Asia’s corporate landscape is changing rapidly and the role and priorities of CEOs may need to evolve.
Looking beyond the human and economic devastation of COVID-19, top of mind for Asia’s corporate leaders is how to tackle weaknesses in performance that preceded the pandemic, and how to position themselves for success in an era that may be volatile, shaped by accelerating technological change, and influenced by the existential threat of climate change.
For all the undoubted dynamism of the region and significant growth in Asian corporations on the back of a huge wave of capital investment, there has been weakness in value creation. In the decade before the pandemic, $1 of every $2 in new global investment went to companies in Asia—and $1 in $3 to China alone. However, more companies in the region destroyed economic value than created it. Asia had more “troubled” companies (those with deep economic profit losses) and fewer economic champions, and the pandemic widened the gap between leaders and laggards.
Nevertheless, corporate Asia proved to be resilient in the face of the shock of the pandemic, expanding profits. As economies continue to rebound, there appears to be considerable momentum that can enable leading companies to use the pandemic as a catalyst for enhanced performance. But there is another imperative, too: playing a broader role in society. In Asia and elsewhere, the role of companies not only in economies but in societies has become a prominent theme. Perhaps more than ever before, companies are being scrutinized for how seriously they take their responsibilities to the full range of stakeholders, not only customers and suppliers, but also citizens and governments.
To win in the Asian century, companies in Asia need to build new capabilities to thrive in a radically different world—and play their full role in the health of societies. The question is how. In this article, we first explore the evolving corporate landscape in Asia, and then discuss five themes that emerged most strongly from a series of interviews with CEOs in the region that can determine success or failure in the period ahead, exploring priorities.
Asia’s corporate landscape is becoming more competitive
Companies are of huge importance to economies, accounting for 72 percent of GDP in Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) advanced economies, according to previous MGI research. The role of business has been growing in line with overall economic growth, as a result contributing to a tripling of real per capita GDP since 1960 in major OECD economies. Moreover, in a world economy increasingly shaped by technology, companies have accounted for 85 percent of technology investment and 85 percent of labor productivity growth since 1995, an even larger contribution than they make to GDP. Within Asia, business sectors in South Korea and Japan have made a larger contribution to the economy than the OECD average in terms of value added, total production, employment levels, stock of information and communications technologies, and R&D expenditure, for example.
Companies make an enormous contribution to households. Their biggest direct contribution comes from being employers. We analyzed our data set of parent companies headquartered in OECD countries with annual revenue exceeding $1 billion. In OECD economies, the average large corporation (of more than $1 billion in revenue) pays one-quarter of its revenue—$0.25 of every $1—to its workforce as wages and benefits. Companies also create revenue for other companies. Just over half of every dollar of corporate revenue—$0.58—goes to suppliers, which then goes into wages, investments, and profits of these companies. Another way that companies contribute is by creating consumer surplus through the goods and services they provide, worth an estimated $0.40 for every $1 of corporate revenue. In advanced Asian economies, economic value pathways from companies to households are close to OECD averages with about $0.03 to $0.04 more going to supplier payments than to labor and capital. The labor pathway (through wages and benefits) in emerging Asian economies is much lower, for example about $0.10 in Malaysia.
But companies vary a great deal in the role they play, and the impact they have. MGI’s research identified eight archetypes based on inputs including labor and capital (both physical and intangible); how they create economic value, for instance through their cost structure or level of R&D spending); and their relative impact. The eight archetypes are (1) discoverers such as biotech firms that push scientific frontiers; (2) technologists, including IT companies and digital platforms; (3) experts, including, for instance, professional services, hospitals, and universities; (4) deliverers that distribute sell products; (5) makers (manufacturers); (6) builders, including utility, transportation, and chemicals companies; (7) fuelers, largely energy companies; and (8) financiers, including banks and investors. Discoverers and technologists tend to have higher R&D intensity and margins than other archetypes while deliverers, makers, and builders make important contributions as employers.
