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2021 Business Leaders Outlook: Where to now?

Despite a year full of changes, business leaders are feeling positive about what’s next.

2020 was predicted to be a year of growth for the business community. This of course was before COVID-19 shook the world. In the Chase 2021 annual Business Leaders Outlook survey, decision-makers shared what they did to successfully navigate the new normal — and their plans to capture even more upside this year. 

While certain industries, such as restaurants and retail, were more affected than others, one theme emerged from the majority of business leaders polled: resilience.

With most business leaders (63%) still feeling optimistic about their own companies’ performance, the survey results tell a story of disruption, adaptation and resolve in the face of uncertainty and plans for a rebound in 2021.  

More than 1,000 distinct businesses spanning 12 different industry sectors across the U.S. took part in this year’s Business Leaders Outlook survey. In years past, the survey focused on nuts-and-bolts business concerns, such as anticipated changes in operations, CapEx and cash flow. This year’s Outlook includes topics related to COVID-19, as the pandemic continues to shape the business landscape.

"Like for so many of us, the events of the past year have changed many small business owners’ perspectives and helped them define what’s most meaningful to them,” says Chase Business Banking CEO Jennifer Roberts. “Business leaders have a deeper appreciation for quality time with family and friends and the importance of good health for themselves, their employees and their community. These are likely to be permanent mindset shifts."

Work’s change of scenery 

Businesses have changed where and how they operate, and these changes are expected to continue as they navigate winter. A stunning 78% of companies have moved some, if not all, of their workforce to remote work in the past year. But 81% of business leaders expect at least some of those workers to return to the office by July.

26%

Closed physical locations temporarily

 

11%

Closed physical locations permanently 

25%

Moved temporarily to a hybrid remote/on-site model for work 

 

19%

Moved permanently to a hybrid remote/on-site model for work

Reinvesting in new help (for old positions)

For the past two years, business leaders have continued to reinvest in their businesses — but for very different reasons. In 2019, business leaders saw unexpected growth, causing many to work longer hours and to direct resources to hire more staff (39%). Now, more are combing through applications because of upticks in employee turnover and retirement. Increasing full-time hiring plans (34%) joins a broader trend of business leaders adapting by plowing money back into their businesses.

While revenue/sales and profits are expected to take another hit, capital expenditures and credit needs are expected to remain roughly the same in 2021. Over a third of small business leaders (35%) expected to see an increase in capital expenditures in 2019, compared with 34% a year later. Much of that reinvestment went into managing for disruption, as businesses pivoted to boost online sales, introduce contactless transactions and implement new safety protocols. 

Economic uncertainty is the clear challenge 

While business leaders created action plans and deftly adapted to new laws, rules and regulations, they still expressed concern about larger issues, including:

  • Economic uncertainty (47%)
  • Ability to grow revenue/sales (34%)
  • Taxes (28%)

In fact, worry about the sustainability of the economic recovery was also the number one reason (57%) cited for pulling back on hiring plans. To prepare for the unknown, two-thirds of businesses saved for a cash buffer. And are expected to save more in 2021. This is, and will continue to be, the biggest change to their operating strategies as a result of the pandemic. The next biggest pandemic-related change planned for 2021 is creating contingency plans for the future (25%). Working quickly and proactively, businesses are doing what they can to prepare for new and unexpected pivots.

The way money is coming into businesses is also fundamentally changing. With safety concerns mounting, 20% plan to offer touchless payment options  — a dramatic physical reminder of just how fast business is evolving in the new environment. Businesses’ digital-first mindset can also be seen in their borrowing behavior. Nearly half (44%) have explored online lending in the past year, and 56% said they’d consider an online loan if capital needs arise this year.

Businesses lean on digital to manage disruption

Across the board, businesses relied on digital tools to stay agile, connect with customers and reposition themselves for new realities. Virtual meeting platforms like Zoom were identified as the most essential technologies for businesses this year, followed by cloud solutions, telemedicine and virtual private networks. 

Just consider the avalanche of e-commerce adoption. Finding new ways to reach and serve customers wherever they live, some businesses (14%) went all-in on e-commerce in 2020. Another 12% plan to move to fully online this year. Others are taking a more gradual tack, with 12% saying they’ll try an omnichannel approach for their first foray into online sales. In any case, digital tools are sure to play a growing role in unlocking cash flow and keeping doors open for businesses. 

A shift in values

Some of the biggest changes recorded in the survey revolve around participants’ personal and business core values. Half believe they’ve changed since the pandemic, valuing health and quality time with loved ones more than ever. And they don’t see this change as temporary. As business owners, they said valuing community, thriftiness, employees and digital solutions are most likely to have lasting effects. But how are these pandemic-changed mindsets showing up in everyday business?   

Most see light ahead

The past year has been hard, but the feeling among business leaders is that things are going to get easier — financially, professionally and personally. A near majority (45%) of respondents said the impact of the pandemic has been negative on their financials, including 11% reporting that top-line revenues were cut in half in 2020. The shift from crisis response to recovery has looked more like waves than a straight line for many businesses. And it’s taken a toll, not just on P&L statements but on the people in charge of them.

 

41%

Businesses expect to see revenue growth this year.

 

45%

The pandemic has had a negative impact on my business.  

48%

The pandemic has had a negative impact on a personal level.

Of the most negatively affected, 17% of restaurants reported revenues down more than 50%. However, health care, home services, retail and restaurants are all more optimistic about the year ahead. With more and more businesses finding their rhythm in the new normal, 41% expect to see revenue growth this year. This includes the bulk (51%) of restaurants.     

Importantly, bullish predictions are not shared evenly. Companies with revenue of less than $1 million are significantly more likely to anticipate a decline in revenue/sales and profits than they were in last year’s survey. 

About the 2021 Business Leaders Outlook survey

This survey was conducted by Chase Insights from November 11 to November 16, among 1,014 business leaders across the professional services, retail, technology, healthcare and other key industries. The results of this online survey are within statistical parameters for validity, and the error rate is plus or minus 2.5% for the findings, at a 95% confidence level.   

If you haven’t already, explore the J.P. Morgan Business Leaders Outlook Survey



For informational/educational purposes only: The views expressed in this article may differ from other employees and departments of JPMorgan Chase & Co. Views and strategies described may not be appropriate for everyone, and everyone and are not intended as specific advice/recommendation for any individual. You should carefully consider your needs and objectives before making any decisions, and decisions and consult the appropriate professional(s). Outlooks and past performance are not guarantees of future results.


JPMorgan Chase Bank, N.A. Member FDIC. Equal Opportunity Lender, © 2020 JPMorgan Chase & Co.