illustration of two fishes swimming, with financial symbols on their skins
Resilience under pressure: this year’s ranking highlights which companies have most effectively navigated Asia’s severe lockdowns © Efi Chalikopoulou

In March 2020, the Philippines all but closed for business, as President Rodrigo Duterte announced the start of what would become one of the world’s longest and strictest pandemic lockdowns.

All businesses, besides those providing basic necessities, were closed in the south-east Asian country’s economic centre, Luzon island, before the Philippines became the first big nation to shut its financial markets.

These measures hit many businesses hard: the Philippine economy shrank by a record 9.5 per cent in 2020. But, as travel between countries was cut off, some companies seized on the opportunity to generate growth at home.

For Great Deals E-Commerce, in top place of this year’s ranking of high-growth Asia-Pacific companies, business boomed as lockdown forced Philippine consumers to shop online.

The Luzon-based company helps multinational brands, from L’Oréal to Unilever, establish online retail operations in the Philippines. Revenues grew from $0.3mn in 2017 to $88.8mn in 2020, according to data verified by Statista. That gave the business a compound annual growth rate of 571 per cent during that period.

This year’s ranking is the fourth of its kind and the first to include data from the pandemic period. While the list is not comprehensive, as detailed financial information is not available on all start-ups in the region, it offers a unique insight into which companies have most effectively navigated Asia’s severe lockdowns.

Throughout the latter half of the 20th century, countries across Asia-Pacific transformed into some of the world’s most modern and fastest growing economies, as they embraced globalisation. Hong Kong and Singapore became international financial centres, while technology companies from Japan to Taiwan developed into world-leading enterprises.

But the onset of the pandemic prompted countries across the region to change tack. There were already signs that the likes of China were seeking to cut their dependence on certain foreign markets, but the reversal of globalisation accelerated as governments closed borders to control the spread of coronavirus.

Japan banned entry for international workers, while restrictions on movement within Singapore and Hong Kong pushed many expat white collar staff to escape home to the west.

However, like Great Deals, some companies benefited from this. Japanese app YAMAP, which provides maps of hiking trails, saw revenues surge as foreign travel restrictions encouraged people to explore closer to home. It landed at 37th place on the FT’s ranking with compound annual growth of 145 per cent.

Business has also been lively for India’s Digio, which helps local companies go paperless by digitising their operations. It is placed 15th on the FT’s list, with annual growth of 222 per cent.

“Offices were shut but business cannot stop,” says Sanket Nayak, Digio’s co-founder, of the increased demand his business saw during the pandemic. Indian companies had to digitise rapidly to allow for remote working.

Piruze Sabuncu, a partner at Asia-Pacific focused venture capital investor Square Peg Capital, says US companies were preparing “big, aggressive Asia expansion plans” before the pandemic. But, after these corporations rolled back their plans, she says, companies in the region seized their chance to become local winners.

While some start-ups have sought growth closer to home, others have managed to expand internationally despite lockdowns.

As in previous years, the FT’s list is dominated by technology start-ups, which have faced less difficulty operating across borders than those that provide physical goods and services. Some 32 per cent of companies are in the technology or fintech sectors, compared with 28.8 per cent of companies the previous year.

One multinational company on the FT ranking is fourth-placed Workmate, a Singapore-headquartered tech business that operates in Thailand and Indonesia. Founder and chief executive Matthew Ward describes its online platform as “Uber for manpower”, connecting manufacturers and delivery businesses with the blue-collar workers they need on demand.

“In a pre-Covid world, when you would recruit people for a warehouse, you would just put the word out in your local community and hundreds of people would show up in your warehouse for interview,” says Ward, whose company also tracks workers’ punctuality and performance, to provide clients with data on prospective employees. “Now, with social distancing, you can’t do that.”

Between 2017 and 2020, revenues surged from £0.1mn to £12.4mn. Although the increasing use of technology such as Workmate’s to monitor staff has been criticised, Ward believes it helps those that typically lack qualifications and a CV to “build up a verified work history”.

“Data privacy is not a concern for a blue-collar worker in Indonesia,” he suggests, arguing their priority is more likely to be, “can I get paid to put food on the table for my family today?”

Asia is showing tentative signs of opening up to the world: in February, the Philippines finally lifted an almost two-year ban on foreign travellers. But Divyesh Vithlani, senior managing director for business consultancy Accenture in south-east Asia, says the pandemic has prompted many businesses to rethink their approach to globalisation.

“Companies are having to ask: can they be relevant in a given country if it is outside their home market, or should they retreat?” he says.

From Great Deals E-Commerce to Digio, some start-ups have been bringing clients to their home market, working with established multinationals rather than expanding abroad themselves. “Collaboration is the new disruption,” says Vithlani.

Additional reporting by Chloe Cornish

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