Chris Evans

19th November 2020


2019 vs 2020: What a difference a year makes

How many of us could have predicted 2020 and the impact it has had on every aspect of business life? We’ve seen some industries shuttered for months on end. Others have pivoted to new markets just to survive. Some companies across various markets have never been busier.

Plimsoll has recently completed its annual survey measuring the mood of thousands of business leaders across a broad spectrum of the UK economy. As previously revealed, several surprising findings materialised in this year’s survey. For example, over a third of companies expected significant growth in the coming year.

But how does the mood at the end of 2020 compare to this time in 2019, and how much has COVID-19 soured the mood in UK board rooms?

The survey results from 2019 showed a remarkable optimism as decision makers looked forward to a stellar year despite uncertainty where Brexit was heading. The virus spreading in China was still a relatively small and seemingly far off news story. Here’s what the UK’s leading businesspeople told us as we headed into 2020:

2019 survey results



Are you forecasting an increase in sales in 2020?



Do you anticipate making more profit in 2020?



Do you intend to add more staff in 2020?



Are you looking to acquire in 2020?




….and how that compares to this year


2020 survey results









Are you forecasting an increase in sales in 2021?



Do you anticipate making more profit in 2021?



Do you intend to add more staff in 2021?



Are you looking to acquire in 2021?




The decline in sales projections is stark, as the pandemic has shattered confidence across many markets. Hospitality is, unsurprisingly, the worst affected with only 6% of respondents confident of growth in 2021. Whether increasing confidence in vaccines allows bars and hotels to re-open to pre-pandemic crowds remains to be seen.

The drinks sector has seen the biggest change from 2019 to 2020. With the spring lockdown and emergency re-shuttering of pubs and bars in the run up to Christmas, the sector has been battered in 2020. Looking back to last year, the optimism in the industry was tangible. In 2019, every single respondent expected sales to increase in 2020. Fast forward 12 months and that figure has plummeted to 35% - only a third of respondents expect sales to grow in the coming year.

Profit expectations have also been hammered by COVID-19. Less than half of respondents in the drinks industry expect any improvement in profitability in 2020. Last year, 94% were projecting improved profits. Clearly the mood remains sombre in the sector.

That is further evidenced by staffing intentions in the sector. While over half of respondents say they were trying to retain as many staff as possible, only 12% expected to add roles and 42% were expecting job losses. For comparison, 69% of companies expected to add to their headcount in 2020.

In contrast to the woes of drinks purveyors is the agricultural sector. The damage wrought by the virus has been relatively small. In 2019, 86% of companies across the sector told us that they expected sales to grow in 2020. That figure is slightly down but only to 76% - the lowest swing of our survey.

Profitability expectations also remain remarkably stable. In 2019, 80% of respondents expected profit margins to go up. That figure is now 72%. Some niche industries have been hit by woes link to the markets they serve but overall, both sales and profits are anticipated to remain robust.

In terms of hiring intentions for the coming year, 80% of respondents from the agricultural sector expect to hire more staff. However, the elephant in the room for the sector remains Brexit. Firstly, how will it impact the sector’s ability to attract a steady stream of reliable, low paid staff? Secondly, what impact will any trade agreement have on the sector? Already concerns about food standards are becoming a political football that could have an outsized impact on expectations. Is there a nasty surprise in 2021 for this relatively stable sector of the economy?

Across the UK economy, the intention to buy another company is the trend that has been affected least by the pandemic. Overall, around a quarter of respondents intend to acquire in 2021, down from 32% last year. Many seem intent on buying a “distressed competitor” to bolster their position in a key market and replace organic growth with the acquisition of another business.

The clothing sector saw 45% of respondents say they intend to acquire another business in the coming year – the highest response. Clearly, the sector is ripe for consolidation, but companies could also be looking to buy up or down their value chain. It is also worth noting, this time last year, the clothing sector had one of the lowest rates of respondents with M&A intentions at just 23%. That this figure has almost doubled amid a pandemic ravaged 12 months suggests the number of protagonists in the sector could shrink dramatically in 2021.

At the other end of the spectrum, the financial sector was the sector with the highest M&A intentions heading out of 2019 with 58% of respondents telling us they were looking to buy another business. That figure has more than halved with only 27% intended to in 2021. Has COVID-19 and passporting uncertainty from a potential “No Deal” Brexit burst the deal bubble in one of the UK economy’s growth engines, or is this just a temporary blip?

The Plimsoll Mood Survey is our annual test of the mood of key decision makers in all the country’s leading sectors. Plimsoll also produces studies on more than 1600 individual UK markets assessing the financial stability, valuation and future prospects of each major company within them.

To see how expectations for 2021 match the reality of company performance in your key markets visit today.