The CEOs of Colombia’s leading companies appeared “cautiously optimistic” regarding the state of the economy in 2020, according to the 10th Presidents Survey released by accounting firm Price Waterhouse Coopers (PwC).
As part of their annual global CEO Survey, the Colombian edition followed the trend in uncertainty when it came to forecasting how businesses would adapt to geopolitical conflicts, trade wars, economic sanctions, social unrest, and cybersecurity. All these without contemplating a worldwide pandemic that when the survey was presented at the Davos Economic Summit back in January was an epidemic contained in Wuhan, China.
In contrast with the same survey published in 2018 that recorded high levels of optimism among the leaders of the world’s largest corporations, the outlook for this year depends on specific markets. While the Colombian economy was on solid footing with 3.3% GDP growth – outperforming regional players – growth seemed to be accompanied by caution.
Confronted with the challenges and opportunities of fast-changing business eco-systems, Colombian CEOs were outshining their international peers when it came to projected revenue growth for 2020, with 39% believing their companies would continue to prosper compared to the 27% global average. This figure also contrasts with last year’s survey, in which confidence levels in short-term growth for global CEOs stood at 35%. The marked drop among 1,600 chief executives in more than 80 territories appeared to be a stumbling block when it came to long-term revenue forecasting, with Colombia more optimistic (89%) than the global average (85%).
Which dominant threats would affect the performance of Colombia’s top-tier companies? According to PwC, “political uncertainty” ranked highest at 89%, followed by “uncertain growth perspectives” (86%), “social instability” (84%) and “geopolitical instability” (83%).
Trade conflicts and protectionism rank 13 and 14 respectively, and lower in percentages than the global average. The spike of “political uncertainty” from 76% in 2019, to 89% this year, takes into account the social protests that began on November 21 last year with the National Strike (Paro Nacional), resulting in widespread unrest in Bogotá.
The tax burden is another factor hindering revenue growth of national corporations with 84% of Colombian CEOs considering legislation to be excessive and unstable compared to 58% in other countries. Despite Congressional approval last year of tax reform – Reforma Tributaria – by the government of President Iván Duque, the percentage dropped a mere three points from 87% in 2019.
While the 10th Colombia edition sharing plenty of common ground with PwC’s 2020 Global Survey, Colombian CEOs will have to adapt to a new slate of challenges compared with those a decade ago. In 2011, “corruption, exchange rate volatility and excessive government regulation” ranked top among CEOs as major threats compared to current “political, social and economic uncertainty.”
How companies face external challenges, from finding skilled labor to investing in climate change initiatives, will determine their survival. The rapid advance of the so-called Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) in which CEOs have to incorporate AI, Big Data, into everyday business models is quickly reshaping the corporate landscape, with Colombia looking to technology as an “opportunity.”
According to PwC, 75% of local CEOs view the speed at which technology is changing as their most urgent concern, compared to the global average of 69%. As fast as Colombian companies are willing to join the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR), retraining and upskilling the workforce presents new sets of challenges, so too reaching higher sales with digital innovation.
The survey reveals that the Colombian consumer is increasingly demanding and highly susceptible to customer service, forcing companies to deliver a more personalized experience online. For the country’s business leaders, developing new products is another corporate objective, as well as expanding digital services to marginalized and vulnerable populations.
One of the staggering revelations in the survey has to do with corporate trust – and lack thereof – in the eyes of the consumer base. While 54% of global consumers believe organizations keep their word, implement sound social responsibility programs and live up to their commitments, in Colombia, 75% view companies as lacking in credibility. “The message is not getting out there,” believes PwC senior partner Gustavo Dreispiel. “A digital transformation must be accompanied by cultural transformation.”
As younger generations flock to tech start-ups challenging established business models, 69% of Colombian CEOs view cyber threats as a fast-growing area of concern, up from 54% in 2017. And can Colombian companies respond to a crisis? Seventy percent of CEOs believe they can – compared to 58% of those surveyed around the world.
The 2020 Global CEO Survey highlights the importance of a “skills revolution” when riding the curve of the digital revolution. While Colombia’s business leaders are committed to retraining employees, only 50% believe this is “modestly effective” in generating productivity and corporate growth.