How 3 MENA business leaders are building resilient companies post-COVID-19

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This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Alexandre Raffoul, Head of Business Engagement, Middle East and Africa, World Economic Forum & Fatima Al Zahra Hewaidi, Acting Community Lead, Business Engagement MEA, World Economic Forum

  • We asked three business leaders what steps they took to adapt during COVID-19 and how to build a resilient business going forward.
  • Optimized supply chains, increased investment in emerging technologies and geographical diversification were key operational shifts that ensured survival.
  • As vaccine programs expand, returning to old ways might be tempting for some businesses, but what are the ‘moonshot’ visions for the future?

Business leaders in the Middle East and North Africa are accustomed to running their businesses in volatile and cumbersome environments. COVID-19 has presented a new layer of challenges to the region – disrupting the traditional business leadership formula, that distinguished the market leaders of the past half-century. Enduring traces are in the making, and the winners of the post-COVID era are likely to be those re-examining the status quo of business survival.

We asked three leading executives what it takes to grow a resilient and future-ready business in the post-COVID era. They shared strategies they adopted to safeguard their businesses during the pandemic, some of the challenges they experienced – and their “moonshot” ideas for the future.

Investing in resilience: Saudi Telecom Company

“COVID-19 has been challenging on so many fronts,” says Nasser Al Nasser, the outgoing CEO of Saudi Telecom Company (STC), “but it presented an opportunity for STC to play its role as a leading regional ICT company and a national champion to support government efforts, business continuity and wider communities.” Having successfully invested in fiber and mobility infrastructure during the past 3-4 years, Nasser says that STC was able to maintain its network capacity and quality of service. Thanks to these investments, STC’s Q4 revenue in 2020 increased by nearly 16% on the previous year – culminating in the highest annual revenue for the company in eight years.

Our experience over the past few months has fundamentally changed our view on digital transformation.—Nasser Al Nasser, outgoing CEO, Saudi Telecom Company

“Our experience over the past few months has fundamentally changed our view on digital transformation,” he says, “from a long-term aspirational agenda towards a tangible pressing necessity.” Having invested extensively in digital transformation as part of the company’s 2018 dare strategy, STC was able to address the challenges presented by COVID-19, namely the drastic increase in demand on its network due to remote work, education and healthcare.

In 2021, STC’s priority is to enable effective, ecosystem-based models. In part, this includes developing IoT-enabled digital applications for smart cities, logistics, industry and home segments. The company has also significantly increased its investments in 5G deployment, data centres and analytics, and emerging technologies such as AI and AR/VR.

Operational efficiency and expansion: Averda

“2020 brought challenges that none of us could have ever imagined,” says Malek Sukkar, CEO of Averda – a global waste management company headquartered in the UAE. “Our work became more important than ever.” Resilience meant positioning the company at the forefront of waste management technology. “During the year we fully digitized operations,” he explained, “to the extent that we can now track each collection run in real-time”.

Our focus in 2021 is on preparing the business for a recovery that will bring activity and growth back to pre-COVID levels.—Malek Sukkar, CEO, Averda

Strengthening investments in new technology helped Averda eliminate paperwork and physical interaction. It also helped them stay closer to their customers. “We optimized our supply chain so that we are based more on a decentralized and localized operational structure,” says Sukkar, in the company’s effort to reduce its reliance on increasingly fragile global supply chains.

Survival in 2021 for Averda also means geographical diversification. Amid lockdowns in cities and economies globally, Averda has managed to enter the strategic market of India for the first time, and has won a range of new contracts in the Middle East and Africa. “Our focus in 2021 is on preparing the business for a recovery that will bring activity and growth back to pre-COVID levels.” It takes a certain mindset to recover while tackling expansive and complex markets.

Restructuring for survival: Tamer Group

“For Tamer Group Chairman Ayman Tamer, COVID-19 presented a unique opportunity to accelerate the company’s digital transformation and reassess the fundamental assumptions of the business. “Is our business resilient? Do we need to redefine our business model, or totally reinvent a new business model? How the world will look like in the new norm and what will be the new ‘normalcy’?”

We thought back to our purpose: we are here to serve the country and offer essential supply of pharmaceutical, medical and consumer products. —Ayman Tamer, Chairman, Tamer Group

It came down to rethinking the structure of the business and how it may best serve the new environment, he says. “We thought back to our purpose: we are here to serve the country and offer essential supply of pharmaceutical, medical and consumer products; that was our foremost priority,” he says, explaining the shift his company board made from their core medical devices business to PPE and critical care products. “We prioritized the health of our team and of course of the health of the nation. There are no winners and losers in this crisis. We either all win or we will all lose.”

Tamer also rethought decision-making across the company. “We trusted our team, and their capabilities by decentralizing decision making through a process of empowering, delegate and oversight,” he says.

Tamer looks forward to continuing the digital transformation of his industry. “We look forward to continuing playing a vital role in the healthcare, logistics and consumer ecosystem. Global and local dynamics are changing, we are evolving as well. Digital is becoming a core essence for the group, market adoption has been unprecedented, we realized that the crisis is turning into an opportunity to jump-start many initiatives.”

“As we continue to develop our innovations so that we are cemented at the frontier of the latest trends in the healthcare industry,” he says, “we will also be in a position to pursue future ‘moonshot’ ideas in logistics – such as last-mile delivery through drones, instead of trucks”.

Envisioning the future: pursuing the ‘moonshots’

The year ahead will be one of transition and recovery. With a vaccine on the horizon, returning to old ways might be a looming temptation for some businesses.

Nasser Al Nasser urges all leaders to consider three things: “First, put digital transformation at the top of your agenda with clearly defined and measurable objectives. Second, prepare early by building the right technical and human capabilities. Third, ensure outcome-driven governance and an execution platform for organization-wide digital transformation.”

For Sukkar, the next step is to close the resource-waste-recycle circle. “If I could pursue a ‘moonshot’ idea in 2021, it would be to look closely at hydroponics, with a view to supply foodstuffs to regions around the world that do not have sustainable and reliable local food resources.”

Tamer seeks to continue developing Tamer Group’s data capabilities. “We are aiming to use emerging and innovative technologies like artificial intelligence and predictive analytics to monitor trends and develop creative solutions.”

Looking beyond COVID, building resilience and leveraging new technologies remains an imperative for industry survival and competitiveness in the region.

The impact of the pandemic will undoubtedly be with us for many years, compelling leaders to re-examine what it means to lead a successful and future-proof business. One side-effect of COVID-19 has been the opportunity to do business better. The onus is on chief executives to take that leap.

The winners of the post-COVID era are likely to be those prepared to re-examine the meaning of business survival.

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