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Business Report Card: How 12 Key Companies Have Fared in 2020

Amazon struggled early in the pandemic, but rebounded with record sales. Disney got a huge boost for its streaming service, while its other businesses were hit hard. Store closures wiped out $2 billion in sales for Macy’s this spring—but after the pandemic, it could be one of the last department stores standing. Here’s how a dozen major companies have navigated the Covid era.

AMAZON.COM INC.

Amazon has largely recovered from its problems at the start of the pandemic and is capitalizing on the acceleration of e-commerce.

Photo: Krisztian Bocsi/Bloomberg News

DOWNSIDE

Amazon.com competitors have gained ground in the digital world since the pandemic began. Early on, Walmart, Target and others grabbed market share from Amazon, which initially struggled with handling a massive influx of orders. Amazon has spent billions of dollars in responding to the pandemic.

“If you’re a shareowner in Amazon, you may want to take a seat.”

— CEO Jeff Bezos, in an April warning to shareholders of the costs the company would incur to meet the moment.

UPSIDE

Amazon has largely recovered from its early problems and is capitalizing on the acceleration of e-commerce caused by the pandemic. Its share of online shopping has been back on the rise, and it is expanding its workforce in anticipation of continued demand. No company can match its online fulfillment operations, positioning it well for years to come. Its market value has soared this year.

SURPRISING STRATEGY MOVE

During the early days of the pandemic, Amazon made an unusual move to retool its website to encourage shoppers to buy fewer items. Amazon removed most of its popular recommendation widgets that show shoppers what other people were buying and scaled back online coupons. The strategy helped Amazon gain back control of its supply chain.

BIG NUMBER

$88.9 billion

Amazon’s quarterly sales from April through June, a record.

STAFFING

The company hired 175,000 warehouse workers in March and April, 125,000 of whom it said it would keep permanently. In the next two years, it also plans to also add thousands of new employees at multiple U.S. corporate offices. Amazon has more than one million workers world-wide, and is the second-largest private employer in the U.S.

TESLA INC.

Tesla shares have soared this year.

Photo: alex plavevski/EPA/Shutterstock

DOWNSIDE

Local authorities forced Tesla to temporarily shut its lone U.S. car plant for about seven weeks to help reduce the spread of coronavirus. The Silicon Valley car maker has suspended full-year guidance that called for the company to deliver more than 500,000 vehicles this year.

UPSIDE

Tesla’s China car plant came online late last year and the Model Y SUV, with a backlog of orders placed before the pandemic, started rolling off the U.S. production line in March, helping sustain deliveries in recent months. Rival car makers selling principally gas-powered vehicles also continue to buy regulatory credits from Tesla, helping boost its bottom line.

SURPRISING STRATEGY MOVE

Tesla recalled staff to its lone U.S. car plant in Fremont, Calif., in May to resume production after local authorities in March ordered the facility shut as part of regional measures aimed at containing the Covid-19 spread.

“If anyone is arrested, I ask that it only be me.”

— CEO Elon Musk, as he reopened the U.S. plant in defiance of local authorities

BIG NUMBER

400%

The year-to-date gain in Tesla’s share price.

STAFFING

The company will build a fourth car-assembly factory—its second in the U.S.—in Austin, Texas, hiring about 5,000 workers for a facility that should begin operations late next year.

UNITEDHEALTH GROUP INC.

UnitedHealth’s costs have dropped sharply because of the widespread cancellation of medical procedures.

Photo: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg News

DOWNSIDE

UnitedHealth’s insurance unit has seen some loss of membership in employer plans as companies implemented layoffs and furloughs, though Medicaid and Medicare enrollment largely offset the decline.

UPSIDE

The pandemic delivered a gusher of profits for UnitedHealth. The insurer’s costs dropped sharply because of the widespread cancellation of medical procedures and routine health care.

“Our second-quarter earnings were meaningfully impacted by unprecedented and far-reaching disruption in care patterns.”

— CFO John Rex

SURPRISING STRATEGY MOVE

UnitedHealth has highlighted its decision to give some customers discounts, and other efforts to return a share of its gains to clients and members. The industry is already under scrutiny from some regulators and lawmakers for windfall profits as employers, patients and health-care providers are experiencing financial squeezes.

