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How can companies become future-ready? 8 CEOs explain

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Get future-ready: How can SMEs build resilience while becoming generators of long-term value that benefits society? Image: Unsplash/@mikofilm

Julia Devos
Head of Business, Growth and Operations; Head of New Champions, World Economic Forum
Zishu Chen
Engagement Specialist, Strategic Intelligence, World Economic Forum Beijing
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Small and Medium Sized Enterprises

This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting

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  • SMEs are key drivers of the global economy and sustainable development objectives.
  • The Forum’s Future-ready SMEs report focuses on a global assessment of future-readiness and identifies key drivers for success.
  • Members of the Forum’s New Champions Community have taken a wide range of approaches to create future-ready companies.

Small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) are integral to the global economic and social fabric. As such, it is important to understand how these companies can build resilience to external shocks, while also setting themselves up as generators of long-term value that benefits society at large.

Have you read?

After an in-depth analysis of more than 200 peer-reviewed articles and engagement with over 300 chief executive officers and founders of SMEs, a report published by the World Economic Forum established three pillars of future-readiness: sustainable growth, societal impact, and adaptive capacity. SMEs can also assess their companies’ future-readiness using the World Economic Forum’s benchmarking tool.

The World Economic Forum’s New Champions community is a group of mid-sized companies championing new models, emerging technologies and sustainable growth strategies. These organisations are leaders in using the three pillars to become future-ready.

We asked some of their CEOs to share what they think about how to be future-ready:

1. Sustainable growth

Digital strategy drives growth

Mohammed Akoojee, CEO, Imperial Logistics, South Africa

As an Africa-focused provider of integrated market access and logistics solutions, we are becoming a larger player in our industry. We are faced with challenges, such as intermediation and the entry of new competitors with highly innovative and disruptive operating models.

Our digital strategy is foundational to our ability to capture new opportunities, become data-driven, amplify value, differentiate, meet and anticipate our clients' needs, and innovate.

R&D at the core of the business

Zhao Yan, CEO, Bloomage Biotech, China

We are a company that applies biotech inventions for better health, with basic research and development at our core for more than 20 years. In 2011, our scientists invented enzymatic digestion, which enables the controlling of molecular weight of hyaluronic acid and unlocks more possibilities for industrial adoption.

We believe there are two core elements to being future-ready: we continuously push our innovation capabilities while maintaining a strong operating profit. These two aspects combined are major drivers of our continued vitality and growth as a company.

Identifying and de-risking market gaps

Joost Zuidberg, CEO, Cardano Development, the Netherlands

As an incubator, developer and fund manager of scaled and pioneering financial risk management solutions in frontier markets, our services and products aim to absorb risks and remove barriers for domestic or international investors to participate in inclusive and sustainable economic growth.

We believe that well-developed and resilient financial markets are key to ensuring future-readiness for local businesses and society. Our work focuses on dealing with the urgency of addressing the SDG funding gap, which is estimated at $2.5 trillion and has increased by around 70% since the start of the pandemic. Enhancing these capital flows is essential for long-term inclusive growth.

"We believe that for internet business, it is by anticipating change and by innovating that we stay ahead and grow."

Ben Crawford, CEO, CentralNic Group

Driven by innovation, staying ahead and continuing to grow

Ben Crawford, CEO, CentralNic Group, the United Kingdom

We have been at the forefront of the digital revolution, helping businesses, governments and even some nations to realise their aspirations online. We believe that for internet business, it is by anticipating change and by innovating that we stay ahead and grow.

The very nature of innovation is to do things differently from how they have been done in the past. One strategy to improve innovation culture is to recruit from other industries such as fashion – an industry that reinvents itself every season. I see that as an ongoing opportunity to drive innovation.

2. Societal impact

Embedding SDG goals in strategies, culture and operations

José Carlos Junqueira S. Meirelles, Partner, Pinheiro Neto Advogados, Brazil

We are a Brazilian law firm engaged in social responsibility initiatives. As a signatory to the UN Global Compact, we have upheld our commitment to 10 universal principles on human rights, labour, environment and anti-corruption, alongside the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

This has enhanced our future-readiness by embedding practices, values and SDGs into our strategies, culture and operations, while also increasing transparency in our corporate social responsibility actions, and generating long-term value for our firm and society at large.

"We believe focusing our business on a major world challenge makes us future-ready."

Zhang Xiangdong, CEO, Organic & Beyond

Focusing on a key challenge to carbon neutrality

Zhang Xiangdong, CEO, Organic & Beyond, China

We pioneer the business of organic agriculture in China. Agriculture is one of the eight key areas for achieving carbon neutrality, with approximately 21-37% of total greenhouse gas emissions attributable to the food system.

The challenges to the development of organic agriculture include a lack of awareness of this sector’s contribution to carbon neutrality, a lack of structural big data and unscientific carbon emissions calculations. At the same time, there are many opportunities. Organic agriculture makes up for the shortcomings of traditional agriculture in terms of protecting biodiversity, improving soil quality and preserving water quality. We believe focusing our business on a major world challenge makes us future-ready.

3. Adaptive capacity

Thinking long-term and acting fast

Henrik Ekelund, Founder & CEO, BTS Group, Sweden

In times of crisis, the default approach can be to think short-term but still act too slowly. When COVID-19 spread to Italy in February 2020, I knew our company – a global consultancy for which in-person workshops represented 70% of our business – would face a survival crisis with huge long-term impacts.

Our action plan surprised many people and was different from our competitors. We committed to keeping 100% of our 1,200 people employed with no salary cuts, we pivoted our business to digital, switched sales strategy, and built a big reserve of cash by postponing dividends, bonuses and taking loans. While we initially lost 70% of our revenues, 2021 became a new record year, with a 20% increase in revenue and profit compared to 2019. Agility and resilience were key to our adaptive capacity and made us future-ready.


How is the World Economic Forum helping companies track their positive contributions towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals?

Using technology as a force for good

Stanislas Bocquet, CEO, PALO IT, Hong Kong

We are a global innovation consultancy and agile software development company dedicated to helping organisations embrace tech as a force for good. The last two years have represented a massive challenge for most businesses, but crises are always a history accelerator

I believe what makes us unique is our market position at the intersection of two megatrends – digital transformation and the circular economy. By shifting our own priorities and skillsets, we have started to inspire others with much bigger footprints. What was initially a challenge led us to a greater long-term opportunity to become a game-changing actor in the much-needed area of transformation.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

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Forum InstitutionalSustainable DevelopmentStakeholder Capitalism
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Institutional update

World Economic Forum

May 21, 2024

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