by Paula Fitzgerald
This time last year, I was standing in front of my European colleagues in the conference room of a hotel in Strasbourg where we were hosting our annual corporate retreat. I was presenting insights and tips for targeting investors from a North American perspective.
On one slide, I included quotes from two U.S. presidents, John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan. It was my mildly humorous attempt to illustrate the clash of cultures that I sometimes find between public sector investment promotion agencies (IPAs), and private companies.
The quote from Kennedy was, “Ask not what your country can do for you – but what you can do for your country”. I explained to my colleagues that when talking to prospective investors, we should always be thinking “Ask not what your company can do for your region, but what your region can do for your company”. The point I was trying to emphasize is that, over the course of talks with a company about potentially setting up in your region, no matter how exciting the prospect of landing a headline-grabbing investment can be, you should be continuously articulating what your region can do for the company. How well you pay attention to a company’s needs during this process can make or break a transaction.
The second quote was from Ronald Reagan, who said, “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help’”. The point I was making here was that the public and private sectors often operate with opposing priorities, budgets and timelines, which at times can produce reluctance from the private sector to collaborate with government entities.
Who could have predicted that one year after nonchalantly referencing these timeless quotes, we would see the Defense Against Production Act – a wartime statute – being implemented, with car companies like GM and Tesla shifting their production lines to make medical devices to help in the country’s response to a global pandemic?
Who could have predicted that, one year later, struggling industries around the world would be looking to governments for all the help they can get?
At some point in the future, we will be able to resume travel, return to restaurants, frequent sporting events and, of course, return to our offices. But what does a return to normal look like in the post-COVID-19 world? What does “business as usual” look like for investment attraction after the coronavirus?
In the short-term, companies are doing what they can to stabilize their operations, protect their workforce and retain customers. The travel and hospitality industries have been hit particularly hard as efforts to stop the spread of the coronavirus have grounded 95% of flights.
Businesses from all sides of the economy are now having to plan for a different future. Investment promotion agencies should be no different.
With FDI likely to drop between 30% to 70% in 2020, what actions can IPAs take to mitigate the impacts of COVID-19 on global commerce? Several come to mind:
- Re-route tradeshow and travel budgets: UFI, the Global Association of the Exhibition Industry, estimates that more than 500 tradeshows have been cancelled globally. If, as many health experts believe, a vaccine is still 18 months away at the earliest, expect bans on large gatherings of people to continue well into 2021. Consider re-routing tradeshow budgets to other lead generation activities. When the public health crisis eventually eases, in-market visits with a scheduled itinerary of appointments with executives may be a more appropriate way to make the personal connections so vital to business recruitment.
- Pitch to companies less vulnerable to economic shock: S&P 500 companies now have a smaller cash buffer to support their borrowing than they did a decade ago. Companies who were already in a weakened cash position before the coronavirus are unprepared for the current lockdown and economic paralysis. Companies who have higher stockpiles of liquid assets are going to have more cash to invest.
- The sharing economy has been replaced by the isolation economy: The last thing anyone wants to do right now is share. While Uber, Airbnb and WeWork were the winners of the sharing economy, their business models make it difficult to adapt to our mandatory lifestyle shifts. On the other hand, the Isolation Economy is based on the principle that people need not travel to complete everyday activities. As everything from a visit to the doctor, a college lecture and a business meeting moves online, companies like Zoom, Microsoft Teams and Amazon are some of the clear early business winners in the pandemic. Focusing business development efforts towards companies that are related to delivery, home productivity, home entertainment, telemedicine, remote services, technology providers, 5G companies, security companies, or any other business that provides value to an increasingly static consumer, is encouraged.
To help you do this, OCO has created a Company Resilience Register, identifying groups of Agile Companies who have been able to switch their business models due to the crisis, and are likely to have the means to invest in 2020.
- Accelerate digitization: If your staff need to work from home for the foreseeable, how prepared are you? Can you have virtual meetings with prospective investors? Can you share screens, or documents for collaboration? At OCO we have developed a number of solutions to help our clients conduct virtual matchmaking meetings and missions during this time.
- Reinforce aftercare support for existing investors: Put more resources into helping existing companies expand in your market. Focus more on domestic investment attraction of US or international companies that are already in North America.
States and cities that implement smart and sustainable investment attraction strategies will see returns in growth, resilience, and competitiveness. Investment promotion agencies can use this period of social introspection to reflect on the way they interact, collaborate, create value, manage time and manage relationships with prospective investors. Those who can get ahead of the curve will emerge from COVID-19 be better-equipped to deal with what comes next. OCO stands ready to help.
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