For many businesses the return of Covid-19 felt eerily familiar. Simon Day spoke to Kiwibank’s Quentin Quin about how businesses are responding to the lockdown and what they’ve learned from 2020.
Prior to joining Kiwibank in 2018 Quentin Quin was based across the Asia Pacific region, in commercial banking and private equity. While at the World Bank he worked in a number of post conflict countries, emerging economies and unregulated unstable business environments. Quin, chief customer officer – business banking at Kiwibank, sees many similarities between the challenges and uncertainty of those economies and the environment created by Covid-19 in New Zealand.
However, since New Zealand went back into level four lockdown at 11:59pm on August 17, Quin has observed a degree of calm from business owners that wasn’t present when Covid-19 first arrived in New Zealand last year.
“What I am sensing and seeing is a level of resilience and a level of patience this time round that we didn’t have 18 months ago, which is a reflection of the hardiness and tenacity that has come about from having to endure change,” he says.
The Spinoff spoke to the Auckland based Quin about how Kiwibank are supporting New Zealand businesses, and why the community’s response feels so different this year.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity. Listen to the full conversation on this month’s bonus episode of When The Facts Change podcast. Follow When the Facts Change on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or your favourite podcast provider.
Who’s in your bubble and how are you coping in lockdown?
In my bubble there are six of us, my wife and four children. It’s a pretty full house that has its challenges, not dissimilar to business I suppose. We’ve been here before, so we’re a bit more resilient than we were last time. So far so good. Maybe a question to be asked again in four weeks time if we’re in the same scenario.
You have a unique background working in post-conflict and emerging economies in Asia and the South Pacific. How has that experience informed your understanding of the economic effects of Covid-19?
They aren’t easy economies, they’re logistically hard to get access to, they’re fundamentally built on small business, and really challenging environments in which they trade – and some really good businesses have come out of that. If you look at what we’re currently going through as an economy and through the eyes of a business owner, they’re going through really similar challenging times.
What do businesses have access to, to support them through this period? And where do they go to find that?
At the moment there’s been the reintroduction of the wage subsidy, the IRD resurgence payment has been reintroduced, so they’re two functional tools the government has introduced.
To step back a bit, it’s a time for businesses to be patient until we can see what the future landscape will look like. And if you can be patient then you can make really good sound decisions.
What I talk about is an aviation scenario. When you’re in a time of crisis in an aircraft they talk about “aviate, navigate, communicate”. What do businesses need to do now? Communication sits at the forefront. Communicate early with your advisors, communicate early with your bank to understand what the future may look like. Address with them your concerns and just be really open in the dialogue.
Working in partnership with your bank; that’s a message I’ve conveyed to our front line staff – really communicate, and then in the next few days make that phone call again to the customer, ask how they are feeling, what’s going on.
Does Kiwibank have people standing by to help businesses with those questions?
Being a smaller bank allows us to be more agile. We’ve got smaller portfolio numbers and client numbers per manager, which means in a time like this we have bandwidth for our people to ring our customers to check in and see what’s available, what can we do to help. Some things might not be resolved today but if we’re in contact and we’re communicating we can better understand their needs, and then we can be agile enough to help and support.
One of the things I’m expressing to our wider business banking team is to take some time to simulate living in the mind of a business owner. What might they be feeling at this point in time? We’ve got a role to play in adding value and support and advice. If not more importantly it’s a time for us to listen and understand the stress points that a business owner may be going through.
Next in your aviation analogy is “navigate”, what does that mean?
It’s something I learnt in the Solomon Islands while at the World Bank – “patience, planning and pivot”. I’ve already talked about patience and resilience and not making quick decisions. The next part is planning, “what does my business need to do, how do I transition my business, how do I plan for the future?”
I think we’ve seen since the last outbreak, a lot of business planned for if this happened again what would they do differently? We’ve seen businesses improve their equity, the amount of money they have tied up in their balance sheets.
It’s no different to when you’re in some of these really isolated economies. For example, a situation in Guam when I was there and a hurricane was coming in, I never saw the public business owners panic. They went through methodically what they needed to do. They planned, they were calm and they knew the storm was coming but they had been there before, they knew they’d come out the other side.
It reminded me of the feeling in the street during this outbreak when the sirens went off on everyone’s phones and there was that 24 hour window of warning and everyone was calm and collected about that. There’s a level of resilience now.
Then you have to pivot and find another way to meet your customers needs, you have to find another way which you can adopt the distribution of your product and services.
Have you seen a greater level of calm with your customers that you didn’t see last year?
There is a sense that we know what the eye of the storm looks like, because we’ve been there before. But let’s face it, this new delta variant is moving in quite a different way, so there’s an element of nervousness around that for sure. There’s a sense of calmness but nervous preparation, at least inquisitive to find out what’s available and what they need to do.
What is the role of a bank in supporting businesses at this time?
I think the bank is a mechanism to seek advice from. It’s not the only source. A good small business owner will have various support and advice mechanisms in a professional sense, around them.
From a Kiwibank perspective there’s a couple of things we’re really committed to increasing our expertise and knowledge to have the right dialogue with our customers, to live in their shoes. We’d like to get to a point where we can add value to your thought process, to understand your business to a point where we may challenge you, or ask why you may be heading in that direction or not. A true partner should be able to have those conversations that might stretch and test your mindset.
At The Spinoff the transition back into working exclusively online felt like putting on an old pair of track pants, albeit ones you had hoped you wouldn’t have to get out of the drawer again.
Exactly. We’ve been there before and we’ll do it again. I was really surprised by the wider Auckland region’s sense of calmness. The calls that we’re having through the business call centre, it’s relatively minimal compared to normal levels. We had calls ranging between 23 minutes and three hours last time. The enquiry rate isn’t as intense this time. We are doing a lot of outward bound calls to reach out to businesses to say “how are you feeling? We just want to let you know we’re here and we are thinking of you.” I think that’s a sign of people adjusting to technology and change.
What do you think that resilience and that adaptation says about the SME sector in New Zealand?
Forget the economics for one moment, it’s that social interaction of making sure people are safe and well that’s really important. You can’t build a business, you can’t employ people, you can’t provide services if you don’t feel good about yourself or your people aren’t feeling good about themselves. I think we’re seeing really strong pockets of resilience of communities banding around and supporting each other, which is pretty damn cool.
In my view I also think New Zealand is a strong consumption based economy and we buy and sell services off each other, and therefore there’s wealth creation. So when we’ve closed the borders to the rest of the world we’re reliant on consumption amongst each other, which I think has stimulated parts of the economy to get us through to where we are at the moment.
We came through 2020’s lockdown and the economy bounced back a lot stronger than anyone expected. Do you have that same sense of hope, and are you seeing businesses with a sense of optimism?
I definitely have that same sense of hope. We’d love to get through the other side and bounce back and for the fallout to be minimal at best. A lot of that might be contributing to why people are resilient and patient at the moment and therefore we haven’t got the intensity of inquiry at the moment because there’s belief we might get through it like last time.
The short answer is, and my fantastic chief economist at Kiwibank, Jarrod Kerr, would say the same thing: I don’t really know. I haven’t met too many economists that have forecast the next downturn. But I think the hope is we will continue. But who knows. There’s lots of concern at the moment about interest rates, the cost of capital, the desire to deploy capital in New Zealand as opposed to other economies.
All I’d say is strategy is not built on hope. We do have to plan and prepare. Let’s be patient and step through it day by day and the right outcome will happen.
This content was created in paid partnership with Kiwibank. Learn more about our partnerships here.