BIG NUMBER

$6.64 billion

UnitedHealth’s net income in the second quarter, up from $3.29 billion a year earlier.

MARRIOTT INTERNATIONAL INC.

A worker wipes down surfaces in a hotel room at a Marriott resort in Texas.

Photo: Bill McCullough for The Wall Street Journal

DOWNSIDE

The hotel industry is suffering through its worst period in modern times, as the pandemic has led to world-wide cutbacks in business travel and cancellations of conference events. For Marriott, the world’s largest hotel company, the June quarter was “the worst quarter we have ever seen by far,” Chief Executive Arne Sorenson said.

UPSIDE

The company noted recovery in China, Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan. Marriott’s occupancy rate in the region, which took the first hit during the pandemic but recovered earlier, reached 60% in the second quarter, compared with 70% a year earlier.

SURPRISING STRATEGY MOVE

Marriott and other hotels are counting on U.S. road trippers to drive an initial increase in demand during the pandemic as air travel remains depressed. Those travelers include vacationers and essential workers.

BIG NUMBER

$234 million

The company’s second-quarter loss, its largest ever.

STAFFING

The company has furloughed about two-thirds of its corporate employees at its headquarters in Bethesda, Md., along with some of its corporate employees who work abroad. It has also furloughed some hotel-level staffers. In May, it said it expects significant layoffs of non-hotel staffers later this year. In late August, a spokeswoman declined to specify the scope of the expected layoffs, though she said the company expects to retain most of its hotel-level employees and anticipates that it will recall a significant number of furloughed employees at the end of September.

“We too often see [big companies] making decisions about keeping offices closed for as much as the next year—frustrating to us because, in a sense, that’s just sort of withdrawing from the economy.”

— CEO Arne Sorenson

JPMORGAN CHASE & CO.

JPMorgan is preparing for an increase in defaults on consumer and business loans.

Photo: johannes eisele/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

DOWNSIDE

JPMorgan’s profit fell 60% in the first half, as it prepared for the slowdown to cause widespread defaults on consumer and business loans. The bank set aside $18.76 billion for future loan losses.

UPSIDE

The investment-banking side of the behemoth seized on the disruption, setting revenue records as it raced to raise funds for corporate clients and trade bonds.

SURPRISING STRATEGY MOVE

The bank temporarily closed 1,000 of its branches, about 20%, shifting business to spaces with plexiglass teller barriers and drive throughs, the opposite of their recent expansion strategy.

BIG NUMBER

$367 billion

The increase in deposits at JPMorgan this year, as clients of all sizes load up on cash holdings. That would have been equal to swallowing U.S. Bancorp, the fifth biggest bank in the country, at the start of the year.

“The word ‘unprecedented’ is rarely used properly. This time, it’s being used properly.”

— CEO James Dimon

STAFFING

The bank sent $1,000 bonuses to lower-paid employees, increased vacation and leave, and kept pay steady for branch workers even though hours were reduced.

STARBUCKS CORP.

Starbucks is speeding up its effort to establish more to-go locations.

Photo: phil noble/Reuters

DOWNSIDE

The pandemic destroyed the cornerstone of Starbucks’s business: selling daily coffee to U.S. commuters and providing a gathering place for café-goers. The coffee giant’s sales losses began in January, earlier than many other American consumer companies, given the blow to its key China market. In July, Starbucks reported its steepest per-share losses in more than a decade due to lower sales and higher costs from the pandemic.

UPSIDE

Starbucks has decided to speed up its strategy to reduce the number of traditional cafes and establish more to-go locations. Many consumers were already migrating toward takeaway orders, and the company had been planning to change to some smaller store footprints over the next three to five years anyway. The pandemic is providing an opportunity for the chain to more quickly re-evaluate its stores, particularly in New York, Chicago, Seattle, San Francisco and other dense urban areas. Starbucks plans to close, renovate or relocate 400 traditional cafes in the U.S. and Canada by the end of next year.

“This is one of those rare opportunities to move aggressively and further differentiate Starbucks from our competition.”

