Pandemic enriches some businesses and takes a sledgehammer to others

It was a year in business unlike any other.

Every single sector of the economy was affected by the global COVID-19 pandemic. Jobs were lost, businesses closed forever, and some sectors saw changes that would have otherwise taken a decade. Some companies, on the other hand, saw massive gains.

Here’s a look at some of the companies and economic sectors that came out on top in 2020, and some that suffered.

WINNERS

Banks: Sure, you could probably pencil banks in as big winners every single year. But coming in a year that brought so much economic devastation, it was especially impressive (or galling, depending upon your mood) to see billions in profits still flowing into the coffers of the Big 5. In the most recent quarter, RBC, TD, Scotiabank, BMO and CIBC made a combined profit of $ 12.9 billion. (RBC, TD and BMO all saw their earnings rise, while Scotia and CIBC saw their earnings dip). Still, in a sign of just how jaded investors have become, RBC shares actually fell in the days after the bank announced its earnings.

Empire Co. Ltd., the parent company of Sobey’s, earned $ 161.4 million on revenue of $ 6.98 billion in the quarter that ended Oct. 31, up from $ 154.6 million and $ 6.44 billion in the same quarter last year.

Grocery stores: Between panic buying enough toilet paper to keep themselves spotless until the year 2050, and cooking more at home, Canadians provided a big boost to the bottom line of grocery chains this year. Being declared “essential” helped the likes of Loblaw, Sobey’s and Metro, too. In the third quarter, Loblaw Cos. saw its earnings rise to $ 345 million, up from $ 334 million in the same period last year. Revenue also rose, to $ 15.7 billion, from $ 14.7 billion. It was a similar situation at Empire Co. Ltd., the parent company of Sobey’s. In the quarter that ended Oct. 31, Empire earned $ 161.4 million on revenue of $ 6.98 billion, up from $ 154.6 million and $ 6.44 billion in the same quarter last year.

Amazon: No, not all of those packages piling up in apartment lobbies and on front porches were delivered by Amazon. But many were. According to some estimates, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos saw his net worth increase by almost $ 100 billion (U.S.) between mid-March and mid-October.

San Jose-based live video chat company Zoom is a household name across the planet, thanks to people working from home, or just staying in touch with relatives.

Zoom: Raise your hand if you’d used Zoom before this year. OK, put it down, because odds are you’re fibbing. Now? The San Jose-based live video chat company is a household name across the planet, thanks to people working from home, or just staying in touch with relatives. (Before this year, would anyone really have entertained the thought of a Zoom wedding, funeral or cocktails?) And the company’s revenues and profits have skyrocketed along with that name recognition. In the three quarters ending Oct. 31, Zoom had revenue of $ 1.77 billion (U.S.) compared with $ 434 million in the same period a year ago. Their profits rose even more dramatically during the same period, going from $ 2.1 million in 2019 to $ 403.7 million this year.

Bitcoin: It still hasn’t caught on as a mainstream alternative to traditional currencies, but the world’s best-known digital money rallied in 2020, more than tripling in value to $ 19,000 (U.S.) for the price of a single bitcoin since mid-March.

LOSERS

Airlines: With travel restrictions around the world because of COVID, it has been one of the worst years on record for the entire air industry. According to the International Air Transportation Association, total air travel spending around the globe in 2020 is expected to total $ 340 billion (U.S.), down from $ 876 billion in 2019. (The IATA wasn’t able to say precisely how much of this year’s total came before March, when COVID was declared a global pandemic and travel bans were put into place.) In Canada, airline revenues plunged, and bottom lines turned red. Through the first three quarters of the year, Air Canada lost $ 3.49 billion, compared with a $ 1.32 billion profit in the same period of 2019. Revenues dropped to $ 5.01 billion from $ 14.70 billion.

The restaurant industry is a tough business at the best of times. In 2020, with government-ordered restrictions on dining out, it was the darkest year in modern times for restaurants in this country.

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Restaurants: The restaurant industry is a tough business at the best of times, with single-digit profit margins and high failure rates. In 2020, with government-ordered restrictions on dining out, it was the darkest year in modern times for restaurants in this country. Even when governments tried to help, like with the widely panned Canada Emergency Commercial Rent Assistance program (since replaced by the more effective Canada Emergency Rent Subsidy), it was too little too late to keep many places afloat. Industry lobby group Restaurants Canada estimates that 10,000 restaurants in this country have already closed permanently because of the pandemic.

Small retailers: While big box stores, at least those that had groceries or other essential goods, remained open during lockdowns, small retailers struggled with greater restrictions. Between that and the volume of online shopping handled through web giants like Amazon, it was a grim year indeed for small, independent retailers.

It's been a devastating year for gyms, fitness and yoga studios.

Hairdressers, gyms and yoga studios: Personal services like haircuts were off limits for much of the year, because of restrictions designed to limit the spread of COVID. So too were the use of gyms, fitness and yoga studios, much to the consternation of both fitness buffs and owners who argued there wasn’t enough evidence to shut them down. Especially for smaller, independent studios and gyms, it’s been a devastating year.

Shopping malls and office towers: For much of the year, malls have been reduced to offering curbside service. At a time when online-focussed retailers are thriving, retailers inside malls, even well-known names, have been struggling mightily.

With many office workers doing their jobs from home, office towers, many of which are owned or run by some of the same large companies that own malls, have also been ghost towns. With many companies realizing they can still run their businesses successfully with employees working from home, that spells trouble for the bottom line of firms that own office towers, even when the pandemic is over.

TORONTO STAR