The mix of archetypes is changing in OECD economies as the result of broad trends such as a shift to services and the knowledge economy and away from manufacturing, and also widespread technological adoption. Between 1994–96 and 2016–18, the share of makers declined from 38 to 25 percent and builders from 19 to 16 percent. In contrast, the share of financiers rose from 10 to 15 percent, and experts from 2 to 6 percent.
In previous MGI research, we identified four clusters of Asia economies that we call the Four Asias, and the corporate mix is changing in different ways in each (Exhibit 1):
In Advanced Asia, makers accounted for 42 percent of revenue in 2016–18, far higher than the US share of 17 percent and Western European share of 23 percent. The share of discoverers and technologists in Advanced Asia has been stable at around 10 percent, about half the US share.
In China, the share of financiers declined from 52 to 20 percent during this period while the share of makers increased from 10 to 28 percent, and builders from 13 to 25 percent, reflecting China becoming the “world’s factory” and massive infrastructure building. At the same time, however, as China has become a center of innovation, the share of discoverers, technologists, and experts has increased from 5 to 10 percent, reflecting the growth of technology and professional companies.
In Emerging Asia, the share of makers fell sharply from 43 to 17 percent, while the share of fuelers jumped from 3 to 33 percent, partly reflecting the developing resource and energy sector.
In India whose economy is diversifying and modernizing, the share of makers declined sharply, from 34 to 21 percent, and fuelers, from 39 to 28 percent. However, the share of builders has jumped from 7 to 24 percent, and technologists, experts, and financiers also increased their share.
Companies need five key capabilities to win in the Asian century
As the corporate landscape becomes more competitive and differentiation between archetypes increases, firms will need to build new capabilities to win in the Asian century. We have interviewed many CEOs in the region, and five themes stand out from those discussions.
1. Capitalize on the power of data and technology to win in the borderless economy
Digitization offers fertile ground for value creation by corporate Asia, which is adopting technologies faster than anywhere else in the world. Their spread is enabled by a relatively fluid system across borders, and digitally savvy consumers are not only generating vast pools of data, but appear more willing than their counterparts in other regions to share them.
The spread of digital technologies is a global phenomenon, but it is unfolding in Asia at unprecedented pace and on a huge scale. In the ten years before the pandemic, the region accounted for 52 percent of global growth in technology company revenue, 43 percent of global growth in startup funding, and accounted for 87 percent of global growth in patent filings.
Digitization of consumer markets is blurring boundaries between industries across the world. However, Asia’s digitizing landscape is also arguably more fluid and “borderless” with a less rigid industry structure than in other regions. This means that there may be more room to shape that landscape and leapfrog in Asia. The phenomenon of “superapps” is much more prevalent in Asia than in western economies; having been pioneered in China, they are spreading across the region as its economies increasingly integrate. Leading technology companies are offering superapps that offer cross-sector solutions, from commerce to mobility, healthcare, finance, entertainment, and social networks, to name a few. This blurring of boundaries implies that corporate leaders need to develop ways of working within (or leading) ecosystems, including, for instance, expanding their user base, building complementary competences through partnership, and making the most out of data. The Chairman of one financial institution described the philosophy behind his company’s app, “Whatever you imagine in terms of your daily needs, whatever you need to do, you should be able to do on one single platform.”
Asia’s potential to reap the benefits of digitization is being fueled by some of the most digitally savvy consumers in the world, and Asian technology leaders have served them by commercializing new solutions rapidly, offering complementary cross-sector services across multiple touchpoints and reaping even more network effects.
Digitally engaged individuals are plentiful at both ends of the age spectrum in Asia. The number of Asian seniors (aged 60 and over) is expected to grow by around 40 percent between 2020 and 2030, contributing more than 60 percent of consumption growth. Seniors are rapidly going online. By 2030, almost 100 percent of seniors in Australia, Japan, and South Korea are expected to be online, while, by conservative projections, the share in China is expected to exceed two-thirds. The pandemic accelerated this trend. By the end of 2020, seniors accounted for 11 percent of the total internet population, a jump from 6 percent in March 2020, according to the China Internet Network Information Centre. Looking at the young, digital natives (born between 1980 and 2021) conduct their lives online and digitally; they are expected to account for as much as 50 percent of the region’s consumption by 2030.
