How do medium-sized enterprises handle Covid-19?

iGMO partners EY and KBC on how the past year tested companies’ resilience

Yannick Dillen

Yannick Dillen

Lecturer of Entrepreneurship

Hans Crijns

By Hans Crijns

Professor of Entrepreneurship

04 May 2021

In March 2020, Covid-19 instantly became a hot topic at the Impulse Centre Growth Management for Medium-Sized Enterprises – iGMO for short. Business managers and CEOs had plenty of questions. How should they deal with the pandemic? How could they limit the damage? And what could they learn from each other? We sat down with iGMO partners EY and KBC to discuss how the virus tested companies’ resilience unexpectedly, the pandemic’s long-term consequences and, of course, the ‘club’ that has managed to remain relevant like no other, ever after almost 30 years. A conversation about ‘familial fuzziness’ and rediscovering the joys of entrepreneurship.

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You recently renewed your iGMO Corporate Partnership, reaffirming your belief in the network’s strength.

Gert Van Craenenbroeck, General Manager Corporate Banking Region Flanders - Antwerp at KBC: “That’s right. KBC doesn’t take its partnerships lightly, and iGMO is no exception. But we still firmly believe in everything we said during the interview about our previous renewal. iGMO remains a very interesting ecosystem with a unique dynamic that allows participants to enrich each other by sharing knowledge and experiences. It’s one of the few networks KBC Corporate Banking gains so much from, precisely because it allows us to interact so closely with our target group and offers us an informal sounding board that tells us how the world perceives us.”

Marc Cosaert, Partner at EY: “We feel the same way. EY has a similar experience of the network. We were involved in iGMO from day one in 1993. Three elements remain particularly valuable for us today: the topics and themes our staff get to learn more about, which really touch upon the heart of our role as advisors to our clients; the network of 200+ members iGMO allows us to have a privileged relationship with; and our fondness for Vlerick as a partner.”

Yannick Dillen, Senior Researcher: “I was only five years old when iGMO was founded (laughs), so I haven’t been involved quite as long as the others. This means I see the network through different eyes. What strikes me the most is the closeness between its members. There’s no false positivity or pretending: it’s a community of like-minded souls who are willing to be vulnerable, who don’t hesitate to share experiences and ask each other for advice.”

Hans Crijns, Professor of Entrepreneurship: “I’m happy to hear you say that, Yannick. As I was preparing for this conversation, I asked myself why iGMO has managed to remain so relevant. I realised that the reason – other than its combination of academic and pragmatic features – was something I can only describe as ‘familial fuzziness’ (chuckles). iGMO is based on like-mindedness rather than competition or jealousy. We’re all in this together. How can we help each other along? Our entrepreneurs also feel reassured by our three-dimensional view on their world: the idea that it can be exciting and enriching to bring academics, bankers and advisors together. Add to that the experience of other entrepreneurs, and you can see exactly what makes iGMO so interesting.”

iGMO is based on like-mindedness rather than competition or jealousy. We’re all in this together. How can we help each other along?
Hans Crijns
Director of iGMO and partner at Vlerick

That closeness has allowed you to keep a finger on the pulse among entrepreneurs, including this past year. What are your main takeaways?

Patrick Couttenier, General Manager Family Capital Solutions at KBC: “The ‘familial fuzziness’ Professor Crijns just mentioned is an important dimension, and something we had to do without these past twelve months. Spontaneously sharing experiences or casually networking with a drink in hand was impossible. Of course, we tried to make up for that by offering digital alternatives, because it remains crucial to learn from each other, especially during a crisis like this. Seeing iGMO members support each other in our WhatsApp group, celebrating success together or simply staying in touch really warms my heart. It’s just a wonderful community people enjoy being part of.”

Yannick Dillen: “The pandemic highlighted how strong the iGMO community is, but it also taught us other things – like how to be even more flexible. Belgium went into lockdown op 13 March. On 18 March, we hosted our first iGMO webinar. By now, we know exactly how to set up a digital working group on a specific topic or organise a webinar or survey, all in no time. Precisely because face-to-face meetings are harder or even impossible to organise, we now have to take extra care to ensure everyone who’s interested can access our learnings.”

Marc Cosaert: “True. We have to keep holding up a mirror to our members, comparing their experiences to those of their peers to benchmark within the group. But we also have to go beyond that and challenge each other. That’s the only way we’ll be able to help each other along, as Professor Crijns put it.”

Patrick Couttenier: “Never underestimate the strength of group dynamics. That’s a typical trait of family businesses: they like to compare themselves to their competitors, and rightly so. No one wants to fall behind their peers (laughs).”

Never underestimate the strength of group dynamics. No one wants to fall behind their peers.
Patrick Couttenier
General Manager Family Capital Solutions at KBC

Hans Crijns: “Let’s also take a minute to reflect on how well our iGMO members actually did these past months. Half of them have even found that the EBITDA and turnover they budgeted for are in line with their EBITDA and turnover so far during the first quarter of 2021. A mere 3% fear the pandemic will force them to permanently make some employees redundant. There’s no doubt about it: our medium-sized companies are resilient, even during an unprecedented crisis like this one.”

