As COVID-19 continues to dominate news headlines, American cities and international businesses are showing their true colors. From innovation in recovery to redrawing the predictions model businesses have adhered to for years, the health and economic crisis has done much more than disrupt the supply chain and logistics sectors. Despite the challenges, the process of recovery has been maximized by thinking outside the box and utilizing resources available to extend a helping hand. Dozens upon dozens of alcohol distilleries across the nation have switched production to meet the demand for hand sanitizer—to the point that the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States created its COVID-19 Hand Sanitizer Connection Portal as a dedicated resource for American distillers looking to join the efforts. General Motors announced its participation in joining forces to combat COVID-19 in April by kickstarting the production of face masks at the auto giant’s Warren, Michigan, and China facilities, thanks to a joint venture through SAIC-GM-Wuling.
If this pandemic has taught us anything, it is the importance of adaptability and what the true definition of agility looks like. Although the above companies proved prepared and agile enough to weather the storm, other companies and the American economy were not.
“Though the concept of supply chain readiness is not new, that does not mean it always has been practiced correctly,” explains Ron Leibman, head of McCarter & English’s Transportation, Logistics & Supply Chain Management practice. “Companies must begin now, if they are not doing so already, to test their business continuity plans, with a goal of identifying and correcting weaknesses in the supply chain and updating their plans to avoid future out-of-stock situations.”
Leibman points to a recent Institute for Supply Management survey that showed 75 percent of the companies surveyed had been affected by COVID-19, yet 44 percent of those companies had no plan in place to deal with that type of disruption.
Supply and demand have also shifted, creating a new set of challenges for domestic and international supply chain players. Products such as toilet paper, medical supplies, and grocery meats have seen a spike in demand since the pandemic reached the United States. These and other consumer trends have defined a new wave of purchasing habits that have essentially redefined what effective production looks like.
“Few could have predicted the run on toilet paper that occurred early in the pandemic, or the meat shortage that seems to be occurring today,” Leibman says. “Regardless of how this demand plays out, manufacturers will certainly need to be able produce and modify production to meet the needs of the economy and support customers/consumers through the enhanced use of ecommerce platforms and automated processes to minimize turnaround time. Now, rather than having a business ecosystem that prizes vendor-managed inventory, the reduction of inventory holding costs, and just-in-time delivery, manufacturers may have to re-gauge their production cycles and capabilities to meet their customers’ new purchasing patterns, which could include the use of forward inventories and safety stocks and perhaps larger replenishment volumes.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed a lot about the current state of the global supply chain to the same degree that it challenged traditional predictive risk models. The fact of the matter is that business continuity and risk assessment going forward will not be the same–at least for a while.
“Countless industries are saying that they used to be so good at prediction, and now all their prediction models are out the window,” explains Marc Busch, a Business Diplomacy professor at Georgetown University. “This will require learning, and the question is how long will that learning take and how much will businesses invest in it? One way or another, the ‘new normal’ is going to have to be diagnosed. Market factors need to be considered. The ability to digitally gain enough information and predictive power to handle demand or supply shocks is paramount in moving forward and recovering.”
New challenges will arise as global traders determine the next steps in sourcing and site selection as well. What will make sense in the near future to better predict disruption management is an inevitable conversation.
“In moments of crisis, there’s an opportunity for businesses to reevaluate how they’ve been operating,” Busch says. “New entrants into well-formed supply chains may find that this is precisely the moment to pitch themselves to those companies that want to diversify, but aren’t yet willing to start shuffling assets around the world (i.e. out of China). This was the case in the financial crisis and it’s likely to be an opportunity soon again. There’s going to be a lot of new discoveries and the question is: Who is going to be learning.”
As this story was being published, retail stores and restaurants had just started the process of reopening and allowing customers back into their establishments. For many, customers are still required to wear face masks and maintain social distancing while capacity limits are cut in half if not more. The relief is found through the restarting of local business operations; however, it’s a slow and steady process that requires the support of customers to kickstart our economy once again. This kickstarting means rehires for business owners and working again for the countless people who lost their only source of income amid COVID-19.
“There is no doubt that people are eager to return to usual practices,” Busch says. “Some of the ways in which we collect our goods are going to forever be different. Businesses will have to learn like the rest of us. The new etiquette in business—the way in which services and goods are sold—will depend on how quickly and how fully we all come to grips with the new normal, and there are bound to be surprises. It is going to be difficult to determine how businesses should best try to rejuvenate trust and coax people into something like their usual consumption patterns.”
Retailers, restaurants, and entertainment venues aren’t the only ones that experienced unprecedented shifts, however. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic and the economic chaos, crude oil prices plummeted to negative numbers spurred by the significant drop in global demand. Although the market is now back to what we are used to (for the most part), regulations remain a big part of the foreseeable future in navigating such disruptions.
