UNIVERSITY OF RICHMOND — For the first time ever, the University of Richmond’s Robins School of Business and the Virginia Council of CEOs conducted a follow-up to their quarterly CEO Economic Outlook Survey to determine how CEO sentiment had changed after dealing with COVID-19 for another month. 

Sixty-four percent of CEOs reported that compared with their expectations for their businesses at the end of March, the last month had been “about as expected.” Nineteen percent reported it to be “much better than expected,” while 17% reported “much worse than expected.”

Overall, expectations in March, at the end of the first quarter of 2020, were the lowest seen in the survey’s 10-year history. Those numbers improved slightly by the end of April. 

This month, 77% of CEOs expect sales to be lower over the next six months (down from 87% last month), and 66% expect the decline to be more than 10 percentage points (compared with 71%). Thirteen percent expect sales to increase (vs. 6.9%), while 10% expect sales to remain flat (vs. 5.9%). 

Seventy-three percent of CEOs expect capital spending to decrease (compared with 82% last month), while 10% expect capital spending to increase over the next six months (compared with 4%). Seventeen percent expect capital spending to remain flat (vs. 14%). 

Thirty-seven percent of respondent CEOs expect employment to decrease over the next six months (down from 54% last month). Fifty-three percent expect employment to remain flat (vs. 40%), and 10% expect an increase in employment (vs. 6%). 

Because of the current crisis, CEOs were asked several questions that related specifically to COVID-19. About 64% believe that they will continue to operate without significant layoffs, but 13% believe that significant layoffs are “probably” (5%) or “definitely” (8%) likely. Almost 24% are still uncertain at this time. 

While dealing with the crisis, CEOs have identified skill gaps in their organizations.  Although dealing with technology and a remote workforce was a concern, creative sales and marketing was the most frequently cited gap. As one CEO commented, “I wish we had a full-time marketing professional to help us communicate and pivot during this time.” Another noted, “Employees who lack adaptability are standing out.”

Fortunately, several reported no gap in their employees’ skills. A representative comment was, “I am pleasantly surprised with how well my team is functioning to serve our customers while operating from home.”

When asked what more state and federal governments could do to help small businesses through the crisis, more than half of the responses related to expanding or extending loan programs such as the Paycheck Protection Program and helping companies to not default on existing loans, mortgages, or rent. CEOs clearly desire to keep their employees rather than release them to unemployment programs. 

CEOs also expressed frustration with current communications. One CEO called for better guidance on restrictions for business. “Provide more guidance on how businesses can comply and adopt safety protocols while still continuing to operate,” they said. Many advocated for expanded testing and availability of personal protection equipment, while others simply stated, “Open the economy.” 

CEOs offered lots of advice for the government as it decides when to relax/remove restrictions on business operations. CEOs were split on “go slow” versus “move fast,” with some recommending a cost/benefit approach. Part of the divergence between “go slow” and “move fast” can be explained by differences in risk by industry and region. CEOs advocating faster movement point out that opening up is not a mandate, but a choice. Those that wish to open, and customers who feel comfortable, should be allowed to conduct business, but those who are more vulnerable should be given the choice to stay home.  

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. This is the first time it has been done at a time other than end of quarter. 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. The quarterly survey has been administered since 2010. 

The following survey results from the first quarter (March) and April of 2020 show projections for the next six months for sales, spending and employment:

Projected 6 months sales, spending and employment

 

 

2020 April

2020 Q1 (March)

Increase

No Change

Decrease

Increase

No Change

Decrease

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

13.0%

 10.0%

 77.0%

 6.9%

 5.9%

 87.1%

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

 10.0%

 17.0%

 73.0%

 4.0%

 14.0%

 82.0%

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

 10.0%

 53.0%

 37.0%

 6.0%

 40.0%

 54.0%

 

“Although the outlook still is not good, this month produced the largest improvement in the index in the survey’s history.” said Raggio. “We intend to repeat the survey once a month until this crisis is over to track sentiment and to give Virginia CEOs a voice in the conversation.” 

“These results confirm what I’ve been hearing from CEOs – that we may have hit bedrock, and many businesses can begin clawing their way out of this hole,” said Scot McRoberts, executive director of VACEOs. “What is unclear is how long their businesses will be at the bottom, and how quickly they can climb out.”

“As adaptability becomes the name of the game, opportunities to develop new skills and organizational capabilities will become even more important,” said Mickey Quiñones, dean of the Robins School. “At the Robins School, we are working with business leaders and organizations to provide these opportunities through our various programs and executive education offerings.” 

Economic Outlook Index

Survey Date

CEO Economic Outlook Index

April 2020

-1.33

Q1 2020

-18.73

Q4 2019

101.47

Q3 2019

86.33

Q2 2019

94.13

Q1 2019

100.5

Q4 2018

97.97

Q3 2018

104.3

Q2 2018

92.73

Q1 2018

94.6

Q4 2017

106.3

Q3 2017

99.17

Q2 2017

103.63

Q1 2017

108.97*

Q4 2016

107.37

Q3 2016

89.67

Q2 2016

89

Q1 2016

102

Q4 2015

92.67

Q3 2015

99.8

Q2 2015

93.42

Q1 2015

93.9

Q4 2014

95.92

Q3 2014

96.1

Q2 2014

88.71

Q1 2014

86.07

Q4 2013

89.57

Q3 2013

92.53

Q2 2013

91.6

Q1 2013

86.4

Q4 2012

77.57

Q3 2012

81.17

Q2 2012

81.13

Q1 2012

94.1

Q4 2011

88.63

Q3 2011

81.17

Q2 2011

74.17

Q1 2011

85.63

Q4 2010

92.27

Q3 2010

94.47

Q2 2010

81.33

* Record high

One hundred CEOs responded to the survey, which was administered April 20-23. 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 $20 million in revenue for the most recent 12-month period. The average employment was about 52. 

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 smcroberts@vaceos.org

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 www.vaceos.org.

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.

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