The Scotiabank Women Initiative

Preparing for Recovery, Reigniting Growth: A Guide for Small- and Medium-sized Enterprises
By Mitchell Osak, Partner at MNP

The pandemic has hit every industry and business hard, none more than small- to medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). This is of concern not only because jobs and shareholder wealth are at risk but also because this cohort is a major driver of Canada’s economic growth, trade and innovation. How this group manages the COVID-19 storm and positions itself for the future may spell the difference between a recession and a depression as the economy reopens over the next three months.

SMEs matter. They are a critical contributor of employment, economic activity and family wealth.  While definitions vary, a Canadian SME is roughly defined as a company between $1 million and $250 million in revenue, and having 1-499 employees. According to the Business Development Bank of Canada (BDC), the SME segment represents 99.8 percent of all Canadian businesses and is responsible for 54.2% of all economic output. SMEs share much in common and have unique needs relative to large companies and sole proprietors. They are typically owner operated, regionally based and concentrated in several labour-intensive sectors including manufacturing, construction, business services, wholesale trade, retail and hospitality.

At the same time, the SME segment is not unsophisticated or passive. The BDC reports that 90 percent of all Canadian exporters, representing 25 percent of our total exports, have less than 100 employees. SMEs are especially vulnerable economic downturns and unexpected disruptions and often lack the resources to bounce back quickly. Specifically, SMEs don’t have the same advantages as larger companies in terms of market power, access to capital, multi-jurisdiction revenue diversification and depth of management and capability.

As a result of the pandemic, SMEs are facing corporate insolvency or experiencing significant revenue declines. While government support has helped, most SMEs would recognize that financial relief is not indefinite; in many cases it is insufficient to maintain pre-COVID operations and growth prospects. 

They could see other business risks. Public health officials warn of a second wave of COVID-19 occurring within the next six months. A U.S.-China trade war is not out of the cards, which could raise SME input costs and reduce market access. Finally, SMEs may see their own supply chain and channel partners go bankrupt or pivot to new markets as they themselves try to cope with the effects of the pandemic and recession.

Most leaders we speak to, have adjusted and are beginning to explore how they can reignite their growth engines and improve operational resilience. The challenge for them is to understand what has changed and its impact on their future operating environment. 

We have identified a number of transformational developments, which could include:

  • The potential for a significant drop in consumer demand due to higher unemployment, potentially higher taxes and reduced disposal income;
  • A reduction in available capital for investment and working capital for companies with weak balance sheets;
  • Fundamental shifts in consumer behavior, both in terms of reduced aggregate demand and a shift to online commerce;
  • The possibility of significant labour shortages in certain regions, sectors and skill sets (even with high overall unemployment) due to pandemic effects, internal migration between localities and restrictions around immigration;
  • Changing practices towards work, office and travel, and how it impacts business development, infrastructure management, customer service and role definition.

How would you assess your own corporate financial health? 

  • How will you stay in business?
  • How will you pay creditors?
  • Will your bank work with you?
  • Will you still have customers and suppliers when this crisis is over?
  • Will your key employees return?

There are some social, economic, political and personal hardships resulting from COVID-19 that are unprecedented in our lifetime but you can bounce back. Here are some basics to keep in mind:

  • Face each challenge head on - Look to the immediate challenges your business is facing and solutions you can implement right now to address them.
  • Anticipate your cash flow - Cash flow forecasting is always important, but it’s paramount when times are tough. Three-way budgets that tie in income statement forecasts with cash flow and balance sheet forecasts are the best, as this allows for scenario (what if) analysis. Forecasting is important — especially with questions around when the pandemic will end and when oil prices will rebound. You simply need to use the best available and supportable information.
  • Open the lines of communication - Your secured creditors, major customers and major suppliers need to know how the company is responding to the current situation. Be proactive and advise them of any issues and your plans to address them. They will appreciate learning about your strategies and actions up front.
  • Put all your cards on the table - You need to know what your options are to deal with any financial difficulties your company is experiencing. The earlier you can bring these options forward the more potential solutions may be available.

Download the Corporate Financial Health checklist above to help you understand where your business currently stands.

So, what can SMEs do today to stabilize their business and position themselves for future growth? We recommend approaching your business and market through these eight dimensions:

  1. Get an in-depth grasp on your financial situation, both from a cash flow and balance sheet perspective. You need up to date and accurate information to make key decisions;

  2. Revisit customer and channel needs as they may have shifted. For example, customers may be trading down within categories, deferring or even abandoning purchases;

  3. Reconsider your operating model. The ability to quickly and efficiently scale operations will be important when the economy re-inflates. Firms should consider new operational approaches such as outsourcing non-core activities and forming strategic partnerships with other SMEs offering complementary services.

  4. Accelerate digital adoption. Now is an ideal time to automate manual, routine activities and digitally enable operations and value delivery. In particular, the use of advanced data analytics can improve decision making, optimize spending and enable tighter customer relationships.

  5. Retool your supply chains to build resilience and reduce operational risk. Prudent leaders should look to diversify their supplier base, including adding local vendors;

  6. Prioritize talent management. The operational agility required puts a premium on having a skilled yet flexible workforce. Companies should emphasize generalist skills sets and IT competencies in their recruiting and revisit their training and succession plans;

  7. Explore untapped markets. Firms facing a recessionary environment should seek out new markets that could be disrupted with existing strategies, products, brands and capabilities. This could be a geographic expansion and/or increasing the share of wallet of existing customers; 

  8. Be realistic – If your firm is in a vulnerable industy like hospitality, entertainment or retail it  may be time to consider a strategic pivot.


Building a recovery plan doesn’t have to be a challenge you face alone. MNP is ready to support women-led businesses in the Prairie region, as they explore opportunities and examine their path ahead. To learn more, contact your local MNP advisor today. 




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