In the words of singer Jimmy Dean, "I cant change the direction of wind, but I can adjust my sails to reach my destination." I cannot agree more with this as my experiences have taught me that there is no alternative to staying the course during challenging times. This means having faith in yourself and backing your people to sail through tough times.
Just like Rome, a business isn't built in a day. While its success depends on managing your existing resources and making the right decisions at the right time, it also means embracing the unknown and navigating the unchartered waters through agility and constant cost restructuring - simply, being open to evolution. The 25-year-long journey of building McDonald's in India has been exciting and rewarding. But it has also taught us the value of struggles, the significance of a crisis, and how it compels us to assess efficiency in an organisation.
And yet, despite all the preparations, some situations leave you stumped. Nothing could have prepared us for an unanticipated black swan event like the coronavirus pandemic and its economic fallout. But as they say, a good crisis is a terrible thing to waste. And at Westlife, we made sure that we turned it into an opportunity - an opportunity to make our business even more robust, empower our people and build new strengths.
We hope the worst is behind us. We have entered the New Year with new rigour, new zest, but not without key learnings from this unprecedented crisis that has paved the way for a completely new world. I think it's fair to say that 2020 has rendered the traditional ways of working, conducting business and building strategies redundant to a large extent. Here is how I aim to weave in my pandemic learnings into a new paradigm at Westlife.
1. Double down on agility - 2020 has brought forth the volatility of the world we live in like never before. In these exceptionally trying times, our agility became our biggest strength. The fact that we could create a robust framework of survival and revival within a week gave us a strong headstart. Once we had a strategic direction, we were able to execute complex and high-stake projects such as negotiating rents and deploying contactless operations, in a matter of weeks. We also activated our omni-channel strategy that ensured business continuity even in the most challenging times. This played a pivotal role in insulating our business from the shocks of the pandemic. Organisational agility will be a key competitive advantage for companies going forward, one that will set the course for existence and growth.
2. Accelerate digital transformation journey - The pandemic has ushered in an unprecedented change in customer habits, preferences and behaviours. In India, eating out used to be a social occasion, which has now transformed completely, and will continue to evolve in the new normal. It will therefore become extremely critical for companies to have a single view of the customer and the way to enable this is to invest in cutting-edge technology. It has become increasingly apparent that an omni-channel strategy will be paramount for any business to thrive in this new world. So, we will complement our strong retail presence with an equally robust digital presence. This will ensure that our customers are able to access our brand whenever, wherever and however, with an experience that is seamless and consistent across platforms. We will also invest in technologies that help us anticipate customer trends, study behaviours and customise offerings accordingly.
3. Make future-proofing the business a priority - The fact that we live in a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world has never been as apparent as it is now. This means that future-proofing the business is more critical than ever. We were fortunate that even before the crisis hit us, we were working towards strengthening our balance sheet and creating stronger cost frameworks. The fact that over years we had invested in creating a brand that people trusted also helped us immensely. So, when the lockdown led to complete closure of all our restaurants, our robust balance sheet and strong brand equity enabled us to take bold decisions and quickly pivot to launch new and innovative business channels, while being able to tailor the existing ones to the new normal. This not only helped us survive the crisis, but also provided a springboard for a quick recovery. In the new normal, our priority will be creating a business that can withstand unanticipated stress and strength test. We will invest in deploying marketing programmes focused on strengthening brand trust. We will also make strategic acquisitions and focus on increasing our cash reserves, while maintaining cost leadership.
4. Adopt new ways of working - Who would have ever thought that there will come a time when we will not be able to go to office and will have to collaborate remotely for many months? And yet, when it came, we adapted to the new normal and enabled work from home, not just for our corporate office employees, but also for our restaurant employees. As we inch towards a post-pandemic world, the old ways of working may be rendered redundant and organisations will have a reimagine a new working paradigm. At Westlife, we are already working on creating a hybrid framework of working aimed at promoting organisational agility, flexibility and productivity. The aim is to deploy a 'work from anywhere' model that is smartly complemented with processes that ensure regular social cohesion. So, while people may not have to come to office every day, they will huddle periodically for strategic discussions and ideations. This we believe will help promote a culture of trust, empowerment and heightened accountability.
In a world of survival of the fittest, we have to be adaptable and flexible to make the most of every situation. We started building drive-thrus when drive-n-dine was not even a concept in India. Through this pandemic it emerged as one of the strongest trends and gave us a unique competitive advantage. So, I believe it is extremely important to have a long-term vision and invest with conviction, and there is a high probability it will pay off.
While good times are necessary as cooling-off periods for enterprises, challenging times give birth to greater rationality and innovative ideas. In both life and business, it is imperative to remember that the greatest view comes after the hardest climb.
(The author is Vice Chairman, Westlife Development (operator of McDonald's restaurants in west and south India))
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