A CEO’s Guide to Surviving COVID-19’s Economic Hit

Updated on 28 September 2020

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By Filum Ho, CEO of Autoboys, an up-and-coming automotive glass and parts company.

We’re living through extraordinary times and businesses have faced once-in-a-century challenges that have broken all kinds of economic records, for all the wrong reasons.

As the CEO of an automotive company like Autoboys, the nationwide lockdown was initially bad news for many reasons.

With fewer cars on the roads, this meant significantly less business for us on the automotive glass and parts front.

The shocks were immediate. Like many businesses, we had to deal with falling revenues. Millions of rands were lost and, sadly, jobs had to be cut.

We’ve gained market share in the glass and parts space

But as the lockdown eases, our business at Autoboys has actually emerged stronger than before. We’ve gained market share in the glass and parts space and have started exploring new opportunities along our horizontals.

We are leaner and more agile than ever before, but have a renewed level of focus — and we have COVID-19 to thank for it.

Below is some of my advice as Autoboys CEO to other businesses on how best to ride through this storm.

Be honest, transparent and swift

Like many businesses out there, when our revenues fell during the hard lockdown in April and May, we had no choice but to rationalise parts of our company. We took the position that we needed to be surgical, but also transparent, open and humane.

Major salary cuts were made right across the board. Retrenchments, unfortunately, had to happen.

We did this by openly communicating with our staff and being transparent about the position of our business at every step of the way.

These are all very difficult things to do, but they’re important in order to maintain a business’s sustainability. We are now back to pre-COVID salary levels and have also made a commitment to top up our remaining staff members’ salaries when times get better. 

Bolstering relationships, being competitive

On the client-side, we took a decision to defend and even advance our market share as best as possible.

We strengthened our relationships with old and new customers, even onboarding up to three new accounts from other competitors on the glass and parts side of our business. As a result, we’re actually now trading better than ever in many parts of the business.

We also realised early on that some of our struggling clients didn’t have solvency issues, but rather liquidity issues. As a result, we have supported them as far as we can, offering flexibility in payment plans. This has served us well in terms of client loyalty.

Pivot and improve your systems

At Autoboys, we’ve always regarded ourselves as a technology innovator. Tech underpins our systems for parts and glass in every way, and we’ve led where others have followed.

Our systems are a big reason why more insurers have decided to partner with us in recent years.

We’ve focused more on improving this part of our company and we’ve even used our learnings to assist in an IT collaboration that helps other organisations implement similar systems, or even build new systems from scratch in SA and abroad.

Added to this, we’ll be partnering with a major big-four bank later this year in an exciting launch that will help diversify the financial and insurance sector in SA.

Managers must be the new leaders

At Autoboys, we have a flat structure where traditional hierarchies are not the order of the day. We believe that managers need to be leaders.

This is the only way that real growth can be achieved, and nobody should be coming along as just a ‘passenger on the bus’.

Our philosophy is that it’s critical to ensure that you have the right people on board. Subsequently, our business has made sure that every position is filled by self-driven and motivated individuals.

In addition, we are also honest with our managers if we believe that they don’t fit this mold. This serves them better in the long-term and maximises our efficiency.

Doing the right thing for society

While we’re a business that focuses on growth and becoming better all the time, we also care deeply about equality and fairness in our society.

This is why we’ve always been very involved with the Right to Repair movement and ensuring that customers have more choices when it comes to repairing their vehicles. We believe strongly in challenging the monopolistic nature of the automotive industry too, and ensuring that there’s a more level playing field. We’re also the first national automotive aftermarket glass and parts company in SA to achieve a Level 1 B-BBEE rating.

Over the next 2-3 years, we’re particularly looking forward to expanding our business into new global markets and speeding up our digitisation efforts.

Taking a step back, this has been a very challenging time for every business out there, and I wish everybody the best of luck in navigating these choppy waters.

But if one looks carefully enough, there are opportunities to forge new areas of growth and shape a new world.

About the author: Born in Taiwan but now living in South Africa, Filum, CEO of Autoboys, transitioned from a top career in investment banking at the likes of Deutsche Bank and Merrill Lynch to shaking up SA’s auto parts and glass markets. In 2017, African Rainbow Capital (ARC) acquired a 51% stake in Autoboys, making it SA’s first black-owned national glass and collision parts provider. Autoboys is rated at a BBBEE Level 1. Filum is also the Vice Chairman of Right to Repair SA (R2RSA) as well as a board member of Automotive Glass Europe (AGE).

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