On Thursday, 1 April, FIDI presented a webinar to discuss the ‘State of the Industry’. The event was hosted by Dominic Weaver, Editor of the FIDI Focus, ably assisted by Magali Horbert, FIDI Marketing and Communications Manager.
The panellists were: Paul Bernardt, Managing Director, Harmony Relocation Network; Yann Blandy, CEO Santa Fe Relocation; Lynn Shotwell, President and CEO of WERC; Philippa Robinson, COO at Robinson’s Relocation; and Gordon Bell, Chairman of Asian Tigers Group.
Dominic started by asking the panellists whether the situation now was better or worse than they had expected it would be a year ago.
Lynn believed that nobody expected to be locked down for so long and companies in the international market had experienced a bad year. The domestic market, by comparison, had a good year. It was a mixed picture.
Gordon said that in March they were completely locked down. The company does not have a domestic market. He said it was awful and the company had to change to keep the workforce busy. “We still have a way to go but we are better prepared,” he said, adding that maybe some things should have been done some years ago.
Santa Fe was in crisis in September 2019, so Yann said that COVID came as crisis on top of a crisis. The company was now alive and kicking despite the odds being against it. He said the company is much smaller but closer together.
Philippa agreed that it had gone on for much longer than expected but now crisis management had been superseded by dealing with the challenges every day. “It’s hard to predict but I do feel that we are more ready for anything.” She said that in some ways the industry is in a better place. Compliance is no longer a tick box. It’s even more important to manage customer expectations and communicate. Everyone is more aware of the costs of doing business in the right way without cutting corners. Cash flow and professionalism has improved.
Paul doesn’t think we are in a better place, but it’s better than he expected. Some companies have diversified and taken advantage of people leaving the big cities. Also, private work gives a better cash flow. He anticipates growth in the Harmony network from now on.
Were there any irreversible trends that had come from COVID? Gordon said that moving won’t go away, but it has changed. There will be fewer postings and he didn’t believe people will be as willing to go on long-term assignments. There will also be some people who operate from third countries. Each company will need to size their business depending on need.
Lynn said that employers needed to work out how they can access the talent they need for the future. Remote working won’t solve the problem. Employers will have to offer different packages than they did in the past because people are more reluctant to move and are choosing different locations. Technology will be important, and the industry will need to develop standards to ease the flow of information. Relocation is not dead; it will change but not in ways that we can predict now.
Technology has played a big part in helping companies get through the crisis. How will this affect the future?
Yann believes the market will be smaller and technology will be instrumental. He said Santa Fe has redirected resources away from traditional assets to technology, including digital marketing and the efficiency of processes. “If we don’t get it right, we could see disrupters dominating the market and movers just carrying the last mile.”
Lynn said that standards would be required so suppliers could talk to customers’ internal systems without having to have a different system for each client. This will allow companies to focus more on things that will add value. This will also be driven by governments requiring more digital information.
Philippa wanted the industry to come together and decide where to prioritise technological advances. She believed each company trying to do things themselves could be futile. “We should agree on what technology we will invest in and the standards to which we will adhere,” she said.
Paul added a new dimension to the discussion by suggesting the matter could be decided by the US military contract. He said that the industry has been very slow to adopt technology and outside investors were often disappointed by the return on investment. So, initiatives will have to come from within the industry. “With USTRANSCOM planning on concentrating all its business with one supplier, the decision it makes could become the world standard,” he said, adding that he was not prepared to wait for standards to come but would press on with his own digital strategy.
Mergers and acquisitions
The panel also discussed mergers and acquisitions on the day that Suddath announced its acquisition of Daryl Flood. Yann said that the moving industry is completely under consolidated with many small players. Companies needed to decide whether they would ‘be lunch, or eat lunch’. Paul agreed that there would be a clearer separation between bookers and operators and there may be a rise in regional players rather than global.
Lynn Shotwell commented on talent management. She said that remote work is here to stay but identified two main areas of concern: compliance and employee engagement. How do you maintain employee engagement while they are working remotely and what are the issues relating to tax and employment laws? “Laws today were not made for today’s world,” she said. “How do we have policy makers revise the laws and regulations to address today’s world and the ways that we are going to be working.”
Have there been any positive outcomes from COVID? Gordon Bell said that it was necessary to rely on cash. “You have to be a bit harder and become more efficient,” he said. Philippa agreed. She added that people were becoming more aware of cost control, the need for better communication and managing customer expectations, and to take care of the welfare of long-distance drivers and crews. Paul said that the industry had matured, becoming more agile and open to technology. Yann believed that the crisis had brought his company together, made it more resilient and enabled it to do things in weeks rather than months. Lynn felt that virtual collaboration had added a completely new dimension to communications while reinforcing the need to get together as soon as possible.
Dominic closed by asking the panel for their top tip. Gordon said that we should keep talking to our shippers, pick up the phone and become human. Yann said he had learned to be vulnerable as a leader, to listen more and take care of his own health. “Put some relativity in everything we do,” he said. Philippa said to look to the future, be open minded, address succession planning and remember that relationships matter. Lynn said don’t be afraid to experiment, try things out and see how they work. Paul advised to stay close to your clients. “They will tell you how to improve.”
The main presentation was scheduled for an hour but questions from attendees continued long after, demonstrating the level of interest in the topic. FIDI has made the entire webinar available online.