15 Nov 2021

To fuel growth, companies need to put sustainability, digital transformation and a strong people culture into action.

How are CEOs navigating new paths for growth in a post-pandemic world?

By Paul Eelen

EY Belgium Assurance Markets Leader and EY Private Assurance Leader for Belgium

Passionate about entrepreneurship, growth and how companies innovate and adapt in disrupting times. Father of 3 sons. Interested in golf and classic cars.

Hannelore Raes,  
Yannick Dillen
15 Nov 2021

To fuel growth, companies need to put sustainability, digital transformation and a strong people culture into action.

  • Accelerate sustainability strategies to capture opportunities for long-term growth
  • Improve digital competencies to understand customer needs and increase operational excellence
  • Take employee engagement to the next level through a purpose-driven organisation that is geared towards long-term value creation

COVID-19 became the biggest disruptor to nearly every aspect of business in every industry. Have priorities changed for business leaders since then? And how are they reframing their growth ambitions in a post-pandemic environment?

“Some topics were already high on board agendas before the pandemic hit, but the crisis certainly intensified the urgency to take action,” says Paul Eelen, EY Belgium Assurance Markets Leader and EY Private Assurance Leader for Belgium. “Many leaders are rethinking certain concepts with a new understanding of the changed post-pandemic landscape.”

Sustainability to create long-term value

“Sustainability is definitely here to stay,” continues Paul. “It’s a hot topic that is now on every board table. Stricter regulations have increased the sense of urgency.”

“But the pandemic has also changed the way we look at doing business. Sustainability is a once in a lifetime innovation opportunity to capture business opportunities, while creating long-term value for all your stakeholders. Companies need to focus on ESG: environment, social, and governance. Using ESG principles will help them measure and report the environmental, social and governance aspects of their business combined with financial considerations.”

Hannelore Raes confirms: “The train has left the station. You should definitely be on it.” As co-CEO of Agristo, Hannelore leads a worldwide player that develops and produces frozen potato products. The company provides customer brands to retail clients, as well as potato products to food service clients.

“Sustainability was already high on our agenda before the COVID-19-crisis. We are part of an industry that impacts the environment. It’s important that we keep that impact as low as possible. As a family-owned business, sustainability is part of our DNA. Our decisions need to have a positive long-term effect. That goes hand in hand with sustainability. If we have two investment options with each the same return on investment, we always choose the most sustainable one.”

Agristo focusses on sustainable energy with the construction of solar panels and sourcing from a green steam power plant: “50% of our energy consumption must be green by 2030. We also want to reuse water as much as possible. We are already reconverting water that we draw from the Leie into drinking water. In addition, we want to further reduce our water consumption. And we also want to switch to more inland navigation to reduce the number of trucks on the road. By 2030, we want to reduce our total carbon footprint by 30% per tonne of product.”

Building success through data

Data was the new gold before the pandemic. These days it’s the new platinum. Customer expectations have changed. This requires a redefined customer focus and more client centricity. “Data can give you insights and knowledge to get closer to your clients and differentiate yourself from the competition. Companies need to understand how and why customers behave the way they do in the real world. It’s what we call the behavioural economy,” explains Paul.

Key questions to ask are:

  • What customer changing data do you have available?
  • What new business model will you need in the behavioural economy?
  • What new risks do you see – regulatory, reputational and market. And how might you mitigate them?

“We see a clear divide between companies that excel, but unfortunately also some that are totally lagging behind. Those who excel have sometimes completely transformed their business models based on data insights to respond to the changing needs of their customers. In addition, we see that data is also more and more used to improve production.”

Digital transformation was and still is a key priority to fuel future growth for Agristo. “Operational excellence drives our business. Think about optimising production processes, maximalising yield and minimising waste. We need to use the right raw materials for the right end product to deliver the highest quality. Intelligent process controls and inline monitoring based on realtime data are therefore top of mind in the next years.”

“In addition, we have set KPIs to decrease the onboarding time of new employees and the number of repetitive tasks. And we defined KPIs to introduce a minimum number of lean projects for continuous improvement, as well as a minimum number of simplification projects.”

Purpose-driven culture as a magnet for talent

During lockdowns homeworking became the rule. Now that everybody has gradually returned to the office, many companies are drawing up plans to facilitate flexible working. According to Paul homeworking is only a small element in your talent strategy. How do you build employee experiences that transcend the physical boundaries of the work environment?

“Business leaders need to create a purpose-driven organisation focused on long-term value creation, with a culture that fosters entrepreneurial spirit, agility, diversity, inclusiveness and teamwork. The labour market is tight in all industries. With the right people culture leaders can boost employee engagement. That enables them to attract and retain top talent, but it also drives the next level of growth.”

