INTERVIEW: AlixPartners’ Matthew Wilde thinks big changes in Mideast landscape inevitable in coronavirus pandemic

INTERVIEW: AlixPartners’ Matthew Wilde thinks big changes in Mideast landscape inevitable in coronavirus pandemic
Illustration by Luis Grañena
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Updated 14 June 2020

INTERVIEW: AlixPartners’ Matthew Wilde thinks big changes in Mideast landscape inevitable in coronavirus pandemic

INTERVIEW: AlixPartners’ Matthew Wilde thinks big changes in Mideast landscape inevitable in coronavirus pandemic
  • Restructuring specialist says the situation will be manageable, but it’s not good news

DUBAI: At the beginning of my Zoom interview with Matthew Wilde I made the observation that people in his profession — the restructuring specialists whose job it is to rescue companies in distress — were a bit like journalists because “bad news is good news.”

Wilde, who recently became chief restructuring officer (CRO) for AlixPartners in the Middle East, takes a more nuanced view of the current situation. “I don’t think this situation overall is good news. It will be interesting and challenging, and ultimately I think it will be manageable, but it’s not good news,” he said.

I was not really suggesting that there was anything “good” about a situation where businesses in the UAE, Saudi Arabia and other parts of the Middle East were faced with such dramatic pressures as the pandemic has brought on them. A recent survey in Dubai found that 70 percent of small to medium businesses in the emirate would stop trading in the next six months, for example.

But CROs will be busy for the foreseeable future dealing with the repercussions, as will journalists in reporting on them.

Wilde’s vast experience in the restructuring business will be very much in demand, which was enough to lure him out of a brief semi-retirement to take the job at Alix. With 32 years in the business, most of them with international consulting firm PwC, and involvement in some of the biggest corporate emergencies in the Middle East, he thought it was time for the restructurers to “show their true worth” to the business community.

“We have sometimes been seen in a negative light and restructuring used to be something of a dirty word, but now it’s in fashion — if you are not restructuring in one way or another, you are pretty unusual.” 

The “negative light” probably comes from the fact that the CRO usually shows up in the middle of a corporate disaster, and becomes associated with whatever basket-case is involved. Wilde has dealt with such corporate “causes celebres” as NMC, Dubai World and Al Jaber Group — all big, problematic situations for the UAE — as well as a number of cases in Saudi Arabia over the past few years.


BIO

Born: London, 1966.

Education:

  • London School of Economics, BSc in economics and finance.
  • Qualified chartered accountant ICEAW.

Career:

  • PwC, partner for 19 years.
  • Independent CRO.
  • Head of turnaround and restructuring, AlixPartners Middle East.

Alix has advised too on the Abraaj disaster, which is still playing out in legal arenas across the world, though Wilde was not part of the team.

So does the region have a problem with corporate governance?

“Governance is a challenge globally. Look at Enron, Madoff and the like, these happened in the West and I guess it can happen anywhere. It doesn’t mean we should not strive to improve governance in order to continue to attract all the foreign direct investment we want to in the region,” he said.

But even with his experience of corporate failures, Wilde believes we are in unprecedented times with the economic and financial reverberations of the pandemic crisis.

“In some sectors, things are already pretty bad. This is going to go in stages, and we’re still handling the immediate lockdown stages. We’ll emerge at different paces in different sectors and the challenges will change over time. I don’t think of it as a new normal, but rather a succession of phases,” he said.

“I think it’s inevitable that there’s going to be some big changes, and some of that will be in the form of consolidation, some in the form of closures or even failures,” he added, describing three ways he sees the pandemic impact hitting regional business. 

“Firstly there are those which have suffered a big direct impact on their demand from the COVID-19 situation, and where this impact is potentially long lasting or permanent,” he said. Some parts of the aviation and tourism sectors could fall into this category.

“Then there are those for whom the impact is temporary,” Wilde continued. The retail sector is likely to recover pretty quickly once lockdowns are lifted, though there could be permanent changes to the character of the business with, for example, an accelerated move towards online and delivery.

