Pakistan, since February, has lost more than 5000 lives. This is a huge human tragedy but glancing around the world where the US has lost almost 135,000 lives, UK (a country with 60 million population) has lost nearly 60,000 lives; Pakistan has fought well in creating awareness through new institutions like NCOC, restricting movements and saving lives.
But can the same be said about businesses? The economy was in bad shape since 2017 and pandemic has only made it worse. GVS spoke with several corporate executives to understand their challenges and coping mechanisms.
To recap, Pakistan went under lockdown on 24 March and spent around two months before a smart lockdown started. IMF predicts that the global economy will shrink by over 5% this year, with European countries’ growth declining close to 10%, the USA around 6%, and India seeing a 4.5% decline.
This is the worst annual global contraction since World War 2 – and in real terms, this contraction is being witnessed the first time since the crash of 1929. Pakistan, where the economy was already troubled, will now see a negative 1.5% growth with next year, improving to around 2% growth.
Pakistani businesses have been hit hard as they went through slowing down, restricted operations and a complete halt in quick succession while adjusting to the new realities under Corona -and regulations from the panicking government. All external and most internal travel was curtailed; businesses had to balance employee safety with sustainably continuing operations.
Sources familiar with companies like Nestle, Coke, Unilever, JS Bank, AKD Securities, MPCL, Hashoo Group (country’s largest hoteling chain) and financial institutions all tell a story of creating parallel teams working on alternate days and using internet-based solutions like Zoom for virtual meetings.
One source familiar with workings in Nestle tells GVS that Nestle split its workforce into Team A and Team B. These teams worked on alternate days, and it was strictly ensured that Team A and Team B had no physical contact with each other – not even after the working hours.
Offices in almost every major company were sanitized weekly, employees in most companies like Dunya TV had to undergo compulsory Covid-19 checks, and anyone found positive was sent on leave for self-quarantine and recovery.
Every office had monitoring and sanitization teams that checked temperatures of all incoming persons at the entry point and provided alcohol-based sanitization sprays for hands and arms. In terms of cities, Islamabad remained number one in implementing these SOPs across its markets, shopping places and offices.
A source informs that in Nestle and some other Multinationals, all corporate staff was advised to work from homes via internet-based solutions – and Sales & Marketing teams were split into Teams A & B. These SOPs continue, and sources have revealed to GVS that companies like Coke, Nestle, Unilever, Tetra and Pepsi top managements are carefully evaluating the Covid-19 rate of infection spread.
While corporate decision-makers are relieved that rate of Covid-19 infection spread is coming down, but they want to observe a declining trend sustained over three weeks before they can change their SOPs.
Corporates discovered Video-Conferencing
Pakistani businesses, like corporate bodies across the world, explored video conferencing options like Zoom meetings, Cisco Webex, Google Hangouts, Slack and others – however Zoom has emerged as the medium of choice for most companies followed by Cisco Webex Meetings.
Asad Rabbani, a top management executive in Marri Petroleum (MPCL), one of the largest energy company in Pakistan, told GVS that within MPCL they found their productivity raised exponentially as time was not wasted going from one meeting into the next – and the participants were more focused.
Mathar Niaz Rana, ex-Chief Secretary Azad Kashmir and a senior civil servant from DMG (18th Common) shared similar observations while talking with one GVS editor.
For most businesses and governments maintaining supply chains was an essential imperative – a considerable challenge given that transportation was being curtailed down. The logistics, financial services and food & beverage industry, provide crucial links in a complex interdependent whole and are needed to keep the business eco-system alive.
The National Logistics Cell (NLC) that operates Pakistan’s largest trucking and the logistic company continued providing essential services in the logistics space during the pandemic to ensure that the supply chain worked efficiently. Given the horizontal and vertical pressures, this was no mean achievement.
NLC has an elaborate portfolio of engineering, freight, trucking and bus services; it also operates dry ports and border crossings across the country. NLC continued to operate these dry ports and border points across Pakistan, which allowed trade activity to continue seamlessly.
Employee safety was ensured through Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), Dettol, ethanol and hand sanitizers were also set up at crossing points, and sanitizer tunnels were set up for trucks to pass through. Additionally, NLC also made sure its more extensive logistic infrastructure continued to function as a lifeline for COVID-19 relief efforts, and the overall economy in general.
(A detailed description of NLC operations throughout this period, especially on the border terminals, may be read in the article written by Syed Mushtaq Ahmed, in this July issue)
The financial sector in Pakistan also adapted to the requirements of the circumstances. The operability of banking is essential to the flow of funds to enable the country to continue functioning. Under SBP (State Bank of Pakistan) orders, banks were told to reduce working hours from 10 am to 4.30 pm and only keep critical staff at branches with the remainder working from home.
