trillion worth in the United States. The McKinsey Global Institute predicts that there could be worse to come: the share of the world’s financial assets that are invested in publicly traded equities will fall from 28 percent today to 22 percent by the end of the decade. This is being driven by two profound trends: the shift of global wealth to the emerging world and the aging of Western populations. Both investors in the emerging world and older people in the emerged world are more inclined to keep their money in banks than in equities. This will significantly raise the cost of equity while forcing companies to rely ever more on debt.

How can companies grow in these dismal conditions? What strategies should they adopt? And what corporate forms should they assume? Chris Zook and James Allen of Bain & Company calculate that only 9 percent of global companies have been able to grow at 5 percent or more over the past decade. How can companies escape from this slow-growth trap in what is likely to be an equally challenging environment in the years ahead? Before doing anything else, they need to work on their attitude. Winston Churchill once said that the difference between optimists and pessimists is that pessimists see difficulties in every opportunity and optimists see opportunities in every difficulty. The more difficult the environment becomes, the more companies need to focus on spotting opportunities in difficulties.

There are lots of opportunities out there. The emerging world is booming. In particular, India and China have a long way to go before they fall into the middle-income trap. The Internet economy is thriving; the likes of Sharon Sodeberg, Facebook’s COO, complain that the biggest problem is finding enough high-quality people to drive the growth machines. The market for nanotechnology is growing by 15 percent a year — small is clearly beautiful. The white biotechnology industry (which puts living microorganisms to industrial use) is growing at 10 percent a year. Traditional companies can also thrive in slow-growth environments. Japan’s lost decades have certainly not been lost for 7-Eleven. Zara has turned itself into a global fashion powerhouse despite Spain’s dismal business climate.

Hard times can also be surprisingly good for start-ups: the collapse of established giants can free up resources, in the form of unemployed scientists and vacant offices, that new companies can buy at bargain prices. The list of companies that were started in recessions or even depressions is a long one. Revlon was founded in 1932, the worst year of the Great Depression. FedEx and Wal-Mart were products of the malaise of the 1970s. Microsoft was founded during a recession. If hard times make it more difficult for also-rans to survive, they also provide room for dynamic newcomers, with inno-vative business models, to expand rapidly.

The most important thing that companies need to do is to identify and exploit mega-trends. The rise of Asia provides opportunities for all sorts of companies outside the charmed circle of global multinationals. Berry Brothers, a British wine merchant that sits in the heart of London’s club land, has been supplying wine to the British upper classes for centuries. But the company is now creating high-end wine salons in China. The aim is to educate the Chinese palate in fine wines (and thus build a core of Berry Brothers loyalists) rather than just make a quick killing by selling overpriced plonk to the nouveaux riches.

The rise of Asia also provides Western companies with new ideas for products: frugal products that dispense with fripperies but nevertheless do the job. Some Western companies have already embraced the new climate of frugality: Aldi of Germany, Wal-Mart of the United States and online retailers galore are pulling ahead of the pack. (“We are moving into an area of the frivolous being unacceptable and the frugal being cool,” said Andy Bond, the former boss of the Wal-Mart subsidiary Asda). But Western companies have much more to learn from the East — both from emerging-market companies themselves and from Western multinationals that have invested heavily in the region.

Tyler Cowen, an economist, has argued that the United States is consigned to low growth because its economy has harvested all the “low-hanging fruits.” But there are plenty of low-hanging fruits available in India and China when it comes to frugal innovation. Tata Motors has produced a $2,500 car, the Nano. Bharti Airtel and Reliance Communications sell handsets for less than $20, connect people to networks for free and charge only 1 cent a minute for phone calls. Narayana Hrudayalaya Hospital in Bangalore, India, can perform heart operations at a fraction of the cost in the West.

Many of these products are beginning to find their way to Western markets. G.E. is selling cheap electrocardiograph units in the United States that it developed in India. Nestlé is selling its brand of dried noodles, Maggi, that it invented for rural Pakistan and India in New Zealand and Australia. Dr. Devi Shetty, the man behind assembly-line heart surgery in India, is building a 2,000-bed hospital in the Cayman Islands to serve the American market. But this is only the beginning: Western companies can reinvent entire industries by plugging into Eastern innovation machines or by embracing the frugal mind-set. Most budding business executives would learn more by spending a few months in Mumbai than a couple of years in a Western business school.

