Author, commentator, and policy analyst Michele Wucker coined the term “gray rhinos” for high-impact risks people should see coming but invariably ignore until it’s too late, like reacting to a rhino aiming its horn in their direction and preparing to charge. In her 2016 book The Gray Rhino: How to Recognize and Act on the Obvious Dangers We Ignore, she cautioned that “the frequency of pandemics warns of a much bigger global health threat to come: It’s not a matter of if but when.”1
As the world recovers from the last crisis, and with the next one already happening, it’s apparent that more gray rhinos will come. These risks will become more frequent and arrive simultaneously—a “crash” of gray rhinos. For companies, this means operating in a highly uncertain environment, which requires resilience and an honest assessment of where their risks lie.
There’s seemingly endless information out there about how companies can ready themselves for the next crisis or disruption, but our 2022 Deloitte Africa Restructuring Survey revealed one particularly important insight that we think is worth adding to the mix: While preparing for the next gray rhino, C-suite leaders should ensure that they’re looking through the same pair of binoculars as their key stakeholders and collaborators, including their lenders.2
In a world of frequent disruptions and consistent uncertainty, new winners and losers will emerge across regions, countries, and sectors. Inflation and the threats of recession are altering consumer behavior yet again, as the global economy experiences the reverberating impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Companies that were reaping the rewards of pent-up demand just months ago may show signs of stress later this year. In this environment, where winners can become losers alarmingly quickly, the proactive tracking of indicators of financial stress is critically important for boards, management teams, lenders, and other financial stakeholders.
As the COVID-19 pandemic demonstrated, in the face of a crisis, organizations need a liquidity buffer—sufficient cash runway to implement the operational and financial rightsizing required to survive and thrive. According to our study—which included a survey of 111 restructuring professionals and C-suite executives fielded in January and February 2022 in Kenya, Nigeria, and South Africa—declining operational or free cash flow is the top-ranked indicator of an organization’s financial stress. Eighty-five percent of respondents across Africa included this in their top five, and the remaining top metrics were trading- or cash flow–related.
Many professionals won’t be surprised by this finding. Cash is the lifeblood of business, and close cash flow tracking and management are critically important as signs of stress appear. However, while survey respondents across geographies and roles broadly agree on which are the most important indicators of financial stress, views diverge on how often these are tracked by management teams.
C-suite respondents to our survey believe that they regularly track revenue, profitability, cash flow, and working capital but acknowledge that debt ratios are less of a priority. Lenders’ perception, however, is almost diametrically opposed: They believe that companies track cash flow and balance sheet metrics less often than headline-making revenue and share price indicators (see figure).
Our survey data indicates a misalignment between the information that lenders and other restructuring professionals would like to see measured and the actual information tracked and provided to stakeholders. This could affect companies’ ability to secure emergency funding: Lenders across Africa rank the availability of reliable information as one of the highest barriers to decision-making, second only to the banks’ reputational risks.
So how can management teams better prepare their companies for future crises and disruptions? Don’t lose sight of your stakeholders’ priorities and perspectives. While C-suite respondents in our survey ranked actions within their control—diversification, establishing crisis committees, and appointing advisors—the highest,3 lenders recommend that clients engage with their bankers first and as early as possible to ensure emergency funding lines are available.
Halting a crash of gray rhinos may well seem impossible, but by communicating early and encouraging proactive steps to manage risk, the worst of the charge may be avoided.
The Deloitte Turnaround & Restructuring team in Africa provides restructuring, turnaround and implementation advice and services to underperforming and financially distressed businesses, their stakeholders, and advisors.