Pankaj Munjal, managing director of Hero Cycles, is charting a counter-intuitive path. He has started operating all eight of his factories in Ludhiana in full steam, even though only 30-40% of his dealers have reopened for business. He is, in fact, keen to pedal faster, having despatched an executive to Bihar to persuade his factory workers to return at the soonest.Why is Munjal in a hurry to produce when the economy is hurting and a V-shaped recovery is as yet not a certainty? He anticipates that social distancing norms will end up boosting bicycle sales. People might prefer to cycle to work than take a crowded, shared auto rickshaw or a minivan.At the $5.2 billion IT services firm Tech Mahindra, chief strategy officer Jagdish Mitra is bullish, too. “We see opportunities to build businesses for the hyper digital world. We have developed our solutions around the theme of ‘survive to thrive’,” he says. The company expects an uptick in demand from sectors such as healthcare, pharma, telemedicine, data security and cloud services, among others.The ranks of executives who think like Munjal and Mitra are swelling. At first, there was panic. That yielded to acceptance that the virus is not going away anytime soon. And now, gradually, there is a reckoning underway with islands of opportunities in an ocean of gloom, and a move to harness those.Some opportunities are external — access to new markets for exporters in the great global trade shake-up, or companies moving manufacturing capabilities out of China, for instance. Others are internal — lower real estate costs, availability of technical skill sets that were highly expensive earlier, the opportunity to lower the cost of long-term debt and so on. Then there are sector-specific ones, such as what Munjal and Mitra are anticipating.Even in those sectors where the pandemic has not created natural advantages, there is a rush to identify areas of operations that could be favourably recalibrated, even as the economy starts emerging from the rigours of the lockdown that has been in place in different iterations since March 26.World StageOne key area of opportunity companies are scanning are external ones — those that might arise as a result of the great global trade shakeup. Could India become a preferred destination for the companies abandoning China, or will they instead choose a Southeast Asian nation? Will China flex its military muscle to advance its economic interests? And how much of a disruption will be seen in the tried-and-tested global supply chains? Amitabh Kant, chief executive officer of NITI Aayog, argues that the global supply chains will be majorly disrupted and India will benefit if it turns into a cost-effective and attractive manufacturing hub. “Also, our focus should be more on sunrise sectors such as electric mobility, battery manufacturing, artificial intelligence and 5G technology,” he says, adding that India has the potential to leapfrog in sectors such as electronics and mobile manufacturing, pharmaceuticals, networking products, food processing and textiles.However, to chase opportunities in a post-Covid ecosystem, companies —from a top executive to a salesman on a bike — need to reimagine the art of pitching. With limited scope of discussing a business deal over drinks and dinner, sales teams across businesses now will have to find ways to sell their nifty services over Zoom, Teams or Hangout meetings. Says Sangeeta Gupta, senior vice-president and chief strategy officer of Nasscom: “Technology will move from ‘good to have’ to ‘fundamental to survive’. For companies, a strategy to navigate is to hone skills in sales, prospecting on a contactless basis.”Gupta calls Covid-19 a pivotal moment for India’s $190 billion IT and allied services sector which employs 4.3 million people. Adoption of cyber security, cloud migration and virtualisation will increase. It is also anticipated that global companies will look for partners to build efficiencies and control costs. For instance, shipping and logistics companies have always been reluctant to outsource tasks as many of them are familyrun or founder-owned and -controlled businesses. But in a post-Covid-19 world, there’s little option but to embrace outsourcing. 76113419 76113425Shaving CostsAn opportunity that companies across sectors are focussing on is in shaving off fixed costs. In most cases, realty is the top one to be reviewed. Work from home (WFH), while a mixed blessing, has given companies in cities like Bengaluru a twin advantage — lower costs and greater productivity as employees are no longer spending two-three hours commuting. Employees also save the cost of commuting.One of the first things that Sachin Bhatia, CEO & cofounder of streaming commerce platform Bulbul TV, did to deal with business downturn was to surrender his startup’s call centre that employed 100-odd people and enabled them to work from home.