The growing crisis of the Western approach will provide huge opportunities for savvy companies. Western governments are being squeezed by two mighty forces: the need to reduce their astronomical debts and the need to care for an aging population. European governments have begun to reform themselves; even Italy has adopted ambitious pension reforms. The United States will eventually have to follow suit or face a crisis of confidence in the global capital markets. But the reform will have to go much further: governments will have to deal with the fact that productivity has been flat (or even negative) in the public sector for the past 20 years while it has doubled in the private sector. This will create a huge wave of privatization and contracting out. Ross Perot’s E.D.S. turned itself into a giant by providing computer services to the public sector. There will be many more E.D.S.’s in coming years as Western governments desperately try to save themselves from bankruptcy.

The thing that is driving this crisis more than any other — the rapid aging of the population — also provides opportunities dressed up as problems. The so-called silver market (goods and services for people over 60 years old) is now worth more than $700 billion worldwide and provides a source of growth for companies in sectors as diverse as cosmetics and financial services. Older people can also provide a valuable source of employees; they are often more stable and hard-working than younger employees and are frequently more accommodating and flexible. Retail giants like Asda in Britain have redesigned their timetables around the needs of older workers, providing “Benidorm leave” (named after a beach resort in Spain) for winter holidays, for example. The manufacturing giant Daimler-Benz has redesigned its production lines to take into account aging bodies, providing comfortable chairs and better lighting.

Besides looking out for mega-trends, companies need to invest in long-term growth. This might sound counterintuitive. But the lessons of history are clear: just as hard times provide opportunities for start-ups to hire cheap talent, they also provide opportunities for established companies to invest in the future. During the Great Depression, a praetorian guard of American companies — DuPont, I.B.M., Chrysler and General Motors in particular — laid the foundations for their extraordinary postwar success by outspending their rivals on product development or marketing. DuPont brought up cheap scientists and developed nylon and radial tires. I.B.M. responded to a collapse in the market by investing in producing the next generation of business machines on the grounds that companies would need to become more efficient. Procter & Gamble won the brand wars by employing an army of women who went around the country singing its praises.

The trouble with investing in long-term growth is that it is long term. What about more immediate results? And what about start-ups that are trying to survive rather than planning for the next 20 years? Innovative business models give start-ups a chance to revolutionize their industries and rising companies a chance to build long-term defenses. Look at the way that Bharti Airtel slashed the cost of phone calls by sharing cell towers with other companies. Innovative business models in big companies can also create huge business models for smaller companies.

Many big companies are embracing “collaborative innovation” — that is, contracting out as much of their brain-intensive work as possible to the broader market rather than trying to do it all themselves. P.&G., which was once one of the world’s most inward-looking companies, has increased the proportion of innovation that comes from beyond its borders to 50 percent. This provides opportunities for high-end entrepreneurs with clever ideas. Many big companies are also snapping up smaller companies in order to tap into their innovative business models. Amazon purchased Zappos (making its owners very rich in the process) not because it wanted to acquire its shoemaking business but because it wanted to learn from its ability to provide outstanding customer service and happy employees.

What role should governments play in helping companies to grow? Almost everywhere, governments are trying to promote business growth in order to ignite their economies and provide jobs for the unemployed. And almost everywhere the policies are failing. The most fashionable strategy is to create high-tech clusters like the one that has changed the world in Silicon Valley. Skolkovo brashly promotes itself as “Russia’s Silicon Valley” despite the fact that it has not yet produced a single building, let alone a single product. But these policies almost always lead to disappointment: Silicon Valley possesses attributes that are almost impossible to copy, such as two of the world’s best universities along with a finely tuned venture-capital industry.

Governments would be much better to forget these grand schemes and adopt humbler approaches:
Think local rather than global. It is much more sensible to build on your local strengths than to import alien models. Germany has become the world’s most successful big economy by embracing humdrum middle-sized companies that make ball bearings and pencils. Sweet Water Organics in Milwaukee produces fish and lettuce in a disused crane factory with the help of water researchers from the local university.

Think small rather than big. Governments are much better off financing lots of small prizes for innovators of various kinds rather than trying to build a bright new tomorrow.

Above all, take an ax to regulations. It is understandable that governments concluded that they needed to increase their regulation of the financial sector in the wake of the 2007-8 crisis. But there are also vast numbers of regulations that do nothing but kill business and create jobs for regulators. Italy has some 150,000 laws on its statute books. Barack Obama’s health care law has nine codes relating to injuries caused by parrots and three relating to burns from flaming water skis. The best thing that government can do to encourage growth after a period of concerted expansion is to get out of the way and let creative destruction work its magic.

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Adrian Wooldridge is co-author of several books and is the management editor for The Economist. He is based in London.

Authors

  • Adrian Wooldridge

    Contributor, Korn Ferry Institute