Responding to a crisis: Managing a fund through a pandemic

Safely running a business in a pandemic is no easy feat for a company’s senior team. They require support from their investors to operate during difficult times. 

That was the task handed to CDC investee ICICI Venture, an alternative assets fund manager based in India, with investments in companies in the consumer, manufacturing and financial services sectors, at the start of the COVID pandemic.  

Initially the uncertainty about COVID forced the fund’s team to take some time to analyse what they expected the impact on portfolio companies to be, says ICICI’s Principal, Sharad Malpani 

“As the situation emerged, with increasing lockdown and higher number of cases, it became clear it was not going to stabilize in the near future and there needed to be a comprehensive plan developed for each portfolio company to resume operations,” he says. 

Given the range of sectors that the companies in the fund’s portfolio operated inthe team knew each would require a tailored response to mitigate the effects of the pandemic. 

For consumer companies, the impact was significant from the start of the crisis, as a result of a nationwide lockdown from late MarchIn contrast, manufacturing companies were able to continue operations after the country began to re-open, while prioritising the safety of their employees. Businesses providing essential services immediately developed effective business continuity policies to address and continue activities with minimal disruptions.  

Across the portfolio, a key focus for ICICI was ensuring companies had adequate resources, including financial resources, to minimise the pandemic’s impact on operations and manage the morale of employees. The team worked with portfolio companies to ensure necessary employee safety policies were put into place as quickly as possible.  During lockdown, the fund put in place COVIDsecure measures across portfolio companies, where necessary bringing on-board expert advice to assist in the process.  

“We shared CDC’s guidelines with our companies and the consultants,” says Gandhimadhy Varadarajan,  Vice Principal (Legal & ESG) at ICICI.  

The benefits of the efforts made by the fund and its portfolio companies were two-fold; staff morale remained high across the portfolio and businesses were able to recover faster with full employee support and engagement 

To support businesses in the consumer food sector, our team worked with these companies to implement standard operating procedures, which were immediately rolled out for managing production and sales at retail stores”, adds Gandhimadhy. These companies also remodelled some parts of their business. This included introducing more digitization and linking up with online food delivery platforms so products could be directly delivered to customers.”  

For one of the fund’s investees, a womens clothing retailer with a presence in over 20 states across India, the fund acted quickly to guide company management on how to implement strict safety norms in all the retailer’s standalone outlets.  The company used steam irons to regularly sanitise the clothes sold in store. Rigorous training was provided to employees at outlets to ensure safety of both staff and customers 

And to support the financial services businesses within its portfolio, the fund immediately worked with their investments to roll out procedures to sanitize ATM machines at regular intervals to ensure the safety of employees and customers. 

ICICI’s focus on environmental, social and governance (ESG) among its portfolio, which predates the crisis, has helped in the management of the pandemic across the companies 

I would say that as we have been rolling out the ESG initiatives across these companies for the past few years, the culture was more adaptive to change, there was no resistance from anyone, adds Malpani. 

The existing safety protocols within companies enabled them to easily adapt to the enhanced COVID-safe procedures, aided by a strong ESG culture among senior leadership teams. The fact that the fund had already undertaken a full independent audit of its ESG process helped position it for a quick and effective response. 

Looking ahead, the pandemic will influence the fund’s approach to looking at potential portfolio companies. The team feels that their portfolio companies’ response to COVID will act as a benchmark and will help the team to judge ESG readiness and how proactive companies are about implementation. It has also helped them prioritise a company’s ‘future-proofing’, including a focus on its digital infrastructure and strategy.   

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