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December 16, 2019

I quickly observed during the first quarter of 2019 that my business, Bridges Limited, would have a phenomenal year. Our provisional management accounts, with several projects yet to be invoiced as we close the year, reveal that we will grow by about 45 percent in 2019.

Of course, for a relatively small company, barely 30 months on the market, a high growth rate is easy to achieve. Realistically though, and going by business growth rules, we are still at the development stage (characterized by fixed overhead costs higher than gross income).

Our own business plan had projected break-even to be achieved in the third year of operation but the audited accounts for last year by ECD & Associates reveal we broke even within the first year. The question is, how did the business grow on the back of serious economic dire straits (energy challenges, liquidity challenges, the weak performance of the mining industry, government fiscal challenges that saw underfunding to various government ministries and related agencies, high inflation and interest rates)?

Our experience at Bridges has been exciting and it is the strategy we employed that I wish to share with those looking forward to another exciting year, 2020. The strategy was based on the notion that even when people die, there are businesses that leverage the opportunity. When there is an economic downturn, not everything goes down at the same time. Even in a crisis, there is opportunity. It is a question of how you strategise to maximize the opportunity. We did the following:

UNDERSTANDING MARKET NEEDS: The main question for an average business in Zambia given the current circumstances is, ‘How do we beat the economic storm? How do we survive, sustain our operations and even make money?’ At Bridges, we somewhat understood the needs of the market and the market equally knew what we existed for. We came into business just at the right time when companies were looking for solutions. A business that appropriately and efficiently responds to client needs will always survive. Businesses that are rigid in their offering, ‘this is what we have for you, therefore, take it,’ always run into icebergs.

While maintaining your vision and business focus, it is always important to listen to your clients, to be able to understand market needs. Flexibility is key to survival during hard times. This is the time you sit around the table with your clients and respond to their questions in the best way you can so that you help them turn around their businesses. Some of the clients will seek to prescribe their own solutions; you do not always have to agree. If you are in the right business, with appropriate and flexible products, your task is to assure the customer your solutions will provide the optimal desired outcome. We did this as a company this year, on one hand helping clients develop and review strategic and business plans that responded to the present and future economic challenges.

On the other hand, we trained tens of hundreds of managers among various companies, both private and public, on how to provide leadership that improves employee productivity. Capacity building is the most effective and simplest approach to corporate growth during hard times. By understanding the market needs, we had no idle time at Bridges throughout 2019 and we will continue being busy till the last day of the year! Jonathan Winters says, “If your ship doesn’t come in, swim out to meet it!”. At our staff retreat last week, we came up with another goal for 2020, ‘To be at the centre of the sustainability of public and private institutions against the backdrop of economic challenges.’

INTERNAL CAPACITY: You can only win when you have the right team working with you. When we just started, I did most of the work. The rest of the team members would accompany me and chip in here and there. But a business is not about one person, it is about a team; a competent team. I spent most of the first 18 months grooming, mentoring and coaching the team. The results of this patient approach to developing internal capacity has been overwhelming. In 2019, we would have three activities taking place at the same time and I would only be with one organization, the others split accordingly.

When times are hard, companies ought to be a little bit more strategic about how they maximise the resource pool. Always seek to get the best out of your human resources. Never allow employees to think its Christmas 365 days a year. Invest in their capacity. Position them strategically in the company so that they are in strength zones.

Given our current capacity and productivity, we are hiring another university graduate in 2020 to help us achieve new targets going forward. Even when times are hard, you can employ! Be optimistic and see opportunities every day!

Compliments of the season!

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