COVID-19 accelerated digitization and automation. The Asian Development Bank said that digital platforms and other technology-based tool could contribute significantly to sustainable recovery in the region from the pandemic. In Singapore, DBS Bank experienced a 400 percent surge in consumer use of digital tools. At Ping An, investments in artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning have enabled the company’s motor insurance division to optimize resource deployment while achieving annual growth of 50 percent.
The digitization of Asian economies is generating a vast pool of data and companies in the region appear to be in a good position to monetize the value of data. The Omnia network estimates that China’s data consumption may grow ninefold between 2017 and 2024, for example. Monetizing such data appears to benefit both firms, which have new ways to market, sell, and provide services, and consumers who often receive these services free or for low charges.
Over the coming decade, CEOs will need to develop capabilities to use the power of technology continuously to drive cross-sectoral opportunities and monetize the value from the massive pool of data that is being generated, while striking the right balance between reaping monetary rewards from the data and respecting intellectual property (IP) and consumers’ concerns about data privacy.
It is notable that Asian consumers tend to be more willing to share data with service providers than their western counterparts. A 2021 Euromonitor survey found that in China, India, and Thailand, more than 45 percent of respondents said that they share data for personalized offers, compared with less than 30 percent in, for instance, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom. Despite this, there is growing concern among consumers about risks to privacy and the ability to control their own data. In response to public discomfort, regulation of the use of data are evolving rapidly across Asia, and CEOs need to be cognizant of this changing landscape and strive to balance the economic benefits of using exploding data pools with being sensitive to risk.
2. Square the sustainability and growth circle, and lead the energy transition now
The challenge of achieving growth in a sustainable (and inclusive way) is a challenge for CEOs around the world. But propelling growth even while promoting sustainability is arguably a more complex balancing act in Asia than elsewhere.
Many Asian economies are still in the “developing” stage, and the most pressing priority for many businesses is accelerating growth, vaulting more people out of poverty, and creating employment particularly in the wake of the pandemic. The Asian Development Bank estimates that the number of people living in poverty (living on less than $3.20 a day) may have increased by 170 million in 2020.
Asian companies need to generate sufficient profit to fund future growth. Before the pandemic, profitability was a challenge in Asia. An abundance of cheap capital had led to falling returns around the world. Globally, economic profits fell, from $726 billion in 2005–07 to a loss of $34 billion in 2015–17. Asia experienced a swing in economic profits from $150 billion to a loss of $207 billion. This was more than half the global deterioration.
At the same time, Asian economies are arguably more exposed to physical climate risks than any other region. Under a high-emissions RCP 8.5 global warming scenario, by 2050, between 600 million and one billion people in Asia could be living in areas with a nonzero annual probability of lethal heat waves. GDP at risk in Asia accounts for more than two-thirds of the total annual global GDP impact. About $1.2 trillion in capital stock in Asia could be damaged by riverine flooding in a given year by 2050, equivalent to about 75 percent of the global impact.
Pressure on businesses and governments to embrace sustainability is growing among consumers, investors, and employees, particularly the young. A 2020 McKinsey survey asked if respondents perceived sustainable packaging as more important than they did before COVID19, and more than half of respondents in China, India, and Indonesia said that they were more concerned, a higher proportion than among their counterparts in Europe and the United States. In a 2020 Ipsos survey, between 37 and 43 percent of respondents in Asia said they were “much more worried” about climate change than they had been a year earlier, compared with 18 to 27 percent in North America and 19 to 24 percent in Europe.
Around the world, expectations on the role of business is rising. At the start of 2020, threequarters of respondents in the trust barometer run by Edelman said they expected companies to lead change, rather than respond only when governments insist. Regulators and businesses are responding. Five countries in Asia have passed laws or proposed legislation mandating net-zero emissions, and 15 have put net-zero emissions into policy documents, according to one nonprofit organization. A rising number of companies in Asia have been setting, or committing to setting, a science-based target for emissions reduction: 33 companies did so in 2018, 60 in 2019, 107 in 2020, and more than 260 in November 2021.