All banks introduced thermal screening for their employees and customers, sanitizer tunnels for customers entry points and in the case of JS bank they sent over 50 percent of their workforce to work from home on a rotation basis.
Furthermore, as they say, necessity is the mother of invention, and we saw a push at banks like JS Bank to revisit their business strategy to cater to changing ground realities. JS bank realigned itself into an agile and digitally-enabled organization, targeting well-defined target markets through a mix of innovative products and services, which enhanced its ability to reorient priorities quickly during the pandemic.
JS bank pushed firmly on initiatives such as contact-less channels like internet banking services and mobile application banking, which allow individuals to conduct their activity safely, without human contact, operated efficiently and seamlessly.
Pakistani corporates helped the country through this difficult period in many ways, including donations and other CSR help. Many have commendably reached out to vulnerable communities and front-line workers with generous assistance.
Aqeel Karim Dhedi (AKD) securities, one of the leading brokerage houses of Pakistan that acts as the gatekeeper of Pakistan’s financial markets – equity, bonds, commodities and derivatives – introduced multiple initiatives.
Apart from their ongoing CSR projects, AKD regularly supplied hygiene kits and sanitary equipment to clients to highlight the importance of hygiene in combatting the virus. They also ramped up donations to third party NGOs, focusing on food and groceries to underserved households, who tend to get lost in various social safety projects announced by the government.
AKD Securities established institutional and operational safeguards for their core asset, their people. In this regard, they were one of the initial industry players to move all support staff to work from home and institute a mandated minimum staff policy for the trading floor.
Hoteling Sector: Unprecedented challenges
But no sector of business has been as severely hit as hoteling. It’s difficult to imagine a chapter of recent human history that affected inter-city and inter-state travelling, use of hotels, lodges and restaurants in a more diabolical fashion. Maybe something similar might have happened during Spanish Flu (1918) or Black Death (14th century) across Europe and the Middle East.
Pakistan’s corporate entities have exhibited during corona-19 pandemic a desire to adapt and be flexible in tackling business and even create new opportunities for themselves
Haseeb Gardezi, Chief Operating Officer, Hashoo Group was generous with his time to help GVS understand how hoteling and allied businesses suffered and why their recovery will not be possible without herculean efforts and out of box thinking.
Gardezi explained how government notifications and regulations that kept on arriving at different stages from February 2020 onwards, quickly brought hoteling and restaurant business to a grinding halt.
After listening to what he describes, one reaches this conclusion that hoteling and travel sector needs a full report which we may try to bring soon. However, a few comments are a must. Hashoo Group, Pakistan’s largest hoteling chain, was determined that “Business continuity” must happen despite financial losses.
It initially paid full salaries to employees and staff for first three months, then moved onto paid leaves and in the last few weeks – like hotels elsewhere in the world – has been toying with the idea of leave without pay. As the situation continues, hotel chains – functioning now at 6-7% of pre-pandemic capacity – have to retain their human resources, find ways to generate cash and keep with limited services.
Smart Lockdowns have to be “smarter”
Hoteling chains – as Haseeb Gardezi explains – want governments to permit gradual resumption of restaurants and restricted use of banquet halls and events. Similar demands are coming from other sectors. Saeed Book Bank is not only Pakistan’s largest book store, but many may be surprised to know that Saeed Book Bank, in Islamabad F-7 Market, is South Asia’s largest bookseller.
Ahmed Saeed, its proprietor, who recently spoke with GVS, has been requesting government and Islamabad administration that book reading has been a relief during the pandemic and instead of restricting times till 5 pm (now 8 pm) five days a week, Govt should allow bookstores to stay open past midnight.
Citizens and businesses also feel that banks, essential utility stores many government offices that collect bills – like water, electricity, phone etc. – should be working late till 10 pm. Limited hours are not “smart” as they force the public to crowd these essential service delivery points.
Pakistan’s corporate entities have exhibited during corona-19 pandemic a desire to adapt and be flexible in tackling business and even create new opportunities for themselves. It would be no exaggeration to say that the organizations mentioned above, and many other members of the corporate space in Pakistan, have cemented their reputation as responsible corporate citizens.
Not only have they helped essential industries like finance and logistics remain up and running during these uncertain times, thereby ensuring timely availability of products, but they have also stepped up their CSR activities.
Perhaps, if anything, this pandemic has shown that corporate entities in Pakistan have the ability, depth and capacity to adapt to and tackle head-on, uncertainty. These institutions have demonstrated their commitment to the maxim of ‘adapt or perish’ in a befitting manner.