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UK CEOs plan a practical and purposeful response to global economic uncertainty

23rd CEO Survey - UK findings

Economic uncertainty is the single biggest concern among UK CEOs this year. But many are tackling it head-on with a series of practical and purposeful measures intended to protect what they’ve got, while identifying new opportunities to grow.

Responses to PwC’s 23rd CEO Survey show UK bosses intend to cut costs while targeting opportunities to grow in new markets and through new products and services. They are also focused on upskilling their workforce and investing in their people to accelerate digital transformation, drive higher productivity and build a stronger culture within their organisation.

Explore key findings How do you compare with UK CEOs?
Kevin Ellis

What this year’s survey tells us about CEO priorities - and the UK’s place in the world

Kevin Ellis, Chairman and Senior Partner at PwC UK, discusses why the insights of CEOs around the world are more relevant than ever as the UK sets out its future paths.

Duration: 01:49

View transcript


Responding to uncertainty

UK CEOs are more concerned about economic uncertainty than any other threat to their business.

But PwC’s 23rd CEO Survey also reveals UK bosses are focused on combating that uncertainty by implementing practical measures, such as increasing efficiency and launching new products and services in order to keep growing.

There is also a clear focus on culture with more purposeful measures which will help organisations appeal to talent and customers, and protect them better from reputational issues.

*PwC interviewed 1,581 CEOs in 83 countries during September and October 2019, including 126 CEOs in the UK.

CEOs the world over have expressed concerns about economic and geopolitical uncertainty as well as global trade conflicts, but there are specific issues, such as Brexit, which may have had greater influence on the responses of UK CEOs.

However, while our survey (which was conducted in September and October 2019, prior to the UK general election) shows UK CEOs are more concerned about currency volatility than their global counterparts, their concern about trade conflicts is consistent with global responses - and lower than their US peers.

Globally, CEOs rank the UK as the fourth most important territory for growth, behind the US, China and Germany.

While economic uncertainty may be front of mind this year, the majority (90%) of UK respondents to PwC's 23rd CEO Survey feel confident about their business’s revenue growth prospects when asked for their three year outlook. This is up from 70% who feel confident about 2020, suggesting many UK CEOs see their immediate concerns as potentially short-term issues they are well-positioned to overcome.

“You don’t need a brilliant economy to drive growth. Whatever you do, don’t batten down the hatches so tight that you can’t see out — because you won’t see opportunities either.”

Colin LewisCEO, Avant Homes

UK CEOs rise to the challenge with a practical approach

Practical cost-saving measures, such as increasing operational efficiency, are high on the priority list for UK CEOs. But their plans extend far beyond belt-tightening. There is also a clear focus on identifying and capitalising on opportunities for growth.

So while over three quarters (79%) of UK CEOs are planning to implement operational efficiencies over the coming year, many are also exploring new opportunities for growth and expansion, both in terms of the products and services they offer and their international reach.

There is also a strong appetite for mergers and acquisitions in the UK with a third of UK CEOs looking to access the investment liquidity that exists in global capital markets and private equity.

UK CEOs also expressed concerns about the pace of technological change and the threat of cyber attacks.

But while the pace of technological change was cited as a threat to their business by three quarters (75%) of UK CEOs, technology also opens up a great many opportunities, from embracing the power of artificial intelligence (AI) to capitalising on the potential of technologies such as virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) to deliver increased efficiencies and new revenue opportunities. PwC research suggests VR and AR alone have the potential to add nearly £2 billion to the UK economy in 2020. (Seeing is believing: How VR and AR will transform business and the economy

And while CEOs have expressed concerns about the availability of key skills to help them unlock such opportunities, they are focused on upskilling their workforce, specifically to deliver greater innovation and digital transformation.

Investing in people is a key theme in PwC’s 23rd CEO Survey. Although a quarter of UK respondents (25%) have said they expect headcount within their organisation to decline this year, a far greater proportion (56%) expect it will increase, and many are reporting successes in their efforts to upskill their workforce. 

As well as looking to improve their innovation and digital capabilities, UK CEOs are seeing upskilling deliver clear benefits in terms of increasing productivity, strengthening their corporate culture and improving recruitment and retention at a time when competition for talent is intense.

CEOs will likely find they are pushing on an open door when it comes to offering existing teams the opportunity to learn new skills. PwC’s global upskilling survey (‘New World, New Skills’) found 77% of respondents worldwide would be keen to learn new skills or completely retrain to improve their future employability.

“CEOs may be coming into 2020 looking for greater efficiencies and savings but they are also focused on seeking out new opportunities and avenues for growth. Entering new markets, launching innovative products and investing in skills to help deliver digital transformation and grow the capabilities of their workforce are all hugely positive moves.”

Kevin BurrowesManaging Partner - Head of Clients and Markets, PwC

UK CEOs increase their focus on purpose and trust

CEOs are putting significant emphasis on their broader purpose and culture, as issues such as sustainability, diversity and wellbeing have become business critical.

With skills a priority, it is essential CEOs promote a company culture that complements their recruitment and retention plans by helping them attract, retain and nurture the people they have and the talent they need.

UK CEOs show a commitment to issues such as diversity and inclusion and recognising the importance of wellbeing in the workplace. Addressing such issues not only demonstrates a commitment to workplace equality, but also reflects growing recognition that greater diversity can improve decision-making.

However, it is surprising given the attention this matter has been getting that a significant proportion of businesses are yet to really focus on this issue.

Over half of UK CEOs (56%) believe faltering trust in business is a threat to their organisation and clearly recognise the role of their reputation in building trust with their people, customers and business partners.

And as businesses move more processes and interactions online, CEOs are paying greater attention to risks such as data loss and cyber attacks and the role these threats play in undermining trust.

Climate change awareness and activism has increased over the course of the past year. Coupled with this, the UK last year became the first major global economy to enshrine in law its commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050, further affixing this issue to the CEO agenda.

As a group, CEOs are more acutely aware of the threat climate change poses to their business and believe how they respond will shape their reputation. In fact, three quarters (74%) of UK CEOs believe their response to climate change can provide a reputational advantage for their business and half (51%) believe finding solutions to the climate crisis presents a significant business opportunity.

UK CEOs also expressed concern about issues such as protectionism (62% vs 65% globally), populism (56% vs 63%) and social instability (54% vs 59%). However, in each instance UK CEOs’ concerns were lower than the global view.


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Kevin Ellis

Kevin Ellis

Chairman and Senior Partner, PwC United Kingdom

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