Finally, there are a set of businesses that will suffer because of the general economic downturn as a result of the pandemic. Consumer spending on luxury goods such as jewelry and cars is likely to take a hit as people decide not to splash out on expensive items in a recession, he said.

“The strategy responses needed will shift depending on how people perceive the cause of their particular impact. Those who see the impact as temporary will aim for a ‘hold and hope’ strategy, and those more permanently impacted will need to redesign their business models to handle lower demand.

“No one knows what the outcome will be so we are recommending planning for multiple scenarios,” Wilde said. Much depends on the state of health of the sector before the virus hit.

Parts of the healthcare sector have been negatively impacted by the pandemic, with elective surgeries and other specialism put on hold. “But this was a great sector beforehand and so the strategy for those guys is probably to ‘hold and hope,’ temporarily cutting cost and managing liquidity as they wait for the storm to pass and demand to recover,” he said.

In contrast, construction was in trouble before the pandemic, and could face future difficulties even as work continues on projects in the Middle East. “This was an area of considerable overcapacity before COVID-19 and it will likely be impacted by the recessionary pressures across the region going forward, where demand will fall. The strategy for that sector could be to consolidate and for some to retrench and get out of the sector,” Wilde said.

He warned, however, that not every business in trouble can be turned around or restructured. “My personal rule of thumb looks at six key areas of a business — finances, management, strategy, production, markets and supply chain — and if two or more are badly undermined I am inclined to move to a value preservation solution rather than pursue a turnaround.

 

 

“Often in the cases I get involved in there is enough value at stake that people will try to save it or try to create another solution that preserves value,” he said.

The other vital element that has to be preserved is cash. “They say cash is king. To me, cash in this environment equals opportunity — if you don’t have any you don’t have any opportunity. You have to preserve cash at all costs and that is about more than just making a 13-week short-term cash-flow forecast,” Wilde said.

In the end, it is likely to come down to the attitude of shareholders, creditors and customers, and Wilde recommends businesses get involved in dialogue with key stakeholders at an early stage. Central banks and governments in the region have advised lenders to take “a relaxed approach” towards their customers.

“One senior banker I spoke to very recently said ‘yes is the new no,’” he said, meaning that lenders have been more willing to react positively to a customer’s request for financial help. “Banks are often seen as being reluctant to support, but right now they are likely to be supportive,” he said.

But there is no guarantee this understanding attitude by the banks will last. “I think by about September or October some more serious conversations will need to happen. My biggest message to the business leaders out there would be: Don’t squander that window of opportunity to proactively engage with lenders now.”

He sees a different attitude from banks in Saudi Arabia compared to the UAE, which was badly hit by the global financial crisis in 2009 and adapted bankruptcy laws from that traumatic time.

“In Saudi Arabia, the banking sector is quite heavily interlinked, and when one of them starts taking action and the accounts get frozen quite quickly, many others will do the same and the business can fall into a spiral of decline.” 

The new bankruptcy and insolvency laws in the Kingdom will help, but it is still a relatively new regime and still to be tried and tested by insolvency practitioners, bankers, lawyers and the courts.

“I am optimistic for the processes in Saudi and hope that the practitioners can quickly build some standards by which they can operate and that proposals become bankable,” he said.

“I’m not one of those that’s saying the region’s legal frameworks are in desperate need of major change immediately. What we’re in need of is some practice with these tools so we can build up experience in the institutions and amongst the practitioners and maybe that experience may throw up some areas for well focused reform over time, but lets see from experience first,” Wilde added.

AlixPartners’ corporate slogan is “When It Really Matters,” and Wilde thinks that is entirely appropriate. “Now it does really matter,” he said.


Saudi shoppers helping high-end sector rebound to new peaks

Saudi shoppers helping high-end sector rebound to new peaks
Updated 01 August 2021

Saudi shoppers helping high-end sector rebound to new peaks

Saudi shoppers helping high-end sector rebound to new peaks
  • GCC retail giant aiming to double revenues in the Kingdom, become dominant player by 2022

DUBAI: The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) luxury retail sector has recovered to pre-pandemic levels, with high-end brands performing particularly well, as shoppers splash the cash they saved by not spending on entertainment or travel during the last year, according to one of the region’s biggest retailers.

