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Winners and Losers

April 17, 2024 by Alistair Enser

Understandably, I have spoken a lot about the impact of the pandemic recently, but as we tentatively enter the second week of the school calendar in the knowledge that social gatherings have been restricted to six people, and as local lockdowns are put into effect, why don’t we look at the wider picture?

In particular, why don’t we consider the opportunities that exist alongside the challenges faced? As Newton’s Third Law states, for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.

A level playing field?

I appreciate that, if you work in the hard-hit hospitality sector, it won’t be easy to see much opportunity. The UK’s internationally renowned live entertainment and arts sectors have been hit particularly hard, as theatres, museums, live music venues and galleries have lost their audiences overnight. New social distancing rules provide little financial impetus to reopen.

Even our universities are struggling: despite record numbers of students and suggestions of more higher-fee paying international students, the financial outlook for most universities is mixed, to say the least, as alternative sources of income, such as research budgets, venue hire, sports facilities, special events and external seminars dry up. It has been suggested that “the UK university sector could face shortfalls of ‘billions of pounds’ and many institutions could need bailing out by the taxpayers.” In fact the recent U-turn on exam results may have a profound effect on the ‘1992 Universities’ (the old Polytechnics). As caps have been removed for intakes and grades are reported to be higher than prior years there are now more students being accepted onto courses with higher grade boundaries, leaving a deficit for specialist courses and institutions with lower entry requirements.

I have written before about the impact that the crisis is having on our high streets, which are a shadow of their former selves as online sales replace a visit to the shops. That said, longer term demographic changes may, in time, reinvigorate these same town centres as people move out of the cities or, by working from home more regularly they may visit the high streets nearest to them.

Opportunity knocks

While the health service, social care system and other parts of our public service infrastructure have struggled during the pandemic, consider what has not. It’s remarkable to me that broadband connectivity and mobile telecommunications have remained so stable throughout perhaps the biggest ever test of their reliability. As millions worked from home, streamed films or accessed the news on mobile devices, the infrastructure was up to the job. The same is true of critical national infrastructure including the power generators and water providers who we rely on.

In some respect these point to where the opportunities lie for those businesses that are able to rise to the challenge and thrive in the face of adversity. While the high streets closed, online sales boomed. In February this year ecommerce represented 19 per cent of all UK retail sales; in May it had had risen to 33 per cent. Warehouse space is now considered a better investment than high end retail developments.

Other successful sectors include big tech, such as Apple (whose share price is up 100 per cent year on year), Facebook (up 42 per cent), and new video conferencing provider, Zoom, which started the year known only to a minority of business users, but which has now become a verb such has been its rapid growth. Its shares are up 369 per cent year on year.

A new way of looking at things

Other organisations that are doing well at this time point to a new way of seeing the world; one which has been encouraged by our experience during lockdown. Since the lockdown there has been a dramatic reduction in air pollution around the world. Does this in part explain the renewed interest amongst investors in electric vehicle technology? Only last year Tesla was the tired target of short sellers. Yet its shares now trade 657 per cent higher than a year ago. Porsche cannot build its latest electric vehicle, the Taycan, fast enough.

Is there a common thread to these success stories? I think there is. It’s down to technology, and the way it makes automation possible, can improve productivity, provides greater insight from data, and allows operations to be managed remotely. Indeed, most of the growth industries, from technology to pharmaceuticals, logistics to renewable power generation, video streaming to online shopping, rely on harnessing technology to be more agile and responsive.

The same seismic shifts are being seen in the security industry. Technology is helping to keep organisations safe as they return to work, of course. But it is also helping them automate and improve key business processes, removing the need for unnecessary human intervention, building resilience and giving business leaders new insight into their organisations.

Don’t just think about where your business has traditionally come from, look at where it has changed, how you can do things differently and better, and where new opportunities might arise.

It’s time to step up to the challenge!