“Giving up the call centre was an important decision to optimise our limited resources,” he says.Ramesh Nair, CEO, JLL India, says real estate is typically the second or third largest cost for companies, especially in the services sector. “Companies are going through their entire portfolio of assets to scrutinise what is core and what is non-core and exploring selling off non-core ones,” he says.T Hari, HR head at Big Basket, says the company surrendered 50% of its office space in Bengaluru and asked everyone to work from home on a long-term basis, with minimal staff coming to office, keeping social distancing norms in mind. So what about issues like team cohesion, organisational culture and camaraderie that you build when you work in physical proximity to each other? “No situation is perfect and it’s a tradeoff you need to make. What we can do is to try and meet each other once a week,” he says. 76113432 76113437While many companies have embarked on largescale layoffs to control costs, some are utilising the opportunity to deepen their bonds with staff. “We have taken a call not to lay off anyone,” says Sandeep Singh, MD of Tata Hitachi, a company that manufactures earth-moving machinery and other heavy equipment. This is despite his company, with a staff of 3,530 being faced with serious business worries, its plants remaining closed and demand continuing to be tepid. It has rolled out a slew of programmes to make the company efficient. “The lockdown has given us time to do things that we wanted to do but were not able to,” says Singh. A big automation programme called e-Dost has been rolled out in sales and marketing. From billing to vendor claims, from communication with dealers to internal meetings, the company is embracing a range of automation and virtual tools to go totally paperless. This will help save both time and costs.Cut to Gurgaon. Kanika Tekriwal, founder of Jet-SetGo Services (an Uber for chartering aircraft) foresaw today’s scenario back in February when the virus had begun to spread to geographies beyond China. She rallied her staff to cut costs and recover receivables, which were brought down from 70% to 30%. To soothe anxieties, she let everyone know that there will not be any pay cuts and layoffs. “As a startup, we had been working hard. In the lockdown, business was almost zero (except emergency evacuation). So, we decided to let everyone chill out, unwind a bit and shift the focus inwards,” she says. Founded in 2015, her startup has 21 leased aircraft and 200 staff.Debt ManagementWhile companies review real estate and staff costs, another area of opportunity many have rushed to exploit is the reduction of the long-term cost of debt.Mihir Vora, chief investment officer, Max Life Insurance, says healthy companies with strong balance sheets are raising money for three reasons: safety and liquidity, business growth and inorganic opportunities. “For AAA-rated companies, funding cost has come down. Three-year money is really cheap and companies are taking advantage of this, and even preparing a war chest,” Vora adds.A slew of top companies have raised debt during the lockdown. Reliance Industries raised Rs 21,500 crore through bonds in three tranches in April and May. Among other companies who have either raised debt or have announced their intention to do so are Larsen & Toubro (Rs 9,000 crore), Tata Steel (Rs 7,000 crore), Cipla (Rs 3,000 crore), Adani Enterprises (Rs 1,000 crore) and Future Retail (Rs 650 crore). Vedanta Resources, meanwhile, raised around $1 billion globally to fund the de-listing of its Indian subsidiary. The total bond issuance in the first month of the lockdown itself exceeded Rs 50,000 crore.B Prasanna, group head for global markets at ICICI Bank, feels that this was a good period for borrowing and apart from large companies, even lower-rated companies that do not access the markets normally, borrowed because of the central bank’s Targeted Long Term Repo Operations (TLTRO). “It will be prudent to assume that some of the larger issuers have borrowed in excess of their requirements as a contingency against the unknown. Also, given the measures provided by the government and the abundant liquidity and lower policy rates, it made sense for regular issuers to borrow more,” Prasanna adds. 76113442New BusinessThe most frenetic opportunity hunting is perhaps in healthcare innovation as the demand is large and current. Marico Chairman Harsh Mariwala and his nonprofit Marico Foundation announced an innovation challenge in the twin areas of personal protective equipment (PPE) and ventilators for innovators to present business ideas. They funded three entrepreneurs to make PPE. Crea is making a breathable PPE that makes life easier for doctors and healthcare workers. Log 9 Materials has created a microwave oven-sized disinfection chamber that can sanitise items in 10 minutes. Saral Designs has repurposed its machines that make sanitary pads to make 3-ply masks. Mariwala says, “Our PPE innovators have already got their products in the market and by early June we will announce innovations on ventilators.” Former head of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research, RA Mashelkar, who is also part of the project, adds: “We are amazed at Indian ingenuity and, today, we have these products that are built in India and built for India. Why should we have to import such products?”Unquestionably, Corporate India has displayed enough resilience to navigate this dark phase. What could also soothe the nation’s pain is its mammoth 1.3 billion domestic consumer base. But that won’t be adequate. India as a nation must place itself strategically in this new world order. Suresh Prabhu, prime minister’s sherpa for G-20 and former Union commerce minister, agrees: “There will be opportunity for India globally. But India needs to align itself geo-politically and geo-economically to get mileage out of it.” (Additional inputs from Shelley Singh)
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