Roundtable – Sourcing in the Face of a Financial Crisis

As the financial crisis continues to grip markets and businesses worldwide, is there any clarity as to the consequences for the sourcing sector? We hosted a roundtable virtual roundtables debate looking at the short- and long-term impact of the turmoil on the sourcing space; our editor was joined by some of the keenest minds in sourcing to analyse the possible repercussions, the potential winners and losers – and steps industry players can take to minimise the impact on their businesses.

Q: Let’s kick off with the immediate future: how do you see the short-term impact of the financial crisis playing out across the outsourcing sector?

Brian Smith: I think we’ve seen we’ve seen some impact here already; people are starting to think carefully about discretionary projects, particularly in the application development space. But we’ve seen less impact on day-to-day BPO-type activity which is outsourced and offshored, I think largely because the financial crisis has had more of an impact on credit and the capital structure of organizations, and less impact at this point on operating volumes.

I think what we’re seeing is a slowdown in discretionary activity – but that will pick up again at some point as people get back to realizing their projects to execute against – and then the string of mergers that are taking place particularly here in the US as well as in Europe is obviously going to spawn a degree of activity in restructuring. I think that will impact the captive side of life; I think we’ll see more activity there. So my thought would be that we’re going to see a lull followed by a large amount of activity.

Q: To what extent do you think the mergers that have taken place have been driven directly by the crisis rather than having already been in the works?

Brian Smith: I would say most of the big mergers that have taken place here are directly related to the financial crisis. I suspect very few, if any, were even on the cards three months ago.

Tony Rawlinson: Picking up on that, I think we see the economics at the moment both disrupting and driving outsourcing. On the one hand there’s certainly a disruption in the short term, an impact on project budgets, a deferral of capital expenditure, a deferral of all but mission-critical projects especially in financial services. Conversely our view is that the credit crunch and economic downturn mean that structurally outsourcing and offshoring are even more useful strategic tools going forward.

I’d share Brian’s view that there’s going to be a short pause before the true implications of the market crystallise, and then a forceful push for cost-reduction – but also a recognition that the winners now in recessionary times are going to turn their service delivery model into something that’s a lot more flexible. I think the winners in recessionary times will already be thinking about their sourcing strategy for what comes after the recession; the flipside of flexibility in a downturn is a need to switch on as the upcurve starts again.

Q: You said a short pause: how long do you think that short pause is going to be?

Tony Rawlinson: I think it’s going to be market-specific; my sense is that the US is further through that process than the UK and continental Europe. Some institutions are still, frankly, focused on survival – I’m going to meetings with institutions that are clearly worried about their continued existence – but over the next month or so we should have a lot more clarity. The other interesting flavour of course in the US, the UK and increasingly in continental Europe is the impact of the virtual nationalization or semi-nationalization of some institutions; we see that potentially impacting the political attitude to offshoring at a time when offshoring is clearly going to help address the short-term cost objectives of some of these players. So there are some interesting forces at work here, some of them pulling in different directions, and I think all will become a lot clearer over the next few weeks.

Phil Fersht: There are some interesting discussion points here and I’m inclined to agree with them. We went out of our way to speak with 44 of the major US financial institutions over the last two or three weeks to really gauge what their short- and medium-term plans are with regards to embracing outsourcing, and naturally the short-term focus is very much on stability and understanding how the hell this is going to play out for them. Taking 20 or 30 per cent off the bottom line is a nice-to-have, but at this moment just knowing you’re going to be around is taking precedence. However, the way things seem to be moving, I think people are going to have a pretty strong idea in the next month about stability, about M&A – I think we’ll see a lot of the M&A start to happen in the next few weeks as this thing starts to settle down a bit – and then the process is going to move on towards further optimization in the back office, further means to find cost-containment and broader-scale strategies.

In addition to that, there’s definitely a change in mindset amongst the finance operations leaders in terms of embracing outsourcing as a strategic vehicle for longer-term plans to cut costs – and being perceived to do so. When we spoke to these institutions, 40 per cent of them said they were going to increase their spend and their impetus towards outsourcing in the next 6 months and only 15 per cent said they were going to decrease that. And when we break that down further, it’s the banking sector that has the strongest impetus to increase outsourcing; nearly half the banks – all the usual suspects going through this meltdown right now – said they were increasing their impetus towards outsourcing, and only 10 per cent were decreasing. When we get into other areas like insurance it’s a much more neutral effect; it’s definitely the banking sector that’s driving this.

When we get a bit deeper into the actual specific areas they’re looking to get quick hits from, it’s the bread-and-butter areas of outsourcing which don’t require massive amounts of upfront transformation, where they’ve already done some educational exploration and some evaluation, and it’s areas like banking BPO, application outsourcing, and F&A BPO that are clearly those that are going to offer the lower-hanging fruit opportunities. Taking the areas like core financials, core HR, bringing them out into third-party models quickly and effectively, is where we see a lot of activity in probably the middle of Q1, Q2, Q3 next year; we’re expecting to see a big spike in contracts being signed, but we don’t think they’re going to be very large contracts, we’re expecting to see a lot of small-to-medium-size contracts as companies try and move quickly into engagements that are more workable.

The short-term areas that we’re seeing a drop-off include areas like IT infrastructure. Any IT staff augmentation projects seem to be a negative right now; anything discretionary is definitely being put on the back burner; things like HR outsourcing are definitely being put on the back burner in the near-term as companies look to have quicker, more impacting areas to move into. Then when we look at the sort of 6-to-12-month timeframe, we see a much stronger bend towards things like mortgage BPO, or even HRO coming back, and areas like staff augmentation have to come into play. When you think about Wells Fargo and Wachovia merging, that’s a ton of systems integration that has to go on. Wachovia had a very broad, well-documented BPO and ITO strategy, Wells Fargo is not traditionally a big adopter of broad outsourcing, so how are these companies going to align? Which road are they going to go down? We think outsourcing is going to be one of them.

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