Asian CEOs who can strike the fine balance between growth and profitability on the one hand, and sustainability on the other, have an opportunity to turn the challenge of sustainability into new investment, innovation, growth, and talent-attraction opportunities. Even in cases where the scientific case for investment in climate stabilization or mitigation is evident, many CEOs will need to negotiate a range of trade-offs not only between short-term shareholder value and environmental commitments, but also the impact of climate risk mitigation on a broader range of stakeholders. Among the challenges that may face CEOS are finding where corporate responsibility ends and where the responsibility lies with governments and other societal institutions of our society. There may well be cases where eliminating a “high-emissions” product line costs jobs in the community where the company is located. How can the right balance be struck?
For all the complexity of striking the right balance, there are very large opportunities in Asia. Asia is in a relatively strong position to play a critical role in the global energy transition. In the case of renewable energy, which is expected to account for an estimated 40 percent of average annual global energy investments until 2025, China and India have the highest and the fourth-highest installed capacity globally. These two economies also have the lowest cost of solar and onshore wind energy, and are expected to be responsible for most of the global growth in solar and wind, the two energy forms expected to make up more than 80 percent of new cumulative renewable additions to global energy capacity from 2018 to 2040.
There will be new investment opportunities, too. To reach net zero emissions by 2050, McKinsey estimates that spending on physical assets needs to increase by 60 percent, from an estimated $5.7 trillion today to $9.2 trillion. Asia is expected to represent a large share of global investment. Clearly, companies, alongside governments, will need to make bold resource reallocations; energy companies will, over time, reinvent themselves as renewable energy companies. Focusing on renewables and clean tech is an opportunity to create investment and jobs—and mitigate risk.
3. Create scale through organic growth, alliances, and M&A
Scale matters, but Asia creates it in somewhat different ways than their Western counterparts. Asian corporations tend to favor alliance- and ecosystem-building more than M&A to create a virtuous cycle from scale by maximizing the value of ecosystems and using the complementary strengths of different types of Asian economies. However, there is an open question whether such organic and alliance-based approaches will be sufficient; Asia’s CEOs may need to up their game on M&A in parallel.
Scale across different geographies can enable companies take advantage of Asia’s complementary strengths. For instance, Advanced Asia and China can offer substantial IP, technology know how, and capital. Rapidly growing Emerging Asia and India and Frontier Asia offer attractive market growth and deployment opportunities. Many CEOs we interviewed said that they have established an R&D and operational footprint across the region to localize and adapt to the local environment while maintaining consistency with global branding and reputation.
Over the past decade alone, Asian companies have increased their share of the G5000—the world’s largest 5,000 largest firms by revenue—by six percentage points to stand at 43 percent today. That is larger than any other region. This scaling up of corporate Asia has conferred considerable benefits on the economies of the region, including stable employment growth, rising incomes, and consumer benefits in the form of, for instance, lower prices and more available and competitive products. As noted in MGI’s 2018 research, a pro-growth agenda coupled with highly competitive large firms has been a source of considerable success for Asia.
However, we are now entering a decade that is arguably characterized by an unusual degree of uncertainty and dynamic change across Asia, and scaling up businesses organically may not be sufficient. Rather, companies should strive to create a virtuous cycle by scaling beyond their own borders and in a strategic way, specifically driving external alliances and programmatic M&A to acquire new capabilities, achieving technological advantage through scale in a digital ecosystem, and maximizing the benefits that come from the complementary nature of the constituent economies of Asia by ensuring the most effective geographic coverage.
The virtuous cycle of scale can be especially valuable in digital ecosystems, for instance by generating the large volume of data that can support the improvement of a company’s machine-learning, analytics, and other digital technologies. True Corporation, a telecommunications player in Thailand, set up True Digital, a digital and analytics unit designed to lead the digital transformation of the entire group and become an innovation hub within a digital ecosystem comprised of a broad range of partners. By integrating services to many aspects of consumers’ lives, including communications, mobility, retail, commerce, and entertainment, the company generates insights that can be used by its ecosystem partners. For instance, they can use the data to design effective promotion campaigns and optimize retail footprint. Collaboration with companies with vast pool of data could open up new opportunities. In China, US-based Vanguard and Ant Group formed a joint venture to offer investment advisory services with a deliberately low minimum investment requirement, for example.
