As predictions of a nascent global economic recovery swirl, companies that survived the downturn face a new hurdle: positioning their pared-down operations to capitalize on an upturn. After all, the post-recovery world will be a very different place.
Shellshocked by a dramatic drop followed by nearly 18 months of turbulence, markets remain skittish. Consumer spending is on the rise, but still relatively reserved. And, at many companies, employee morale is still reeling from weathering drastic cost-cutting and painful layoffs.
At a time when the rules of the game are changing and every advantage counts, CEOs participating in the 11th annual CEO2CEO Summit held at the New York Stock Exchange shared their views about adjusting to the changing realities of the global marketplace. "The good news is that corporate earnings are up because we've all gotten a lot leaner and meaner," Duncan Niederauer, CEO of the New York Stock Exchange, told business leaders. "The bad news is that I don't know a single company that has more employees than it did 18 months ago--and a consumer-led recovery is hard to imagine with the number of people who are out of work right now."
Niederauer sketched his vision of a slow, moderate economic recovery shaped like the "Nike swoosh," and predicted a robust first quarter. But he also expressed concern about the prospect of overregulation by policymakers reacting to the financial crisis. "I think that there's a real risk of the government overreaching, he says. "We need to fight very hard to keep policymakers from having the pendulum swing so far that we're federalizing the boardroom. I don't think that's good for America. I don't think that's good for our competitiveness. But most importantly, it's not necessary."
Several CEOs also expressed concern about the public's perception of CEOs, which has seemingly eroded to the point where business leaders arc viewed practically on par with criminals. Bob Nardelli CEO of Cerberus Operating and Advisory Company, candidly noted that while some of the criticism being leveled at business leaders may be warranted, the change in sentiment is both out of line with reality and potentially damaging. "When you look at earnings restatements and abuses of perks--we probably brought some of it on ourselves," he said. "Should we think about some things differently? Yes. Have we been as a group broadly brushed? I think the answer is yes. I haven't found too many scoundrels in the CEO ranks."