Denise Kohnke

COVID-19 CEO Survey

Back when COVID-19 was in its diabolical toddlerhood, circa May 2020, Merit asked CEOs from a diverse pool of sectors about their perceptions of COVID-19, and how they were tangibly handling its impact. These were not P&G, Google, General Motors CEOs, but CEOs of arguably the most important strata in the U.S. economy: small to medium-sized. Mostly, we heard from CEOs at businesses under 200 employees.


It’s hard to say what businesses are most at risk of injury from the pandemic — many of the mighty, like retail giants, have already fallen. But we do know that small to medium-sized businesses are particularly vulnerable to sudden changes due to less room for contraction, limited strategic/financial resources, and hungry mouths to feed that feel like family.


For most of us, every day in COVID-19 seems both exactly the same and yet moves with remarkable speed. So, throughout the results reporting, we’ve added comments that bring us to date and give us context that only time — even though it’s been just a couple of months — can provide.


Oh, and the executive summary?

CEOs are one positive bunch.


Here’s to you, CEOs. Keep your heads down, your lights on, and get ready for the next big thing!


– Team Merit


The Fine Print: The following analysis is based on a survey of 32 CEOs of American companies that was conducted between May 19 and May 26, 2020. Survey participants were recruited on a volunteer basis from among Merit’s professional contacts and participants were not compensated for their time. All responses are anonymous.


Shaken, but not deterred

CEOs generally:

  • Recognize growth in 2020 is limited
  • Yet remain confident in their companies
  • Are “making it work” despite the pandemic
  • Perceive new opportunities for growth rather than obstacles


Who we talked to

Respondents were from:

  • Primarily companies with <201 employees (72%)
  • A range of industries, including:
  • Construction, machinery, homes (12%)
  • Financial Services (9%)
  • Government (9%)
  • Manufacturing (9%)
  • Professional Services (9%)
  • Telecom/Tech (9%)
  • Aerospace & Defense (6%)
  • Entertainment & Leisure (6%)

Aside: We purposefully solicited input from CEOs in a variety of sectors — but skipped ones that would skew the results too negative (like healthcare).




01. Pre-COVID-19

“2020 is going to be our year!”



In January, CEOs felt good about 2020’s potential.


CEOs at smaller companies were more bullish.

Aside: Optimism Bias — having expectations about the future that commonly exceed reality — affects most Americans, CEO or not. That compulsion to overestimate future successes hardwired into us for good reason. It creates a sense of positive anticipation about the future and motivates us to both succeed and to survive. Research repeatedly shows that athletes,for instance, perform better with an optimistic rather than a pragmatic view of their abilities, or a realistic view of their chances.


Overall, CEOs were confident in their companies.

In January, 2020…

  • 96% felt senior staff was flexible and able to regroup quickly.
  • 85% felt they had sufficient financial reserves.
  • Though, only about 63% felt their company had adequate
    contingency plans.


Bigger fish were even more confident.

Of companies with more than 1000 employees…

  • 100% felt they had sufficient financial reserves in January 2020, compared to 78% of those with fewer than 201 employees.
  • 83% felt their company had adequate contingency plans, compared to just 56% of smaller companies (fewer than 201 employees).

Aside: No one could possibly have anticipated the pandemic would strike when it did, with such commensurate force. Were we to ask again next year, we suspect nearly all CEOs will have bolstered contingency plans and will have a different perspective on how they view financial reserves.



02. Since COVID-19

Make it Work



Adapt and Persevere

During the initial weeks of the pandemic:

  • 100% of businesses stayed open in some way.
  • 97% needed to change operations but found ways to keep business going.
  • But, 33% chose to detail their situations in the comments rather than select a multiple choice answer. This suggests a variety of complex circumstances that aren’t easily categorized or understood.
  • Still, we were impressed (and grateful) that one-third took the time to detail their unique situations.


Since the stay-at-home orders, CEOs reduced staff and expectations.

Aside: This mindset aligns with standard business operating procedures during a recession — cut costs, lean up. And, it touches on the cognitive bias towards avoiding losses over acquiring gains, a cornerstone of behavioral economics.


They’re confronting a mix of novel and unexpected changes.

Since the stay at home orders:

  • 72% believe the changes they’re making are completely unanticipated.
  • CEOs are split on how much the pandemic was a catalyst for change. 69% did not use it as a reason to fire employees they would have anyway. 56% did use it to make operational changes they would have made anyway.

Aside: Other secondary research shows us that, since the pandemic started, companies have been busy updating operating systems, executing digital projects and considering efficiencies in every corner of the business.



03. A New Reality

Adjustment Happens



2020 looks less rosey.

Because of the pandemic…

  • 79% of all CEOs expect less growth in 2020.
  • 67% anticipate moderate to severe changes to their business.

Aside: At the time of this survey in May, there was still talk of a July without virus. Realism, at this point in the survey, overtook the optimism bias.


This is especially true for CEOs of bigger companies.


A sizable group are planning a pivot.

Aside: While CEOs of smaller companies may be showing signs of scrappy optimism in the face of the pandemic, the bigger company CEOs are playing the role of the level-headed realist.


What about the one-third that isn’t anticipating changes?

Who are they?

  • All of those who expect minimal changes are at companies of less than 201 employees.
  • The majority of that one-third also expect less growth in 2020.
  • None expect more growth.


Still, the majority isn’t panicking because of the pandemic.

Aside: Ironically, the short-term is forcing CEOs to think long-term, which we see as practical, rather than ungrounded optimism.


Who’s worried?

Let’s look at the 22% with a negative outlook:
We’re defining “negative outlook” as agreeing with one of the following:

  • Their company will not be viable (16% overall).
  • They’re considering action because their company is in a negative position (9% overall).

Who are they?

  • Most (71%) are from companies with fewer than 201 employees.
  • From five industries: Construction, Machinery, and Homes, Entertainment & Leisure, Automotive, Government, and Retail & Consumer Durables


What have they done and what do they expect?

Let’s look at the 22% with a negative outlook:

  • 57% have reduced staff and don’t expect to rehire in 2020.
  • 86% believe the changes they’re making are completely unanticipated.
  • 85% anticipate moderate/severe changes.
  • 86% expect less growth.



04. The Future

Confidence is Contagious



Generally CEOs were very confident about their finances and industries.


Though slightly less confident in safety, strategy and hiring


CEOs of smaller companies were a little less confident.


CEOs of bigger companies were a lot more self-assured, except when it came to safety.


Where are the other weak spots?


The future actually looks bright.


…but what will spur recovery is unclear.
  • 53% don’t believe loosening restrictions will cause the economy to roar back, suggesting an L-shaped recovery.
  • Only 31% believe the government will protect the economy.

Aside: Some time has passed since their predictions, and we do know that there’s not been a “roar” of economic recovery. And as of today’s publication, Congress continues to disagree about ongoing economic aid packages. However, we do know that CEOs remain one positive bunch…



“All downsides have an upside — discovery is fun, energizing.”



Merit thanks all CEO participants and readers of this survey. Merit, with its strategic approach of Market Invention, believes that for all the darkness we are experiencing, there is light ahead. New markets are being invented before our eyes, if our eyes and minds are open. True innovators always search for change, respond to it, and exploit both disruption and stagnancy as opportunities.


Denise Kohnke, Chief Strategy Officer


Matt Bresnahan, Senior Account Executive

About Denise Kohnke

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