Gert Van Craenenbroeck: “The vast majority of family-owned businesses reacted swiftly, appropriately and decisively to the crisis, managing their organisation, costs, supply chain and liquidity well. Of course, some sectors, like the catering & accommodation and the events sectors, received a punishing blow, with the government going to great pains to help them. There’s no way around that. But on the whole, companies managed to remain profitable even in this annus horribilis. And that’s a feat to truly be proud of.”

The vast majority of family businesses reacted swiftly, appropriately and decisively to the crisis. That’s a feat to truly be proud of.
Gert Van Craenenbroeck
General Manager Corporate Banking Region Flanders - Antwerp at KBC

Will there be a lasting impact on the way medium-sized enterprises work?

Yannick Dillen: “Looking at the results of our most recent survey (March 2021), I’d say yes, definitely. We asked iGMO’s members about their post-coronavirus reality. More than 100 of them responded. Our most striking findings? Many companies are really exploring mobility and digitalisation. They’re reconsidering how they’re conducting sales, for example, and there’s a different approach to meetings and teleworking. Innovation now also tops the agenda: 7 in 10 iGMO members are analysing the changes in customer behaviour they witnessed this past year. And finally, 60% of CEOs say they’ll be changing the way they run their company because of the pandemic – especially by communicating more and staying ahead of the game.”

Many are really exploring mobility and digitalisation. Innovation also tops the agenda.
Yannick Dillen
Senior Researcher at Vlerick

Hans Crijns: “I’m not surprised. That approach really fits the profile of the inveterate entrepreneurs most CEOs of medium-sized companies are. No wonder 8 out of 10 responded they’d felt more energy during the crisis, were keen to roll up their sleeves and happy to take on a more active role.”

Marc Cosaert: “We too noticed how Covid-19 has been a catalyst for people, making them consider the bigger, long-term picture. I tend to think of it as ‘the upside of disruption’. Climate change, globalisation, demographic changes, technology, patterns of consumption, work-life balance, … The pandemic has made us rethink not just business models, but societal models too. Entrepreneurs are being confronted with bigger questions. What trends do I want to follow? What are my next steps? Do I want to take those alone or am I looking for partnerships? These are fascinating times (laughs).”

Covid-19 functions like a catalyst. I think of it as ‘the upside of disruption’.
Marc Cosaert
Partner at EY

Hans Crijns: “Precisely! And it’s a topic iGMO is actively working on. We’re not just discussing management and skills, but new trends and themes as well.”

Patrick Couttenier: “And our iGMO members really value that. Even if they themselves haven’t yet had to grapple with a certain trend or theme, chances are their customers and/or suppliers – who are often multinationals – are already fully embracing these evolutions.”

Final question: what does the future hold for iGMO?

Hans Crijns: “We started back in 1993, with a small group of just 12 entrepreneurs. Then things took on a life of their own. Along the way, we broadened and deepened our scope. And we’ll keep doing so. But it’s crucial we don’t lose sight of who we set out to be.”

Gert Van Craenenbroeck: “I fully agree. Because the intimacy that makes iGMO so unique can only be maintained by conscious onboarding and quality control along the entire chain.”

Patrick Couttenier: “Every two years, about 20 new entrepreneurs qualify to join iGMO. That influx remains important. We aim for diversity in terms of age, gender, location and sector, but we also consciously recruit new founders. Due to iGMO’s level of maturity, we’re starting to see a difference between the ‘old hands’ and the younger generation, for example. The interplay between those two is simultaneously a challenge, because their expectations can differ, and very enriching.”

Marc Cosaert: “Allowing iGMO to grow is important for the network’s continuity, but this growth should happen in a controlled fashion. The bigger the group, the more difficult it is to manage. Which is why I advocate a hybrid model, whereby we alternatively offer plenary sessions and virtual sessions for smaller groups. Content-wise, I can see iGMO exploring global trends. These days, a company’s value can no longer be expressed in purely financial terms: qualitative KPIs like sustainability and social aspects are becoming increasingly important.”

Gert Van Craenenbroeck: “Which is why it’s so important to deepen our scope, to set up smaller groups to zoom in on different issues that may serve as long-term incentives for managers. That’s how we help medium-sized companies become more resilient. Because they’re not just facing Covid-19: there are other challenges too, like Brexit or the environment.”

Hans Crijns: “Indeed. And of course, we’ll also make sure to spend sufficient time on academic research. iGMO’s annual Belgian High-Growth Monitor is just one example. iGMO’s familial fuzziness not only provides a nice, warm nest, it also teaches you a lot as an entrepreneur (laughs).”

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Anne Salenbien

Anne Salenbien

Head of Corporate Relations