Companies have long grappled with the challenge of adapting to an increasingly digital environment. The coronavirus pandemic has caused widespread disruption and has accelerated this digitalisation of the global economy, as almost all industries have been forced to adopt virtual solutions. As the CEO of Intel, Bob Swan, pointed out in a letter to customers, “we are witnessing what will surely be remembered as a historic deployment of remote work and digital access to services across every domain”.
In alarmingly short order, the pandemic forced a wide variety of companies to move online – with varying degrees of success. Remote working surged as countries went into lockdown and data from McKinsey show that digital adoption advanced by five years in roughly eight weeks, although it varies across industries (see figure 1).
Figure 1. Digitalisation in the US across industries
Source: McKinsey COVID-19 US Digital Sentiment Survey, as at April 2020.
It remains to be seen whether companies will return to their pre-crisis ways of operating. Some sectors – particularly the hospitality and travel industries – certainly hope so. Yet while humanity’s need for social contact should ensure some return to normality, there is also a sense that the crisis signals a paradigm shift for how businesses and individuals operate. The companies that manage to survive – and indeed thrive – are those with business models that are flexible enough to adapt to the fast-digitalising landscape.
Our European Equity strategies take a long-term, high conviction approach to investing, with a focus on unrecognised and enduring change. This change is frequently attached to structural trends, the scale and duration of which is often underestimated, which provide a rich seam of attractive, long-term investment opportunities. We see the adoption of digitally focused business models as an opportunity and are currently invested in a number of companies that are set to benefit from this trend.
Semiconductors: enabling the digital transition
The pandemic has triggered a significant rise in demand for cloud computing and data providers. One such company is ASML, a semiconductor industry supplier, which we hold across all of our European Equity strategies. The firm has become a linchpin for the global tech sector through its position as the sole manufacturer of extreme ultraviolet technology, which enables chip makers to reduce the size and increase the power and functionality of semiconductors.
Semiconductors play a key role in powering a variety of structural trends, including artificial intelligence (AI) and automation. According to a survey by Bain & Company, a management consultancy, three-quarters of the companies they surveyed plan to accelerate automation initiatives in response to the pandemic.
ASML has the potential to play a vital, albeit hidden role in this revolution. In order to be effective, AI and automation – and other areas such as the internet of things and 5G – require vast amounts of data. ASML is well-positioned to provide the technology that will help semiconductor manufacturers make chips that facilitate the requirement for ever-expanding amounts of data.
Digital transactions: cash is no longer king
Meanwhile, the use of physical cash or cheques has been actively discouraged during the crisis. This has forced some companies to go cashless, resulting in a notable fall in cash volumes (see figure 2).
Figure 2. ATM transactions decline
Source: Link, as at August 2020.
There are also reasons to believe that the use of digital or contactless transactions will accelerate when the pandemic has eased. Aside from the obvious hygiene benefits, going digital avoids time-consuming trips to the cash machine and lets firms incorporate payments seamlessly into their accounting systems.
Adyen, a holding we recently added to our Europe ex-UK, Sustainable Europe and Eurozone strategies, is an Amsterdam-listed, global payments processor that looks well placed to take advantage of the digitalisation of transactions and an expected growth in online sales.
The firm has a technology focused culture, providing comprehensive payment solutions to some of the most demanding and fast-growing merchants. With a negligible customer churn, it has consistently siphoned away market share from other payments processors. Moreover, its client mix is disproportionately exposed to ecommerce, a fast-growing area of payments which has benefited from a coronavirus-related boost.
The company’s success is in part due to the fact that it runs everything on a single, internally developed software platform. Eschewing growth through mergers and acquisitions, Adyen has an advantage over its competitors, which mainly rely on disparate, aged systems that originated 20-30 years ago in banks. These firms are unable to match Adyen’s structure, speed of innovation, pricing or technical features, which means it has the potential to make further gains in market share as the pandemic accelerates the shift towards a cashless society.
Supply chains: streamlined solutions
The crisis has also brought into sharp focus the world’s reliance on global supply chains. Supply cannot always keep up with an uptick in demand – something we saw with the shortages of personal-protective equipment at the peak of the crisis. As countries closed their borders, businesses and consumers considered using domestic suppliers or moving their operations closer to home – both of which are complex and costly processes.
However, the pandemic has also emphasised how supply chains could benefit from digital transformation – a trend that SAP, a leading provider of enterprise resource planning software and a holding across our European Equity strategies, is positioned to benefit from.
SAP helps companies use data-driven insights to solve key challenges. By injecting predictive insights and leveraging technologies like AI, the internet of things and analytics across the value chain, SAP helps to reimagine the entire business process. The importance of SAP’s products has become even more apparent in recent months, as its insights have helped its customers deal with disrupted supply chains, restricted travel and the new ways of working.
For example, SAP HANA helps its customers dynamically adjust their supply chains by predicting demand and pipelines – a valuable tool when economies are in lockdown. It also simplifies and automates the planning process across supply chains, accelerating timings and improving the accuracy of decisions. SAP also uses its Qualtrics product to provide real-time insights into trending behaviours, which has helped firms identify and react to changes brought about by the pandemic.
Expanding bandwidth: a clear opportunity
The crisis has had a transformative effect on the corporate world. It has shone a light on areas of weakness in company business models and industry supply chains, while simultaneously bringing about a paradigm shift in consumer behaviour and company operations. The pandemic has removed many of the behavioural barriers associated with using online infrastructure to work from home and has emphasised the need for companies to put digital transformation at the heart of their strategies.
The disruption brought about by the crisis has also made it more vital than ever that companies are well managed, adaptable and innovative – traits that we have long sought to identify. With its focus on unrecognised and enduring change, our European Equity team inevitably has a preference for disruptive companies that are driving or enabling structural growth trends – those we believe should be best-placed to succeed in an increasingly digitalised post-virus world.