— CEO Kevin Johnson

SURPRISING STRATEGY MOVE

The chain paid employees who didn’t feel safe coming in to work during the beginning months of the pandemic to stay home for 6 weeks, a rare move by a company for that length of time without asking for proof of exposure to the virus. Those who didn’t want to return to work after that could apply for a leave of absence.

BIG NUMBER

40%

The decline in same-store sales in the 13 weeks ending June 28.

WALT DISNEY CO.

Disney last month posted its first quarterly loss since 2001.

Photo: aly song/Reuters

DOWNSIDE

The pandemic has been brutal for Disney. It closed the company’s theme parks, virtually eliminated movie distribution, and curtailed live sports, a key programming source for its TV networks. In August, the company posted its first quarterly loss since 2001.

“The upside we are seeing from reopening is less than we originally expected.”

— CFO Christine M. McCarthy

UPSIDE

The pandemic has accelerated growth of the Disney+ streaming service. It has secured more than 60 million users in nearly nine months, a mark that Netflix took about eight years to achieve.

SURPRISING STRATEGY MOVE

On Disney+, Disney released the movie version of “Hamilton” over a year earlier than planned and this week added “Mulan” at a premium price of about $30.

BIG NUMBER

$135.4 million

The global take for “Onward,” Disney’s top-grossing film of 2020. That’s 95% less than its top-grossing 2019 film, “Avengers: Endgame.”

BOEING CO.

The pandemic has given Boeing more time to secure regulators’ backing for the 737 MAX to return to service.

Photo: Seattle Aviation Images/Zuma Press

DOWNSIDE

A prolonged slump in global air travel has left airlines unwilling or unable to take most of their aircraft orders, leading Boeing to slash production by more than a third. With an uncertain timeline for an industry recovery, the beleaguered plane maker has borrowed heavily to bolster its balance sheet. Boeing also shelved plans for a new midsize jet.

“We’ve asked the team to step back and reassess our commercial-product development strategy and determine a family of airplanes that we think will be needed in the future.”

— CFO Greg Smith

UPSIDE

Many airlines that once clamored for the still-grounded 737 MAX are now delaying or canceling orders. That’s buying Boeing more time to secure regulators’ backing for the plane to return to service. The pandemic-driven drop in air travel will likely reduce ongoing compensation claims by MAX operators.

SURPRISING STRATEGY MOVE

Boeing is reviewing the continued production of the 787 Dreamliner at two facilities—Everett, Wash., and North Charleston, S.C.—with a view to consolidating at a single site. That could trigger a longer-term shift in aircraft assembly away from its traditional base in the Seattle area.

BIG NUMBER

$61 billion

The company’s debt as of June 30, triple the level of a year earlier.

STAFFING

Boeing has so far announced plans to cut 19,000 jobs, mostly at its jetliner arm, from a workforce that numbered 161,000 at the start of the year, and launched a second round of buyout offers that’s expected to reduce the number of employees further by October. Suppliers have also cut tens of thousands of jobs.

UNITED PARCEL SERVICE INC.

At UPS, the increase in online shopping has more than made up for the drop in business-to-business shipments.

Photo: carlo allegri/Reuters

DOWNSIDE

The closure of thousands of businesses deprived UPS of profitable revenue while online shopping drove a surge of deliveries to homes, which are more costly and have lower margins. The increase strained operations, causing capacity constraints and longer shipping times.

UPSIDE

The increase in online shopping more than made up for the drop in business-to-business shipments. Shipping volume rose more than 20% in the second quarter, and UPS minimized the erosion to profit margins in part by adding surcharges.

“At the beginning of Q2, we assumed demand would slow. Instead, we saw just the opposite.”

— CEO Carol Tomé

SURPRISING STRATEGY MOVE

Under new CEO Carol Tomé, UPS has adopted a more aggressive approach to pricing with its shippers. It has imposed rate increases on some customers, and for the coming holiday season is adding peak surcharges that shipping consultants say are much higher than anticipated.

BIG NUMBER

69%

The percentage of deliveries that were to residential locations in the second quarter, up from 54% normally.

STAFFING

UPS hired 39,000 workers to handle the increase in packages.

MACY’S INC.

Macy’s could be one of the last department stores standing after the pandemic.