Consultancy firm Bains & Company in April reported that the GCC luxury goods market declined 16.6 percent year on year to $7.4 billion in 2020, with Saudi Arabia down 8 percent and the tourist-dependent UAE declining 25 percent.

However, Michael Chalhoub, president of strategy, growth, innovation and investment and vice-president joint ventures at the Chalhoub Group, which has 559 stores across the GCC and manages brands such as Diro, Swarovski, Fendi and Louis Vuitton, told Arab News that the market has bounced back.

“I think the luxury market, and fashion in particular, has recovered in 2021, at levels even higher than in 2019,” he said.

“Local consumers are traveling less. And so, consumption has been repatriated. And we estimate that, in normal time, between one-third to 50 percent of the luxury consumption of GCC nationals happens abroad in London, Paris and Geneva. But now, because of the pandemic, they’ve had to stay, in particular in Saudi Arabia, where the borders were blocked for most of the first half of the year,” he added.

With gyms, restaurants, entertainment venues and travel off limits for a long period, Chalhoub said that shoppers now had more disposable income and were feeling free to spend their savings.

“I would say that average income has gone higher because of a lack of entertainment expenses. What people aren’t spending in restaurants and travel, they are probably spending it on taking care of themselves,” he said.

Michael Chalhoub

However, Chalhoub said that the rebound differed across retail segments. Very high-end luxury brands are performing much better than premium or affordable brands. Jewelry, fragrances and beauty brands are seeing strong growth, but he observed that makeup was still down, mainly due to consumers wearing masks and not leaving the house as often.

“With fashion, I think that we’re up by 5 to 7 percent in the region versus 2019, mainly with luxury fashion and even more so with high-end luxury,” he said, looking at the industry as a whole.

Many retailers have seen triple-digit growth in their online sales during 2020, and the Chalhoub Group accelerated its digitalization strategy in line with the wider industry. “If we were to compare 2021 numbers to 2019, we’re probably talking about 100 percent growth for the industry. And this is incredible. I think the numbers I had were plus 96 percent in the GCC as a whole and even 138 percent just in the UAE,” he said.

However, while online sales might be popular for grocery or food outlets, high-end fashion consumers still like to feel, touch and try on clothing before buying.

For this reason, Chalhoub said that the company expects a higher percentage of returns when it comes to online high-end fashion. “We’re inviting our customer to say try it on and then send it back if you need to,” he said.

With Saudi Arabia less dependent on international tourists for retail sales, the Kingdom largely avoided the slump in sales last year. Chalhoub Group has operated in the Kingdom since 1975, where it has six offices, 215 stores and about 3,600 employees.

It now controls 38 percent of the Saudi market, 48 percent of fashion and 55 percent of beauty, but it is aiming to become the largest player in the sector by the end of next year.

“We’ve made Saudi Arabia a main focus for ourselves; we want to make sure that we cater for the new Saudi customers as much as possible. We have a population there that is young and really enthusiastic about some of the transformation that is happening there,” Chalhoub said.

“We’re investing a lot into Saudi Arabia. The objective that we had set ourselves about six months ago was to double our revenues there in eighteen months. And that means investing more and catering to those customers spending more locally rather than internationally,” he added.

One of the ways the group is aiming to capture more of the Saudi market is by tapping into the Kingdom’s local fashion talent. In early July, the company launched Fashion Lab, a first-of-its-kind initiative in the Kingdom, offering local entrepreneurs the chance to win $15,000 in funding to help establish their fashion brands.

Successful participants will get to take part in a two-week “boot camp,” which will help them navigate through the different elements of developing their brand, including marketing, supply chain management, content creation and media exposure.

Looking forward, the Bain & Company report said: “With about 40 percent of the population aged under 25, Saudi Arabia will likely remain the biggest engine of growth for the regional luxury industry in coming years.”