By any measure, Asia’s model for corporate growth, centered on three models for collaboration, namely data sharing, coalition building, and pioneering superapp platforms, appears to be effective in forging external alliances. In Vietnam, three of the largest companies—Masan Group, Techcombank, and Vingroup—partnered to form One Mount Group, the country’s largest ecosystem. The group formed Vinshop explicitly to capture value in the BSB2C market by addressing inefficiencies. In India, Practo became one of the first healthcare platforms that connects hospital-based physicians to patients via video and pone, and then expanded into delivering medicines, managing electronic health records, and medical insurance. Chinese tech leaders forged a model focused on adopting a more open data architecture designed to create ecosystem value—value from shared functionality that cannot be created by any one company on its own. For instance, Alibaba’s Freshippo enables established brands and lesser-known Chinese small and medium-size enterprises to share data in hybrid online/offline supermarkets. Another approach is to build coalition in pursuit of broad “whole-of-society” goals, one recent example being collaboration among technology and finance companies to manage information flows related to the pandemic. These coalitions are often driven by state guidelines or other non-market actors that lay out an overarching goal for the industry.
Successful exponents of programmatic M&A are proactive allocators of their capital. A McKinsey survey showed that they are 1.7 times more likely than others to reallocate M&A capital regularly to business units that align the most with the company’s strategy, and 1.5 times more likely to say which assets to sell as well as to buy. Agility is vital in Asia’s extraordinarily dynamic markets, and portfolios need constantly to be on the move.
4. Put speed and agility at the center of the organization
Leadership is highly contested in Asia. Companies operate in highly dynamic markets that are growing rapidly against a backdrop of digital disruption and rapidly evolving consumer demands. Operating under unrelenting pressure in high-churn environments, Asian leaders have learned to move fast and be agile. Speed and agility became even more vital characteristics during the COVID-19 pandemic. CEOs should look to strengthen these attributes not only during crises, but for the long haul.
MGI analyzed 5,000 large companies and how they performed on the global “power curve” over the past decade. Only about one-third of firms in the top quintile in China, India, and emerging Asia were able to protect their position over a period of ten years, compared with 53 percent in North America. Outperforming firms in Asia tend to be bolder and more agile in allocating resources, capital expenditure, and cost programs.
The pandemic caused unprecedented disruption and an even tougher environment for companies in Asia (and across the world). However, companies proved that they could be far more agile than perhaps many had expected was possible, fast-tracking innovation and decision making. In response to COVID-19, one Asian telecommunications company had to shut down its offshore call center and queuing time surged to an average of 36 hours. The company responded by asking retail staff to support call-center functions and switched on chatbot access for all its customers in new microsites in other offshore locations. Waiting times fell back to just a few minutes within a month.
In western economies and advanced Asia, new working models such as remote and hybrid work have been adopted. MGI research estimated that about 20 to 25 percent of workforces in advanced economies (for instance, France, Germany, Japan, Spain, the United Kingdom, and the United States). and 5 to 11 percent in developing economies (for instance, China and India) could work at home for between three and five days a week without incurring a loss of productivity. Some pioneers in emerging economies are also embracing the model. Indian IT services firm TCS, for instance, is aiming to have only 25 percent of its workforce present in the office to deliver 100 percent of productivity by 2025. New working models mean that organizations have much greater opportunity to access talent anywhere, anytime.
CEOs in Asia can prioritize the continuous development of the workforce as AI tools, automation, and digital disruption spread. Automation and AI will bring significant disruption to the labor market and the pace of adoption appears to be accelerating. A McKinsey global survey of 800 senior executives in June 2020 found that two-thirds of respondents were stepping up investment in automation and AI either somewhat or significantly. By 2030, up to 220 million Chinese workers, or 30 percent of the workforce, may need to transition between occupations due to automation. That’s about 36 percent of all global transitions simulated by MGI’s future of work model.
