As COVID-19 tightened its grip in mid-2020 and shut down entire markets and supply chains, many mid-market companies opted to scale back their international ambitions and focus more on their domestic markets. Six months on, and this trend has reversed. More companies are now shifting their sales and supply chain focus back towards international markets. The trend is important in isolation but also highlights game-changing opportunities internationally for all mid-market companies.
The latest figures from our research, conducted between October and December 2020, clearly show a renewed international appetite among the mid-market even as the pandemic lingers. Significantly more mid-market companies are now expecting to increase their ratio of employees focussed on international markets in the next 12 months, and to make more use of international suppliers and outsourcers. And in all but one of the major regions (the EU) the percentage of companies looking to make these international increases now outweighs those looking to decrease. Globalisation is go again!
This international push also extends to future growth expectations in overseas markets, with 34% of the mid-market expecting to increase revenue from international markets in the next 12 months, up markedly form 26% seen at the half-year stage. Around the world, expectations are up in every region and the vast majority of the 29 countries we monitor.
As we predicted, the domestic focus was short-lived
At the time of the mid-year findings, many of our experts argued that, while the sales shift to domestic markets was understandable given the uncertainties, it would be fairly short-lived, and it has proven so.
Rodger Flynn, APAC regional head, network capabilities at Grant Thornton International, tellingly predicted that the inherent limitations of local markets will lead mid-market business to look regionally and then to the global market for growth opportunities.
The re-embracing of the international – both in sales and supply chains – is likely to be very significant in positioning the mid-market for growth during and beyond the pandemic, and is a reminder of a key characteristic of these businesses.
“It’s a classic example of the entrepreneurial nature of the mid-market,” explains Francesca Lagerberg, Global leader – network capabilities at Grant Thornton International Ltd. “They may not have the same financial resources as the larger juggernauts, but they are able to see the trends, and adapt quickly to the opportunities – they can ride the wave quicker than others.”
This international-bound group is made up of a mix of companies. Many of them were active internationally before the pandemic and have either speeded up or slowed down plans as a direct result of COVID-19, but around a quarter (23%) say that they only started to increase their focus on international markets since the outbreak of the pandemic. It’s this last group that perhaps best demonstrates the entrepreneurialism of the segment.
There are also significant differences across regions. North American businesses are certainly leading the global charge, fuelled by a more expansionist mindset particularly in the US which is explored in more detail in our latest Global business pulse insights for the region. The more emerging markets of Latin America and ASEAN are also moving quickly to exploit international opportunities, taking advantage of their inherent cost advantages.
At the opposite end, developed APAC has been slow to refocus on international opportunities due to tight quarantine conditions in countries like Australia and the rise of government-backed self-sufficiency. While in Europe, the relatively high cost base and disruption to imports from abroad, in combination with severe lockdowns have also kept the focus closer to home.
Larissa Keijzer, regional head – EMEA for Grant Thornton International Ltd, suggests that extensive government support may even have temporarily removed some of the urgency for European businesses to look abroad for opportunities.
Abundant sales opportunities are drawing companies abroad
To understand what’s driving this shift and how COVID-19 has altered international markets, we asked the internationalising companies how they’ve been impacted by the pandemic. The results reveal for the first time the abundant opportunities COVID-19 has created in global markets.
Below we show how COVID-19 has impacted those increasing their international sales focus. Competitive changes are a key theme here, with 41% mentioning the opportunity to form new international relationships due to the departure or failure of competitors. Another 31% mention the lower levels of competition in international markets, underscoring the competitive disruptions and shake-out from COVID-19.
The other major incentive is customer demand, with 36% seeing stimulation of international demand due to COVID-19 and 37% mentioning the positive benefits of government stimulus programmes. With positive indications on both the customer and competitor side, it’s easy to see why another 33% say it is now easier to take products and services international. Although other factors like the rise of digital communication will also be at work here.
Research into new market opportunities doesn’t come much more positive than that, and it’s worth speculating how long these opportunities will last. On the competitor side, much will inevitably depend on how long it takes for other companies to follow in the footsteps of the front-runners. From what we know of the mid-market, it won’t be very long. On the customer side, demand is likely to be propped up for some time yet by government stimulus programmes, though inevitably the more costly support will be reduced and initiatives refocused over time.
Better pricing and contract terms are on offer internationally
Moving to how COVID-19 has impacted those increasing their international supply chain focus, we again see the list dominated by opportunities. A key factor is the opportunity to secure better prices and contract terms from international suppliers and outsourcers, mentioned by 43% of this group. This will be music to the ears of many mid-market executives fighting rising costs during the pandemic.
Then there is another 41% who identify better government support during COVID-19 for international suppliers and outsourcers.
Scott Wilson, advisory director at Grant Thornton International Ltd, suggests this factor may be partly linked to the findings on better prices and contract terms, with government funds helping to prop up the cost bases of businesses, and allowing them more flexibility with customer terms.
It’s probably safest to assume that this preferential pricing won’t last very long. But prices will certainly continue to benefit from government stimulus, and Rodger notes that companies willing to widen the number of countries in their supply chains can enjoy real cost benefits.
A once in a generation opportunity to grow internationally
All of this data points to what we think is a once in a generation opportunity to grow business internationally, and one that all mid-market leaders should be aware of. Those companies wanting to exploit these opportunities will need to be both ‘growth ready’ and ‘agile’, according to Francesca. Agility comes from listening to customers and understanding how their thinking is changing, watching competitors and seeing what they are doing, keeping up to date generally and then being willing to take some chances. The topic of operational agility is discussed further in our Retuning your business content.
As in any gold rush, it pays to think before joining the rush. Our leaders stress the importance of being strategic in your decision-making. Francesca encourages businesses to identify where they will have the most impact. “Out of the six or seven things you could do, which are the two or three that will really make the difference, or are such amazing opportunities that it would be foolish not to prioritise?”
Scott stresses the importance of looking beyond the immediate and thinking about the medium and long-term, with clear priorities and action plans that are also backed up by scenario planning to support resilience. While COVID-19 has created many opportunities, this pandemic is far from over and undoubtedly still has many shocks in store.
In upcoming insights, we’ll offer guidance to companies looking to internationalise, helping them navigate the immediate COVID-19 challenges and opportunities and identify changes to trade that may endure beyond the pandemic. For personal help in realising your international ambitions, get in touch and speak to one of our local advisors.