Photo: Lev Radin/Zuma Press

DOWNSIDE

The pandemic forced Macy’s to temporarily close stores, wiping out more than $2 billion in sales in the spring quarter. Even though it was able to continue selling online and reopened nearly all of its stores by early July, revenue has been running below year-ago levels, because shoppers are buying less apparel in favor of essential goods and items for the home.

UPSIDE

Macy’s could be one of the last department stores standing after the pandemic. Competitors including J.C. Penney, Lord & Taylor and Stage Stores have filed for bankruptcy and are closing stores or liquidating their business entirely.

“We do believe there is lasting change to shopping behavior as customers will continue to expect a true, safe, convenient omnichannel shopping experience.”

— CEO Jeff Gennette

SURPRISING STRATEGY MOVE

Macy’s closed its San Francisco office, where most of its technology staffers were based, in February, just before the pandemic hit, to save money. It was able to quickly hire new digital talent in New York, and ensure its online business was ready to handle extra traffic while its stores were closed. Digital sales accounted for 43% of total sales in the spring quarter, up from 25% before the pandemic.

STAFFING

Macy’s laid off 3,900 corporate staffers, or about 3% of its entire workforce, plus an undisclosed number of store, supply-chain and customer-support employees.

PROCTER & GAMBLE CO.

Demand for many P&> products has skyrocketed.

Photo: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg News

DOWNSIDE

The pandemic’s early days crimped growth in China, P&G’s second-biggest market outside the U.S., and continues to drag on sales of some of its more profitable products, including razors and a high-end skin care line. Longer term, P&G may have to win back consumers lost to rival brands as the company struggles to keep key products in stock.

UPSIDE

Demand for many P&G products has skyrocketed, more than offsetting brands hurt by the pandemic, and the surge has enabled the company to bolster margins and profitability alongside sales because it is running factories at excess capacity and can all but end discounting in many categories.

“Health, hygiene and cleaning, consumers’ needs have changed forever…It’s hard to imagine we’ll snap back to the old world.”

— CFO Jon Moeller

SURPRISING STRATEGY MOVE

It’d be logical for a company enjoying surging sales and struggling to keep up with demand to spend less on advertising. Instead, P&G executives say they have no plans to curtail ad spending in an effort to mitigate potential defections from consumers who try rival brands amid shortages.

BIG NUMBER

6%

Annual organic sales growth for the fiscal year ended June 30, P&G’s highest since 2006.

STAFFING

P&G announced no major staffing reductions or increases. CEO David Taylor, in a call with investors, said he was amazed that the company was able to keep factories running close to full capacity even when the spreading coronavirus left some factories badly short staffed.

WALMART INC.

Walmart’s sales and profits have soared as shoppers spent heavily on food, household goods and outdoor supplies.

Photo: andrew caballero-reynolds/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

DOWNSIDE

Walmart has struggled to keep shelves stocked and enough workers in the stores to meet surging demand for food and household goods, especially early in the pandemic. Thousands of workers have tested positive for Covid-19, at a rate the company has said is in line with national trends.

UPSIDE

Walmart’s sales and profits have soared as shoppers—supported by government stimulus programs—spent heavily on food, household goods and outdoor supplies in recent months. As more shoppers buy groceries online, Walmart has benefited by already having a robust online grocery pickup and delivery business in place.

“This last quarter, it was unique because a lot of people were at home and stimulus checks supported purchasing of things for them to use at home, to entertain themselves or to fix their home up.”

— CEO Doug McMillon

SURPRISING STRATEGY MOVE

Walmart is hosting more than 600 Covid-19 testing sites in parking lots or at drive-through pharmacy windows, which dovetails with its ambitions to become a larger provider of health care services.

BIG NUMBER

97%

Walmart’s increase in e-commerce sales in the latest quarter.

STAFFING

Walmart, the largest employer in the U.S., has hired more than 500,000 people since the start of the year to keep up with demand and replace existing workers taking coronavirus-related leave.

SHARE YOUR THOUGHTS

What are some of the other big corporate storylines of 2020? Join the conversation below.

Copyright ©2020 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved. 87990cbe856818d5eddac44c7b1cdeb8

Appeared in the September 5, 2020, print edition as ‘Business, Hardly as Usual.’

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