Strategy in Uncertainty
Good morning Ladies and Gentlemen.
Welcome to AMCHAM T&T’s first major event of the year – our Economic Outlook Forum for 2021.
Against the backdrop of significant economic dislocation and previously unthinkable restrictions that now form part of our daily reality, how do we even begin to think about “Strategy in what continues to be a period of intense Uncertainty”?
Uncertainty is something that each of us has felt a lot of during this past year.
By every account, we can say that 2020 brought unparalleled disturbances and disruptions. How is your company’s strategic plan working out?
How do we define the strategy to ensure a healthy 2021? The bad news is that there is no specific strategy... no magic bullet. But there are things we can do to be more resilient.
First, let’s look at the current reality. This pandemic has forced us to close many businesses, to shutdown major sectors of our economy, many have been either furloughed or lost their jobs, and then there is the growing death toll. Now somehow, we are asked to pick up the pieces. And we will. Businesses all over will rise to the challenge but it won’t be easy.
Yet, this is in sharp contrast to the promising news at the start of 2020 which started with our economy finally showing signs of returning to growth after years of steady decline. While we knew we weren’t entirely out of the woods just yet, economic turnaround seemed possible.
Today the situation has changed and the outlook for the future remains unknown and uncertain. But as leaders in business, this is not an unfamiliar path for us. How many times have we had to redirect our strategic plans to meet unexpected challenges? In fact, it is moments like this that distinguish the weak from the strong. Our business community is innovative – despite what detractors say. We forge new paths and while the talkers talk, we do. And that’s what we must do now. We must be bold. Think differently. Think big. And Do.
Today, even with this uncertain outlook, we have an opportunity before us to challenge ourselves to be more bold, more innovative, and even more transformative in the way we conduct our business operations.
No one said it will be easy. In fact, we know full recovery will take some time. But we can’t get there unless we have a clear plan or strategy that will take us beyond the pandemic.
Therefore, what today’s situation requires is the fearless and bold visionary leadership to do the improbable. We can’t play it safe or look to surrender. We must meet the moment.
I am not going to talk today about the many things that Government must do to improve the ease of doing business. It is an accepted fact by Governments past and present, by public servants, by the unions and by the business community that our economy is less competitive today than it was 20 years ago.
Being bolder and more innovative; attracting more investment would be easier if the organs of state were more efficient. Just on Tuesday, no less a person than the Governor of the Central Bank, Dr Alvin Hillaire said in an Express article: “one of my biggest issues with T&T, I think, is the way that we do business and the way that we sort of revere bureaucracy, because everything takes a long time, everything. It takes too long. A lot of times, bureaucracy is nonsensical, but we get wedded to it”.
So, there is a lot that Government should do, and these things have been clearly identified before. So now it is up to those in authority to act. What would be useful is a more effective reporting and evaluation framework, ideally as part of the national budget presentation.
But as the private sector, we cannot wait on the Government. We must be bold because regardless of whoever is in office, we have a responsibility to our employees, our customers, our community, our society, our families and yes, to ourselves, to find ways to thrive and grow.
So, boosting our digital economy can help. How many times have we said that digital transformation holds the key to diversification which will lead to long-term growth and sustainability?
Well in a moment of remote work, digital learning and the acceleration of digital adoption happening across many industries, we are finally getting up to speed with the digital age. And while Government must do more and faster in this regard, as the private sector we have to ensure that not only are we identifying and implementing the right technologies, but also that our people are trained to use the new technology effectively.
Investing in technology and in our people is not new to us. Those aren’t bold concepts. But doubling down on training and capital investments in technological capacity in the midst of tight cash flows might well be. Yet we must double down on these things.
COVID-19 may have disrupted a lot of our norms, but it also finally woke us up to the reality that technology is no longer an option but a necessity. Just think of the many opportunities to come out of a fully functioning digitally-enabled economy: faster and more efficient service, new industries built from innovative entrepreneurs and start-ups, creation of new and exciting jobs, and widening the talent pool through innovation and competitiveness.
Therefore, a competitive and progressive T&T depends on a long-term commitment and investment to fully digitize both our public and private sectors.
The results from our Business Survey that we conducted in collaboration with Ernst & Young over the past two months will provide more details on how companies are driving their strategies during these uncertain times and what they require to maintain this into the future.
We know these are challenging times, but we have to remember that what differentiates us from less successful economies are our adaptability, innovation and willingness to explore new opportunities.
Our highly developed energy sector has, at different times, afforded us one of the highest growth rates, highest FDI inflows and highest per capita income in the region. And our manufacturing sector is responsible for providing the region with a significant portion of its consumer products.
So yes, we have achieved great things because of our strategic geographic location, natural resources and highly skilled labor force which means there is no reason why we once more can’t drive growth and sustainable development. Yes, we can. Now is the time to pivot and explore new opportunities even as we face this latest period of uncertainty.
And while certainty will be elusive for several months, the country does need a clear and coherently articulated vaccination plan. With the confirmation of just 25,000 full doses of the vaccine and no clarity around orders of additional doses, T&T is on track to be one of the last countries on the planet for full re-opening. This week we saw the EU being pushed down the schedule for delivery of vaccines due to later confirmation of orders than the UK. We must move swiftly to secure additional doses of the vaccines – moderna, Pfizer, astrazenneca-oxford – and have a plan to ensure that the majority of the population is vaccinated in the shortest possible time, ideally by the middle of the year at latest.
Indeed, as a small and open economy, the rest of the world will likely require vaccinations to enter their countries so, in addition to continued risk to the population and possible moves to limit business activity without widespread vaccination, it is likely that Trinbagonians may go from being stuck abroad to stuck on an island without widespread vaccination.
So, as we seek to build resilience and overcome the challenges over which we have no control, we must be bold. We must seek partnerships as opposed to trying to do everything ourselves – even if that means collaborating with firms who may be the local competition as we go after international business.
We must seek new markets as we attempt to overcome our foreign exchange challenges.
We must diversify within our own businesses. To do this we must take a good look at our business processes to identify intellectual property that we previously overlooked but that we can now commercialize. We must seek to identify unique businesses processes that give us competitive advantages. Massy has done this in the automotive sector and used this to advance in the Colombian market, for example.
What we cannot do is nothing. What we cannot also do is wait – wait for gas production and prices to increase. Even if they do, we can no longer be dependent only on local gas production and advantageous international prices.
As we diversify and grow, so too is our voice amplified with the policymakers. I see thunderstorms ahead but, on my company ship, I am betting on my team and our ability to pivot and execute new strategies. Nationally, I’m betting on all of you, our AMCHAM T&T community, to also pivot, to reinvent yourselves, to dig deep and bounce back stronger.
We have the talent, we have the skills, and we have the people who can help us build that great and prosperous nation we all envision.
One thing this pandemic taught us is that agility and adaptability are essential to survival. We have seen that businesses with inflexible business models and no business continuity plans have either collapsed or barely survived. Conversely, we’ve seen those businesses that were able to pivot, reskill and refocus were able to tread water and even thrive during the pandemic.
We need to ask ourselves, how agile is our business? If 2021 throws us another curveball, will our business survive? Will the “patch” that we used to survive 2020 continue to hold up? Or will one more setback push us under?
I’m not prepared to go under and AMCHAM T&T is here to ensure that you don’t either!
Thank you, everyone!