Hannelore agrees: “We are looking for more than 100 new employees. That means we need to be more creative. This includes looking for talent across borders or exchanging employees with other companies. We also work on internal pride to make our own employees proud Agristo ambassadors. Another solution is to foster internal mobility and give employees the opportunity to switch to new jobs or roles within our organisation.”

”We find it equally important to invest in our people’s wellbeing and support them to become more versatile and resilient on a mental level. We have therefore introduced a number of wellbeing programmes, but focus on leadership training too. We also invest in training that helps people require multifunctional skills through development programmes. It’s important, that we move away from traditional job descriptions.”

Agility and resilience

Agility and resilience have proven to be key factors for success during the pandemic, but will also help business leaders to fuel growth in the post-pandemic environment. “If you can switch gears quickly, adapt to a new reality, and are open to new ways of working, as well as new business models, you will undoubtedly come out stronger. That mindset will also help you thrive in a post-COVID economy,” says Paul.

“The more agile you are, the more you can benefit from opportunities that arise. Jumpstart your digital transformation, don’t miss the sustainability boat and reinvent yourself if necessary. The future is bright for those who embrace change,” Hannelore concludes.

What are key opportunities for entrepreneurs in a post-pandemic era?

The Impulse Centre for Growth Management (iGMO) at Vlerick Business School was founded in 1993 and its 180 active members are all owner-managers of growth-oriented Flemish SMEs. The centre aims to stimulate entrepreneurship but also keeps a pulse on current business developments and trends.

Yannick Dillen is lecturer entrepreneurship at Vlerick and manages the iGMO centre. He shares some insights from recent conversations with iGMO members, as well as the findings of the latest iGMO member survey. Which pandemic-driven trends are here to stay?

  • Sustainability means more than being ‘green’

    There is a clear shift from being environmentally friendly to making a positive impact on society at large. Companies want to respond to a myriad of societal challenges and are taking up KPIs in their corporate strategies that go beyond the green economy. The seventeen Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of the United Nations often serve as a sound basis to draw up corporate strategies that improve health and education, reduce inequality, while tackling climate change and preserving nature.

    “We are at a turning point. Within ten years companies will need to have a SDG compliant business model or they risk being left behind.”

  • Industry 4.0 deployment lags behind

    Companies have taken huge steps during the pandemic to embrace digital solutions to sell online and collaborate digitally. However, many businesses leaders are still struggling with the implementation of Industry 4.0 technologies like machine learning, artificial intelligence and the Industrial Internet of Things. Digitised production processes can create opportunities for various industries. Investments in Industry 4.0 will be key for the survival of many companies in the near future.

  • Honest communication makes employees feel valued

    An important lesson to take from this pandemic is that transparent communication on a regular basis fosters trust amongst employees and a sense of belonging. Companies that kept communication lines open with their employees during and after the pandemic have created a workplace culture that benefits employee retention and boosts employee attraction.

    “It’s about creating a ‘band of brothers and sisters’ and a work environment where everybody feels part of the team. That starts with frequent and open communication.”

  • Agile innovation

    In order to survive some businesses had to completely turn around their business models during the pandemic and come up with new products and services quickly. The iGMO survey revealed that nearly half of the respondents launched new innovative products during the pandemic that are likely to generate sustainable turnover in a post-pandemic world. This shows that innovation doesn’t always have to take three to four years. Market needs are changing at the speed of light. By constantly fuelling the innovation funnel companies will be able to keep up.

    “In future companies will need to speed up their innovation processes by putting a minimal viable product out in the market to see how well it sells and then improve it as they go along.”

    Innovation also requires pursuing growth in new categories outside the core business. A good question to always ask is: What percentage of our current turnover consists of products that are less than five years old?

  • Lessons learned

    The pandemic has accelerated trends that were already underway. Sustainability is fast becoming the new business reality and digital transformation a business necessity. The pandemic also made a lot of employees rethink their priorities. They want to feel part of a community and stay loyal to employers who value them. The big takeaway? An agile and open mindset combined with a people-driven working culture are powerful ingredients in both a COVID and post-COVID world.

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Business leaders are gearing up to capture the business opportunities that arise in the post-COVID economy. Their priorities haven’t changed significantly, but there is a clear sense of urgency to take action and redefine pre-COVID concepts. Sustainability, digital transformation and talent are top priorities for companies that are preparing their next wave of growth. An agile mindset and a resilient company will help companies to futureproof their businesses.

About this article

By Paul Eelen

EY Belgium Assurance Markets Leader and EY Private Assurance Leader for Belgium

Passionate about entrepreneurship, growth and how companies innovate and adapt in disrupting times. Father of 3 sons. Interested in golf and classic cars.

Hannelore Raes,  
Yannick Dillen