COVID winners: Lessons from thriving businesses

Saleem Sonday  - 08 October 2020

In the seventh of 10 webinars in the Survive and thrive series, brought to you by the Allan Gray Umbrella Retirement Fund, we chat to the leaders of businesses that have thrived during the pandemic about the key factors that helped foster their growth and success. Watch the webinar recording of “COVID winners: Lessons from thriving businesses” below. 

Key takeouts 

Beauty On TApp founder, Mathebe Molise, founder and CEO of Montegray Capital, Michael Jordaan, and Werner de Jager, CEO of Cashbuild, share the quick decisions and key learnings that helped them use the opportunities presented by the pandemic to accelerate their growth and increase their market share. Here is a summary of the key takeouts. 

Don’t waste a good crisis 

As business leaders focus on mitigating potential risks and doing damage control, many overlook the new opportunities a crisis can present. When responded to well, a crisis can offer you the opportunity to build trust with your stakeholders, tap into new revenue streams and enhance your operations. 

Despite losing five weeks of revenue during the lockdown period, Cashbuild was able to meet the increased demand for home improvement-related materials due to customers spending significant amounts of time at home during lockdown. De Jager attributes this to the fact that the business didn’t wait for a new normal to arrive. “Even before the lockdown started, we put a COVID crisis committee in place.” The committee focused its efforts on planning for the business’s reopening and communicating with its clients. As a result, Cashbuild stores were swamped with customers as soon as they were given the greenlight to reopen. 

De Jager encourages business leaders to keep it simple and focus on the basics so that you have the solid foundation and capacity required to adapt to challenges and take advantage of the new opportunities they present. 

Focus on your strategy 

Crises pass, which is why is entrepreneurs should never lose sight of the bigger picture. 

During the lockdown period, Cashbuild acquired The Building Company. The deal supports Cashbuild’s longer-term goal of becoming an integrated supplier of building materials. De Jager attributes their decision to go ahead to the fact that the business has a long-term plan that hasn’t changed, “You must keep focusing on your strategy. You will have short-term decisions to make, and have to change things around, but our focus is to grow market share. We are positive about this country.” 

Increased demand forced online beauty store Beauty on TApp to broaden its local supplier base. Molise says that it was critical that any new products complemented the business’s ethos and commitment to clean, good quality, natural beauty. “We have always been very stringent with the kinds of brands we list on the store. Our vetting process is very detailed.” Molise says that maintaining these processes helped build customer loyalty, “When people come onto Beauty on TApp and they don’t find the product they are looking for, they trust us enough to shop for an alternative from us. They won’t go to another platform to look for the product that they actually wanted.” 

Doubling down on your business strategy can expedite your decision-making, provide much-needed clarity, and ensure that the short-term actions you take align with your vision and values. 

Customer centricity is paramount

Listening to your customers and being able to offer them solutions to the new challenges they face is even more important during a significant crisis. 

As an online store, Beauty on TApp was well-placed to fill the gap in the natural beauty and haircare market when South Africans were no longer able to visit salons and retail outlets. “We were just very nimble and agile with responding to what people needed.” Molise says that being mindful of the business’s constraints and managing capacity was critical to ensuring a good customer experience, “We knew that the customers we were getting during lockdown were customers we wanted to keep. People who started shopping with us from March through to June are actually coming back just because our service and customer centricity was top of mind.” 

Jordaan echoes the need for businesses to ensure that their customer experience is a key differentiator. “Don’t be incrementally better, be exponentially better,” he says. 

Think like a start-up

The lockdown presented Montegray Capital’s partner, rain, a mobile-only data network, with an opportunity to increase its footprint by solving the need for affordable data as people were forced to work remotely. As a venture capitalist, Jordaan believes that start-ups are in the best position to solve society’s problems. “The start-up is a wonderful way of saying something isn’t working the way I think it should be working, I can come up with a solution. If I get it right, it’s a sustainable solution.” 

Jordaan says that start-ups are really good at anticipating what may happen in the future, which is why many of them have thrived through the pandemic. He argues that COVID has accelerated the future in so many ways, “Any business that has predicated its existence not on the past or on the current, but on how the future will be, has actually done very well.” 

Jordaan says that start-ups have the advantage of using the latest technology, recruiting small teams of experts, maintaining variable cost structures and being able to change the rules. Adopting a future-focused mindset, building flexibility into your processes, and taking a solutions-oriented approach, even as an established business, can improve your crisis readiness and help you thrive through uncertainty.

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