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Houston Companies Will Win The COVID-19 Battle

by Vikas Mittal and Shrihari Sridhar

The resilience of these battle-tested businesses is an invaluable asset.

This op-ed was originally published in the Houston Chronicle.

In less than three months since the first COVID-19 case was announced in the U.S., the economy of the Houston area has ground to a halt. There is justifiable anxiety among all stakeholders — business owners and shareholders, employees, customers and suppliers — about the economic impact of this enemy.

Yet, during these tough times, there is solid cause for optimism, because Houston companies are battle-tested and uniquely poised to win the war against COVID-19. Below are five strengths of Houston businesses that will help them bounce back:

Houston companies are generous and give back.

The experience of having lived through many natural disasters has provided a wealth of experiential knowledge and prepared businesses to face adversity. From Hurricane Ike in 2008 to Hurricane Harvey in 2017, Houston-area businesses have fought and won many such battles due to their spirit of generosity, helping others and giving back. And they are contributing again: Mattress Mack is collecting food for home-bound seniors, Baker Hughes is helping produce and distribute anti-coronavirus gear, Gulf Coast Distillers is making hand sanitizer. The symbolic value of these gestures in inspiring employees and keeping up their customers’ spirits cannot be overstated.

Houston companies are nimble.

Yes, oil prices are down 30 percent. Yes, the lockdown due to the pandemic is affecting Houston businesses. But this is not their first rodeo. As companies downsize, reduce headcount, slash dividends and battle the prospect of bankruptcy, they have developed an enterprising system of resurgence. When the economy rebounds, experienced employees who may have been let go will be among the first to be rehired. The capital markets in Houston are mature and can readily handle these busts and emerge even stronger. Businesses incorporate oil prices over the next three to 10 years in their choices and consider volatility in their forecast. In the COVID-19 aftermath, not only will the oil and gas industry emerge stronger, but so will other sectors: small businesses, health care, technology and education.

Houston companies put safety first.

For many cities and businesses, “safety first” is a novel concept. This is not the case for Houston companies, especially oil and gas companies with well-developed safety practices and protocols that are enshrined in a strong culture of safety. Every meeting in most companies starts with a “safety minute” reminding employees to observe safety protocols during work and personal life. We believe this culture of safety first makes employees of Houston companies more compliant with national guidelines designed to stem the spread of COVID-19.

Houston companies support self-isolation through work-from-home protocols.

As Houstonians work from home for the next few months, the business sector’s investments in internet connectivity, employee training and other infrastructure will be immensely valuable. The reach of many Houston companies means their customers, employees, suppliers and key stakeholders are scattered across the globe, working 24 hours a day, seven days a week. They have mature infrastructures to support remote connectivity and WFH protocols. A recent survey identified Texas as being one of the best equipped states in terms of WFH preparedness. Texas is also ranked second among all states in terms of jobs that support WFH.

Houston businesses have embraced diversity.

Whether due to universities that attract students from all over the world, energy companies with globally distributed employees, or the massive Texas Medical Center campus that draws talent from across the world, Houston has been renowned as of America’s most diverse cities for more than a decade. A diverse workforce brings unique perspectives and ideas that not only help develop unique solutions to crises, but can also prevent them by assessing risks early and holistically. The openness of Houston to embracing diversity shows up in small but meaningful ways: identifying with the community, fostering a collective sense of responsibility to the community and banding together to in response to major crises such as COVID-19.

As we stay confined and isolated in our homes, we want to remind everyone about the toughness and tenacity of Houston businesses. The months that follow a flattened curve will soon turn to coping and adapting as Houston businesses build on the five strengths that will help them recover. Houston companies should feel cautious, but also confident and optimistic about thriving in the new normal. They have faced similar challenges before — and won.

Vikas Mittal is the J. Hugh Liedtke Professor of Marketing at Rice University’s Jones Graduate School of Business.

Shrihari Sridhar is the Joe Foster ’56 Chair in Business Leadership and Professor of Marketing at Texas A&M University’s Mays Business School.

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