Saudi Arabia sets new rules for fruit, vegetable imports

Saudi Arabia sets new rules for fruit, vegetable imports
Updated 01 August 2021

Saudi Arabia sets new rules for fruit, vegetable imports

Saudi Arabia sets new rules for fruit, vegetable imports
  • The ministry has launched a new system for vegetables and fruit imports to support local production

RIYADH: Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Environment, Water, and Agriculture on Saturday called on fruit and vegetable suppliers to complete all formalities to obtain import licenses before the Aug. 9 deadline.

After Aug. 9, no unlicensed supplier will be allowed to import fruit and vegetables. Those interested can visit the following link to apply for a license: https://eservices.mewa.gov.sa/request/111111.

An import license will be valid for three to 10 years depending on the license category, the ministry said.

Saudi authorities have also issued health guidelines for imports like all shipments should be free of pesticide residues or within the limit allowed by the Kingdom’s laws. 

The ministry has launched a new system for vegetables and fruit imports to support local production, enforce quality control and ensure food security in the Kingdom.


Millions of Americans at risk of losing homes as virus cases spike

Millions of Americans at risk of losing homes as virus cases spike
Updated 31 July 2021

Millions of Americans at risk of losing homes as virus cases spike

Millions of Americans at risk of losing homes as virus cases spike
  • The wave of evictions would come as the fast-spreading delta variant has taken hold in the country and rental housing is in high demand in the hot real estate market

WASHINGTON: Millions of Americans could find themselves homeless starting Sunday when a nationwide ban on evictions expires, even as billions in government funds meant to help them go untapped.

The wave of evictions would come as the fast-spreading delta variant has taken hold in the country and rental housing is in high demand in the hot real estate market.

US President Joe Biden on Thursday urged Congress to extend the 11-month-old eviction moratorium, after a recent Supreme Court ruling meant the White House could not extend the measure through September as intended.

Democratic leaders in Congress were pushing for an extension, but it was unclear if they had the votes, even among moderates in their own party, to prevent the ban from expiring.

Efforts stalled on Friday in the House after a move to pass the extension was unsuccessful, with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi saying in a statement, that “not a single Republican would support this measure.”

The day before, she had called the extension “a moral imperative.”

She also called on governors and local officials “to take whatever steps are necessary to distribute the rental assistance that Congress already allocated.”

Unlike other pandemic-related aid that was distributed from Washington, such as stimulus checks, it was states, counties and cities that were responsible for building programs from the ground up to dole out assistance earmarked for renters.

The Treasury Department said that as of June, only $3 billion in aid had reached households out of the $25 billion sent to states and localities in early February, less than three weeks after Biden took office.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) ordered the eviction moratorium in September 2020, as the world’s largest economy lost over 20 million jobs amid the pandemic shutdowns. The CDC feared increasing homelessness would boost coronavirus infections.

Although more than half of those lost jobs were recovered as businesses were able to reopen, many families still have not caught up on missed rent payments.

The Census Bureau’s latest Household Pulse survey through the first week of July showed that of 51 million renters surveyed, 7.4 million were behind on their rent and nearly half of those said they were at risk of being evicted in the next two months.


Gulf stocks buoyed by oil prices as emerging markets hammered on China

Gulf stocks buoyed by oil prices as emerging markets hammered on China
Updated 31 July 2021

Gulf stocks buoyed by oil prices as emerging markets hammered on China

Gulf stocks buoyed by oil prices as emerging markets hammered on China
  • Tadawul All Share Index rose 7.5 percent in July
  • MSCI Emerging Market Index dropped 7 percent in the month

RIYADH: Gulf stocks were a relative oasis for emerging market investors this week as the broader complex posted its worst month since March 2020 amid concern over the breadth of a Chinese regulatory crackdown.

The Tadawul All Share Index climbed 0.7 percent on July 29 to end the week 1.9 percent higher for a 7.5 percent monthly gain. The Abu Dhabi Securities Market General Index climbed 1 percent on Thursday, taking it to a record high on the back of a 2 percent advance for First Abu Dhabi Bank.