In this new operational model, there is no alternative to 21st century companies empowering employees throughout the organization (which, of course, means training and the right incentives). McKinsey research has highlighted a “great attrition” occurring during the postpandemic recovery phase that is likely to persist—if not accelerate. Employees want a renewed and revised sense of purpose in their work as well as social and interpersonal connections with colleagues. One way to deepen relationships with employees will be to ensure lifelong learning opportunities and culture are built into the organization.
Companies may obtain a positive return from doing so. Research by SkillsFuture Singapore and the Ministry of Trade and Industry in Singapore suggests that a 10 percentage-point increase in the proportion of local workers sponsored for training by firms could produce a 0.7 percent increase in revenue in four years. Another study finds that lifelong learning is good for individuals’ health and social life. CEOs need to prepare employees for the disruptions that technology may bring to their roles and help them also achieve personal growth.
5. Live the purpose—and communicate you are doing so
Individuals with a clear sense of purpose thrive during crises and in normal times—so do companies. The role of purpose is becoming a more prominent topic for discussion in Asia, but what exactly is it? At the highest level, purpose defines why a company exists. It is a fundamental commitment that goes far beyond the quarterly profit statement. During the pandemic, the broader role of companies in their ecosystems and societies was thrown into sharp focus. For instance, in Australia BHP improved payments terms to help its suppliers. The CEOs with whom we spoke said a clearly defined purpose will continue to matter as companies pick up the pieces left by the pandemic. Another CEO of a leading bank we interviewed mentioned, “Being very clear about why you exist—the constructive role you play in society, in the community—is going to be extremely important for companies.”
McKinsey has summed up five vital components as the 5Ps: portfolio strategy and products; people and culture; processes and systems; performance metrics; and positions and engagement. Companies with a robust sense of purpose tend also to adopt environmental, social, and governance (ESG) into the core of decision making. How to embed ESG into every part of the organization is an important item on the CEO agenda. CEOs will need to create alignment on the purpose across all units of businesses and drive actions toward changing the organizational mindset from ESG less a source of cost to a source of competitive advantage.
CEOs in Asia talk about that sense of responsibility and purpose as the key to resilience and success in the postpandemic future. In a 2017 study by Stewardship Asia Centre of 200 successful and enduring family businesses in Asia Pacific, 80 percent of those surveyed said that their company had a clearly articulated purpose, and that this was crucial to the development of the organization.
In common with other regions of the world, Asia faces challenges related to a number of deep-rooted issues, including income, wealth, and gender inequality; climate risk; and corporate governance. The question is what role should corporations be playing in addressing such challenges? Around the world, the notion of stakeholder capitalism has returned to the fore and is being debated actively. In the United States, the Business Roundtable, which represents some 180 CEOs of large US firms, states that the purpose of a corporation is to “promote an economy that serves all Americans.”
In Asia, companies have often collaborated closely with governments; the developing of technology ecosystems is just one example. Such collaboration became even more mainstream during the pandemic. In the heat of the crisis, companies clearly saw themselves as responsible to a range of stakeholders, from employees to customers, suppliers, and even governments.
Purpose may be on the radar of Asian CEOs, but the evidence suggests that they are not communicating that purpose particularly effectively. A Conference Board analysis of 285 companies in Asia and their social media communications found that purpose was the topic of only 17 percent of volume in a 12-month period. In the case of local Asian companies, the share was only 15 percent, compared with 23 percent among multinational corporations, possibly indicating that purpose is more of a priority for global companies.
The Asian Century is well underway. The region is delivering on robust economic, but there is also disruption to existing business models and the corporate mix. What worked in past eras may no longer be fit for purpose in the next, and Asia’s corporate landscape is changing rapidly, shifting from makers toward services, digitizing, and climbing the value chain. Massive industrial firms are making way to hyper-globalized, technology-driven companies. Against this backdrop, the role and priorities of CEO needs to evolve, too. The five themes explored in this article are a starting point for rethinking what it takes to be a 21st century corporation in Asia.