UNIVERSITY OF RICHMOND - The first quarter 2020 CEO Economic Outlook Survey by the University of Richmond's Robins School of Business and the Virginia Council of CEOs finds that fewer than 7% of Virginia CEOs expect sales, capital spending, or employment to increase over the next six months. Overall, expectations at the end of the first quarter of 2020 were the lowest seen in the survey's 10-year history, producing the first-ever negative index.

More than 87% of CEO respondents expect sales to be lower over the next six months, and more than 71% expect the decline to be more than 10 percentage points. Only 6.9% expect sales to increase, while 5.9% expect sales to remain flat. 

Eighty-two percent of CEOs expect capital spending to decrease, while only 4% expect capital spending to increase over the next six months. Fourteen percent expect capital spending to remain flat. 

Fifty-four percent of respondent CEOs expect employment to decrease over the next six months. Forty percent expect employment to remain flat, and 6% expect an increase in employment. 

Scot McRoberts, executive director of the Virginia Council of CEOs, is in constant communication with Virginia CEOs. “I’ve heard from several small and mid-sized business CEOs that it is like someone turned off the faucet. Suddenly last week, no one is calling, no one is buying. Some of these businesses will go under,” said McRoberts. 

Because of the current crisis, CEOs were asked several questions that related specifically to COVID-19. More than 50% believe that they have been able to quickly adapt to the disruption caused by COVID-19 so that they will continue to operate without significant layoffs, but 14% believe that significant layoffs are “probably” (9%) or “definitely” (5%) likely. Thirty-two percent are still uncertain at this time.  

CEOs were asked in what ways COVID-19 has caused them to change products, markets, or customers. Many have moved to virtual offerings and interactions, but many others are not able to make changes and are trying to cope with expected declines in sales. As one wrote, “We are just slow…less business.” A few are lowering prices to encourage sales. 

When asked what “other extraordinary steps your business is taking,” nearly all mentioned remote work and sanitation/cleaning/health guidelines. As one CEO responded, “Cleaning...all the time. Working from home for those who can.” A few mentioned pay cuts and furloughs, and those in business-to-business markets emphasized the importance of continued client contact.

When asked what state and federal governments could do to help small businesses through the crisis, there is a clear consensus that in order to remain in business tax relief and low- or no-interest loans are required. CEOs desire to keep their employees rather than release them to unemployment programs. 

The Robins School and VACEOs jointly conduct the quarterly survey, which regularly asks about expectations for sales, capital spending, and employment, plus other relevant issues, helping Virginia companies anticipate business conditions and plan for growth. The Robins School adapted the survey from the Business Roundtable, an association of CEOs of American companies that conducts a similar survey nationally. Randy Raggio, associate dean at the Robins School, administers the survey and collects the responses each quarter. The survey has been administered quarterly since 2010.

The following survey results from the fourth quarter of 2019 and first quarter of 2020 show projections for the next six months for sales, spending and employment:

Projected 6 months sales, spending and employment



2020 Q1

2019 Q4


No Change



No Change


How do you expect your company’s sales to change in the next six months?







How do you expect your company’s U.S. capital spending to change in the next six months?







How do you expect your company’s U.S. employment to change in the next six months?







“We have never seen such a complete reversal in CEO sentiment. Just last quarter, CEOs seemed optimistic for a continued strong economy,” said Raggio. “Now, everything has collapsed and none has any certainty about the future.”  

However, McRoberts believes that “many will find a way through this crisis by relying on reserves, scaling back, and innovating within the current environment.” He assures VACEO members, “We are working hard to help our CEOs stay connected so that they can help one another.”

Mickey Quiñones, dean of the Robins School of Business, noted, “The sentiment expressed by these executives is consistent with what we have heard in our own conversations with business leaders over the last couple of weeks. One of the great things I have learned in my short time in the Robins School is that our faculty are viewed as valuable experts in all kinds of economic conditions, and we are ready to help them through this crisis.”

Economic Outlook Index

Survey Date

CEO Economic Outlook Index

Q1 2020


Q4 2019


Q3 2019


Q2 2019


Q1 2019


Q4 2018


Q3 2018


Q2 2018


Q1 2018


Q4 2017


Q3 2017


Q2 2017


Q1 2017


Q4 2016


Q3 2016


Q2 2016


Q1 2016


Q4 2015


Q3 2015


Q2 2015


Q1 2015


Q4 2014


Q3 2014


Q2 2014


Q1 2014


Q4 2013


Q3 2013


Q2 2013


Q1 2013


Q4 2012


Q3 2012


Q2 2012


Q1 2012


Q4 2011


Q3 2011


Q2 2011


Q1 2011


Q4 2010


Q3 2010


Q2 2010


* Record high

One hundred and one CEOs responded, the largest number of respondents in the history of the survey, which was administered March 18-23. Multiple industries are represented in the sample, including construction, manufacturing, finance, insurance, and retail. The average company whose CEO responded to this survey had about $11 million in revenue for the most recent 12-month period. The average employment was about 57.

The Council continues to expand the survey beyond its members, offering any area business owners whose companies gross at least $1 million in annual revenue the opportunity to participate. If enough businesses participate, the Council will provide survey results by industry. Participation is free, and all participants will receive copies of the survey data. 

Business owners and CEOs who would like to participate in the next survey should contact Scot McRoberts at

The Virginia Council of CEOs is a nonprofit association whose mission is to connect the CEOs of small and mid-sized businesses for learning and growth. The Council is led by a volunteer board of directors, advisory board and a small staff. Currently, there are 215 CEO members, mainly in Richmond and Charlottesville. Learn more at

The Robins School of Business is the only fully accredited, highly-ranked undergraduate business school that also is part of a highly-ranked liberal arts university. U.S. News ranks the Robins School’s MBA program #2 in Virginia. The school’s executive education division offers customized training and consulting to area businesses.


Related Campus Units

Robins School of Business

Professor of Management
Individual and Organizational Development
Strategic Management of Human Capital
Diversity and Inclusion in Organizations
Associate Dean
Director, The Richmond MBA
Associate Professor of Marketing
Brand Equity Theory and Measurement
Brand Authenticity
Marketing Strategy
Gratitude in Marketing