By contrast, the MSCI Emerging Market Index dropped 1.4 percent on Friday, for a 7 percent monthly loss, the most since the fallout from the pandemic hit global markets early last year. Stocks in mainland China and Hong Kong fell to their lowest this year, on investor worries over government regulations dented the education, property and tech sectors.

Brent crude climbed 2.5 percent in the week after a rollercoaster month that saw it swoon from a two-year high of $77.16 on July 5 to $68.62 on July 19 before recovering to end the month at $76.33.

Concerns over the effect a resurgence in coronavirus cases might have on demand for crude were allayed on Wednesday when a report showed a bigger-than-expected drawdown of crude stockpiles the previous week.

“The reduced stockpile has propped crude prices up which gave a boost to the region’s stock markets,” Daniel Takieddine, senior market analyst at FXPrimus, told Reuters.

The Tadawul’s IPO pipeline will advance this month after Saudi burger chain Burgerizzr said it will begin offering shares to the public on Aug. 15 with the intention to list on the parallel stock market Nomu in September.

The company plans to offer 725,000 shares, representing 29 percent of its SR25 million capital, it said in its prospectus on Thursday.

Further signs of the Kingdom’s ambitious investment program were revealed this week as
The Ministry of Communications and Information Technology announced a $15 billion technology fund to advance digital infrastructure in the Kingdom during the Saudi 4th Industrial Revolution conference held in Riyadh this week.

The public-private partnership will develop advanced technology from the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR), which is expected to generate around $1 trillion for the Saudi economy in new revenue streams, a senior Saudi official said on Wednesday.

The Kingdom will enjoy economic boosts from robotics, artificial intelligence, and wireless production models as it pushes for more smarter cities and infrastructure.


Gulf capitals dominate world’s fastest 5G cities in 2021

Gulf capitals dominate world’s fastest 5G cities in 2021
Updated 48 min 57 sec ago

Gulf capitals dominate world’s fastest 5G cities in 2021

Gulf capitals dominate world’s fastest 5G cities in 2021
  • Oslo has the fastest media 5G download speed globally
  • Riyadh has the sixth fastest 5G speed in the world

RIYADH: Capital cities in the Gulf made up five of the top 10 fastest globally for 5G connectivity in the first half of 2021, according to a new report.

Oslo had the fastest commercially available 5G speeds with a median download speed of 526.74 megabits per second (Mbps), while Seoul was second at 467.84 Mbps, internet metrics provider Ookla said in a report.

Abu Dhabi was the fastest Gulf capital and the third globally at 421.26 Mbps, followed by Doha at 413.40 Mbps. Riyadh was the sixth fastest globally at 384.66 Mbps, Kuwait City was seventh and Muscat eighth. Manama was 15th with a speed of 249.71 Mbps.

The slowest global capital for 5G speeds was Capetown at 53.33 Mbps. Other notable capitals include London at 167.50 Mbps, Tokyo at 167.02 Mbps and Jerusalem at 145.17 Mbps.

A report from Ookla in April showed Saudi Arabia had the highest adoption of 5G in the Gulf as measured by the ratio of samples from devices connected to 5G to the number of samples from all 5G-capable devices, which the firm said is an indicator of the maturity of a country’s 5G market.

Qatar came second, followed by the UAE. Oman, which only launched 5G early this year, was at the bottom of the list.

In June, the Kingdom’s Communications and Information Technology Commission (CITC) said the coverage of 5G services in the Kingdom has increased during the first quarter of 2021.

The commission said 5G services have been extended to 53 governorates of the Kingdom as compared to 51 in the fourth quarter of 2020.

In its Q1 Meqyas report, the commission said STC and Zain topped the list of broadband services in the Kingdom.

The two companies have deployed 5G services in 43 governorates, while Mobily’s 5G services are available in only 21 governorates. Meqyas, an initiative of the CITC, compares the speeds of service providers in the Kingdom for download, upload, and 5G, ranking the best performing operators in each region and covering the most commonly used applications and video games.