Can companies actually grow stronger during a recession? What can they do to capitalize on the problems that their rivals encounter during tough economic times? Suppose you have a sturdy balance sheet, low debt, and plentiful amounts of cash. How can you employ these strengths to take on rivals who have been weakened considerably?
I’m reminded of the importance of considering these questions when I read Steven Jobs’ recent quotes about Apple’s strategy in the days and months ahead. Jobs promises to expand the firm’s research and development efforts this year, even if economic growth does turn negative. Here is what he told Fortune magazine a few weeks ago, reflecting on the last recession as well as the current economic climate: “In fact we were going to up our R&D budget so that we would be ahead of our competitors when the downturn was over. And that’s exactly what we did. And it worked. And that’s exactly what we’ll do this time.” Of course, Apple sits in an enviable position. They have an impressive balance sheet, mountains of cash, and no debt. If your firm also finds itself in such a position of strength, remember that it too can use the recession to become even stronger relative to the competition.
Here are four steps your company should consider now:
First, invest heavily in research and development now so that new products and services are ready for launch as the economy begins to grow again. Your competitors may be inclined to cut R&D, particularly if they face high interest payments, substantial drops in revenue, and the like. If so, your acceleration of investment now will yield a strong product advantage in the coming years.
Second, spend some time learning about the customers of your weakest competitors. You might be inclined to go after their largest and most attractive clients. However, be aware that your rivals are probably working desperately to save those customers. They might not, however, have the time and resources to focus on smaller clients. Focus your attention on these potential new customers, particularly those with attractive growth prospects and strong balance sheets.
Third, identify your most critical suppliers and distributors, and determine if any face the possibility of severe impairment to their business due to the economic downturn. Assess the risk to your business if they should falter badly or even fail completely. Then, examine ways in which you might help those supplies and distributors weather the downturn. Even the smallest gesture can sometimes build an enduring loyalty that will pay off for years to come.
Finally, think carefully about your talent needs. As weak companies lay off employees, many good people will find themselves searching for work. Other skilled workers may still have a job, but they may be disenchanted with their struggling firms. Capitalize on this opportunity to identify and attract talented employees, while slack exists in the labor market.
Michael Roberto is an assistant professor of business administration at Harvard Business School