By Natalie Blyth
A bee sting nearly killed me. My passion for beekeeping therefore comes as a surprise to many. Through tending their hives, I observe nature’s complex system of interdependency, adaptability, and efficiency.
It is fascinating to apply these observations to the business world. Managing my potentially fatal allergy around 200,000 bees is about mitigating risk. Yet as I recently learned from the loss of my last hive to environmental change, eco-systems are particularly vulnerable to those risks outside your sphere of influence and control.
The impact of the novel coronavirus (Covid-19) on global trade is a case in point. The supply chain ecosystem extends across and between companies spanning the globe. Firms source goods and services from suppliers around the world, who in turn source from others. Like bees, trade provides an essential service. Yet when one part of this network is impacted by an event like Covid-19, the whole ecosystem is vulnerable to disruption. This means that no company is immune.
As with my bees, interdependency makes the overall system more efficient, but can introduce unseen risks and vulnerabilities. With global growth being propelled by Asian consumers, including Malaysian consumers, an incident on the other side of the world can quickly spread. Just as a chain is only as strong as its weakest link, companies can rapidly discover unexpected disruption across their supply chain.
The Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011 triggered an unforeseen shock to global car manufacturers. Supply chains were dependent on only a single electronics manufacturer so close to the Fukushima nuclear plant that it had to shut down. This abruptly cut supply of the world’s microcontrollers, a type of custom chip used in cars, by around 40 percent – interrupting car production around the world.
Examples like this reinforce that a company’s supply chain is a strategic consideration. So how can firms around the world including in Malaysia effectively manage the risk of unforeseen disruption?
The immediate priority is to care for employees and their families. A process for timely two-way information sharing is necessary so official advice is widely disseminated. In an effort to limit Covid-19 contagion, employees in affected countries have been unable to work from their regular workplace. So, enabling remote working can maintain productivity. Considerations range from the practical to the personal during prolonged periods working in a home environment – from broadband speed to employee wellbeing.
The next step is to unearth hidden dependencies through an end to end review of a supply chain. Through mapping suppliers and buyers, companies can plan for interruptions down to the component level. Then as roads, ports and loading facilities face impacts, alternative logistics and distribution options may be required. In the month following the first Covid-19 travel restrictions, around half of scheduled departures on a major Asia to Europe shipping route were cancelled.
Having visibility across operations, from sourcing to production to distribution, will enable corporates to prepare contingency options in advance.
Once immediate impacts subside, companies must then prepare for pent-up demand. This upturn can bring a spike in orders, requiring agility. Having financing in place enables resources to be allocated rapidly and flexibly to add capacity and avoid bottlenecks.
Then in anticipation of future disruption, firms should consider supply chain diversification. A broader range of suppliers across different geographies mitigates the risk of one country being cut-off. Stanley Black and Decker, the world’s largest tools manufacturer, has recently expanded US production to avoid reliance on any one geography.
These steps combine to build resilience. This becomes more important as potential disruptions multiply: whether infectious diseases, such as SARS, Ebola, or Covid-19; environmental, as with Fukushima; financial, such as the global financial crisis; or political instability. The World Economic Forum’s Global Risks Report paints an unsettled landscape, highlighting intensifying environmental risks. Failure of climate change mitigation and adaption is the top risk by impact, followed by biodiversity loss, as I’ve recently experienced first-hand.
Over time, the distances across which Malaysian companies maintain supplier relationships may reduce. Both to be closer to the consumer and to mitigate risk. It would however be short-sighted to sever the connections which wire global growth. Indeed, the suggestion of reverting to only domestic suppliers would reduce resilience. A range of options is critical as goods, services and skills may be unavailable, uncompetitive, or uncertain close to home. And as nature disrupts global trade, policymakers must be mindful of easing the burden, rather than adding to the barriers which have restricted trade in recent years.
Malaysian businesses cannot control a volatile and uncertain external environment, but they can be flexible in response. As threats multiply, resilience becomes critical. Companies set themselves apart by anticipating external disruptions, to inoculate against the sting in their tail.
Natalie Blyth is the Global Head of HSBC’s Trade and Receivables Finance (GTRF) business, which provides clients with financing and risk mitigation solutions to meet all their trade requirements. She joined HSBC in 2007 and has held several leadership roles in both the investment bank and the commercial bank. She has been an investment banker for 22 years, including time at Deutsche Bank and Dresdner Kleinwort Wasserstein.
She holds a BSc in Biochemistry from St Andrew’s University and has been featured in the Financial News Top 100 Women in Finance list since 2013.