Preparing for a Future Crisis: 5 Lessons CFOs Can Learn from COVID-19

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Thursday, February 25, 2021

As businesses look for ways to not just survive COVID-19 but come out of it stronger, CFOs will be thinking about the lessons they can learn from the pandemic.

Article 4 Minutes

COVID-19 has affected businesses in countless ways. Some companies have seen demand and revenue dry up as entire industries have been forced to shut down, while others have faced the opposite challenge of managing a sudden increase in need for certain products and services.

Every organization has had to fulfill its obligations as an employer to keep staff safe and not put people's health at risk.

Much of the responsibility for leading a business through times of crisis rests on the shoulders of the chief financial officer. As well as focusing on the immediate priorities of managing the pressures of COVID-19, many CFOs will be thinking about how the business can take lessons from this period and be ready for adversity in the future.

Lesson 1: Model and manage cash flow

Cash flow has always been a crucial element in the success of any company, but the importance of having access to sufficient cash and liquidity to maintain your core business has become clearer than ever during the pandemic.

Organizations that found themselves having to raise capital in 2020 faced a range of challenges, including the escalating cost of financing. Issuing shares became an unattractive or unfeasible option for many firms, owing to factors like market volatility and difficulties in projecting earnings.

Effective cash flow modeling and forecasting is vital to get a clear idea of how much liquidity the business has and how prepared you are to respond to high-stress scenarios.

It can also prove beneficial to invest time and resources in protecting your existing customer relationships, to reduce the risk of payment issues arising at times when your cash flow is already under pressure.

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Lesson 2: Revisit your risk strategy

Almost all (94%) North American CFOs said COVID-19 had made their company more likely to change its overall risk strategy in preparation for future crises. One-third (33%) said they are going as far as to make significant changes to their business models.

"If businesses can't grow and trade on a global scale, that only exacerbates the slowdown we're seeing in the world economy. In just a few months, we've seen business leaders restrict credit terms and slash expansion plans." - James Daly, president and CEO of Euler Hermes Americas
 

There are various practical steps you can take to limit your risk exposure, such as diversifying your supplier base and conducting closer monitoring of customer payments.

Lesson 3: Diligent communication

Good communication should always be a priority for businesses, but the importance of frequent, accurate messaging - both within the company and with external parties like customers and suppliers - has become even clearer during the pandemic.

From a CFO perspective, one of the top communication priorities during times of adversity should be staying in contact with the executive leadership team and other key stakeholders. Setting aside time in your diary for regular catch-up sessions will ensure everyone is up to date with the firm's current financial position and cash flow.

Staying in touch with banks and equity investors could also prove important if you want to maintain these relationships and protect your sources of financing.

Lesson 4: Take a digital-first approach

One of the clearest conclusions all organizations can draw from COVID-19 is that digital business tools and applications are no longer a 'nice to have' or something to aspire to, but an absolute necessity.

The physical distancing requirements enforced by the virus have led to large portions of the workforce working from home. This is seen as a sign of things to come, with some forecasts suggesting that up to 30% of employees will work remotely multiple days a week by the end of 2021.

As a result of this shift, countless companies have found themselves relying on technologies like cloud computing, instant messaging apps and videoconferencing software to keep their core business running.

From a financial perspective, one of your priorities as the CFO might be to ensure that IT and other key departments have the resources and funding they need to enable large-scale digitization of key processes and functions.

Lesson 5: Look ahead to recovery

In the midst of challenges as severe as the ones businesses experienced in 2020, immediate priorities like keeping the company financially solvent will take precedence over long-term goals.

However, organizations that are confident in navigating current conditions should be looking ahead and making plans for how the business can succeed in the post-crisis world.

Consider questions like:

  • Could layoffs and downsizing taking place at other businesses provide opportunities for you to bridge skills gaps in your workforce?
  • Should you be investing in product research and development now so you're ready to meet demand when economic conditions start to improve?
  • Has the current crisis shown that you need to make your supply chains more adaptable and resilient to future disruption?

Thinking in this way and focusing on the lessons you can learn from times of adversity can help the business prepare for whatever obstacles might come your way in the future, setting you up for long-term, sustainable success.

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