Tue | 28.07.2020
Established in 2006 in Piatra Neamț by entrepreneurs Marius and Dan Ștefan, Autonom is an integrated provider of mobility and financing solutions. Autonom operates through a unique national network of 44 agencies based in 33 cities in Romania, Hungary and Serbia. The Group offers a diverse portfolio of services for both corporate and individual clients, including short- and medium-term car rental, operating leasing, chauffeur transportation services, temporary car fleet rental, fleet management, road assistance, carwash as well as equipment lease.
1. As an entrepreneur, in the context of COVID-19, what do you think are the main challenges within the business landscape?
In March, the surprise aspect of the total lockdown was probably the biggest challenge. Many entrepreneurs, us included, were conscient of the possible end of the economic cycle, and we were already for a while preparing for a recession or even a new financial crisis. Still, we didn't expect that such an unprecedented health crisis will cause it. I think that this surprise, followed by the general state of unpredictability with which we still must function today, is the biggest challenge that entrepreneurs must deal with today.
Nonetheless, we have seen that the Romanian business environment have so far adjusted well and reacted quite swiftly. We've seen entrepreneurs pivoting, launching new services and products, cutting their expenses and revising their strategies to make their business more agile and resilient. This fast adaptability shows the maturity of the local business environment and the real character of Romanian entrepreneurs.
2. You've recently launched a guide for entrepreneurs on optimizing costs and financing, what was the reasoning behind it?
At the beginning of June, we decided to carry out a short study amongst our clients to find out the impact of the pandemic on their respective businesses. The results were dramatic - 75% of our clients have witnessed an apparent decrease in revenues or business activity caused by the lockdown. Many of them were indicating an immediate need for capital in order to be able to continue their business. Some of our respondents counted on financing from the banks and financial institutions, other expected support measures and aid schemes from the state. What was consistent, however, was the need to ensure liquidity, thus proving that in times of crisis, cash is still king. The answers provided in the study inspired us to develop a guide that offers solutions – some obvious, some less known and more creative, of how companies can increase their liquidity, cut expenses and better manage their financing. Our colleagues within Autonom Group, together with our partners - Impact Hub, Millennium Insurance Broker and BVB, have then put all these ideas together in a guide called "Solutions for business optimization for entrepreneurs", available for free download at https://leasingoperational.com/solutii-antreprenori/.
3. Can you tell us more about the results of the survey you carried out?
We carried out the study between June 2nd and 12th; 134 managers and entrepreneurs participated in it. The key finding was that despite the context, Romanian entrepreneurs and managers remain optimistic about the future - almost 80% of respondents are confident that despite the difficulties, their business will go well over the next 3 to 6 months. This result made us especially glad, provided that 69% of the respondents admitted that their business was moderately or majorly affected by the lockdown. Apart from the decrease in the activity already I mentioned above, other challenges indicated by our clients were the reduction of expenses (reported by 38% of the participants), followed by low liquidity, meaning the inability of suppliers to pay, a situation encountered among 34% of respondents.
When it comes to what is necessary for continuing business, most of the respondents focused on the need for capital: 39,5% indicated as their primary need the access to financing sources, 37% said they consider the need aid from the state and fiscal facilities, and 35% answered they need the extension of the payment terms from the suppliers.
4. What is the easiest solution that you recommend for gaining liquidity quickly?
I think the asset sale & leaseback is a simple and straightforward option, especially for companies that need urgent and fast capitalization. At the same time, it can also be useful for managers who want to lower the indebtedness ratio or to manage more efficiently their car fleet. Despite its popularity abroad, sale & leaseback is not yet that widespread in Romania. A big advantage of sale & leaseback is that it is fast, as we simply need to receive the details of the fleet from the client, which we then analyse and we either select the cars for the buyback or buy the full fleet at a market price or the accounting price. For these purchased vehicles, we then offer an operating lease, which usually includes additional services. Starting this year, we expanded our offer to other asset types, such as machinery and equipment.
Other quick solutions are debt & lease restructuring, factoring cost optimization and other solutions, that you may find in the guide.
5. Do you think it's a good idea to renounce on the assets in the current context?
It might be a good idea not only to stop owning the assets, but even to revise some of the costs that until recently, we took as normal for the purpose of running a business. For example, in the current context, many people work from home and will probably continue to do so in the coming months. We have already seen that companies are revising their need for office spaces and are renouncing their lease in favour of more flexible solutions. For this reason, in the Guide, we invited our partners from Impact Hub, the co-working space, to contribute to the creation of the Guide. In addition to solutions related to the management of fleet & other assets, and to finding a flexible working solution, we also described solutions such as revising the insurance/employee benefits policy, or even appealing to capital markets financing as a manner of reducing the indebtedness level.
6. Next year Autonom will turn 15 years. What tip would you give to entrepreneurs on how to survive the current crisis?
This is not the first crisis for Autonom. We successfully passed through the financial crisis of 2008-2011, at the beginning of which we quickly changed our business model and during which we prospered, reaching a compound annual growth rate of over 50%. During those times, we learned and implemented several principles and policies for risk and opportunities management, designed to ensure both the robustness and "anti-fragility" of our business – for reference, one of the books that we warmly recommend is “Antifragile” by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. We can say that this new crisis, although unforeseen and "virulent", found us much better prepared than the last one, both in terms of financial resources and the adaptability of the business model.
Each severe crisis amplifies creative destruction and brings many opportunities for resilient companies. At Autonom, we genuinely believe that every crisis brings new opportunities and is a great occasion to accelerate the boldest projects. I think the most useful advice we can share with fellow entrepreneurs is that quick adaptation is a key and that businesses should not be afraid to change their model to better respond to the needs of their clients and of the market. Parafrasing Warren Buffet, when the markets are over-cautious it might be a good time to be bold(er). Also, the current context has shown how important nowadays is to have a digitalized business and make sure that your teams are interconnected, regardless if they work from an office or home.
7. Short Company Description
Across all divisions, Autonom has over 300 employees and operates a fleet of more than 9,000 cars. In 2018, Autonom became the first Romanian company to be included in EBRD’s Blue Ribbon project. To date, Autonom remains the only local company that received for five consecutive years, between 2014 and 2018, the title of Best Employer in the Aon Hewitt survey. Since 2018, Autonom is one of 123 organizations recognized at a global level by WorldBlu, a network that promotes democratic principles and encourages freedom in the workplace.
Autonom remains a family business with Marius and Dan Stefan holding the full stake in the company. Since December 2019, corporate bonds issued by Autonom Services SA are listed on the Main Market of the Bucharest Stock Exchange and available for trading under AUT24 symbol. Since June 2020, Autonom has been issued a Corporate Debt Rating from Fitch.
8. About Dan Stefan
Dan Stefan is the co-founder and co-shareholder of Autonom Services SA. He holds a BA in International Commerce from ASE Bucharest and master’s degrees in International Business & Economics from Sorbonne and Orleans University. He began his professional career in management consulting, having worked for IAC in France for 4 years. In 2006, Dan decided to return to Romania and together with his brother, Marius Stefan, co-founded Autonom, the leading car rental and mobility services provider in Romania. Dan teaches management and strategy within the MBA programmes of ASE Bucharest and of Maastricht School of Management. He is an avid promoter of business ethics and value-based management.
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