“On the trade side, for now, the industry should expect status quo for the immediate future,” explains David McCullough, partner in the Energy & Infrastructure practice group at the New York office of Eversheds Sutherland (US) LLP. “If there is to be another price shock where physical crude oil prices go negative or very low, we will see a real push for measures such as the waiver of the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS), the waiver of the Jones Act and imposing crude oil and potentially refined product import restrictions specifically on non-North American sources.”
Opposite of what brick-and-mortar retailers experienced, the oil industry was not nearly as caught off-guard. In fact, according to McCullough, the majority was prepared. “There were anticipations of crude prices going negative and there were negative pricing clauses built into contracts for this reason,” he explains. “When this instance occurred, several large players were prepared. The situation was largely focused on a few players that got squeezed in the market. On the refined product side of the market, there are a few sectors that still do not seem to fully appreciate the demand destruction that has occurred and the ramifications of this demand destruction. For example, there will be significantly less demand for environmental credits under the Renewable Fuel Standard and California Low Carbon Fuel Standard. Despite this, we are still seeing the environmental credits remaining relatively robust. The market may not be fully understanding that the massive drop-off in demand for gasoline and diesel will also result in a drop-off in demand for these environmental credits.”
It boils down to visibility while clearly understanding and predicting market disruptions. As mentioned previously, the ways in which business is conducted have been changed drastically (for any industry, really). This change does not have to be met with complete failure, but it must be met with resilience through the utilization of the tools already available to us. Unlike past pandemics, modern businesses have a robust technology toolbox readily deployable. Virus or no virus, technology provides more opportunity now than it has ever before for all of us impacted by COVID-19. Technology is the critical and obvious part of the equation. Technology can support all parts of the supply chain from production and distribution to consumers and the economy. Those that tap into its potential will undoubtedly be among those that recover successfully.
“When shippers, retailers and supply chain professionals fail to understand and embrace the importance of digitization in the supply chain, it shines a spotlight on the weak points of the industry,” states Glenn Jones, GVP Products at Blume Global. “This has been abundantly clear over the past several months and forced the accelerated digitization of the industry, which traditionally has been slow to adopt new technologies.”
Jones points to a recent survey in which 67 percent of shipping and freight professionals vowed to invest in new supply chain technologies due to the pandemic. “To remain competitive, organizations need digitally empowered logistics platforms that leverage data to make informed decisions quickly,” he says. “Companies need to expect the unexpected. We can anticipate a significant disruption to the supply chain almost every year, we just do not know what that disruption will be. What is critical is being prepared for that disruption, and a digitized supply chain operation is your best chance for responding quickly to what your customers need, when they need it.”
So, what have we learned? Are the lessons of COVID-19 rooted in the technology we already possess? For some, the answer will be yes while for others, proactivity and prediction will serve as major differentiators in recovery and rebuilding the nation’s economy.
“The impact of COVID-19 on the supply chain, and the world, underscores the importance of collaboration amongst colleagues, partners and with customers,” Jones concludes. “The on-demand needs of current supply chains will lead to an increase in digital supply chain platforms. These platforms will enable companies to scale up or down based on demand. This will be made possible by large networks of carrier partners across all modes of transportation providing intel in real time. A digitally empowered adaptive/flexible responsive logistics platform that leverages a global carrier network will enable companies to quickly move to alternate suppliers in other regions when needed and provide better data across multiple resources, ensuring companies can make informed decisions at every mode and along every mile—no matter the crisis.”
Each step of the recovery process will be a testament to our humanity and exactly how willing we are to support each other and the economy in times of crisis. COVID-19 continues to test our limits, our grit, and our tenacity on an international scale.
It is a testament to how much we appreciate those who protect us and continue to work on the frontlines for those who are sick, while others continue working to keep the supply chain moving. All of these workers are essential—farmers, supply chain managers, truckers, grocery workers, first responders, IT professionals, business owners, and beyond. We are all connected in some form or capacity and have been throughout this crisis. How we come out of this crisis will be the real determination of the economic future.
David McCullough, a Partner at Eversheds Sutherland, counsels producers, refiners, commodity traders and distributors on the production, trade and movement of energy commodities, particularly crude oil, petroleum products and renewable fuels.
Glenn Jones, GVP Products at Blume Global, has a proven track record of growing businesses by building and leading product management/marketing and R&D organizations to define, develop, position, and sell highly innovative and high-value enterprise solutions delivered in the cloud. He was formerly the COO of Sweetbridge and the CTO of Steelwedge Software. He also held leadership positions at several other companies, including Elementum and E2Open.
Ron Leibman is head of McCarter & English’s Transportation, Logistics & Supply Chain Management practice. A respected leader in supply chain law with more than 40 years of experience, he brings valuable industry insights with prior experience as a senior logistics executive at Wakefern Food Corp. (ShopRite Supermarkets) and home-furnishing retailer Fortunoff’s. He is a member of Syracuse University’s Supply Chain Advisory Board at the Whitman School of Management.
Marc L. Busch is the Karl F. Landegger Professor of International Business Diplomacy at the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University and a nonresident senior fellow in the Atlantic Council.