Cutting costs, not jobs, is the goal of many CFOs facing the slowdown

Finance chiefs are seeking to cut costs at their companies as they prepare for a possible recession, but without resorting to layoffs in a tough hiring environment.

Many economists expect the US economy to contract in 2023 following a series of aggressive interest rate hikes by the Federal Reserve to fight inflation. At the same time, many employers are looking for workers, with job offers far outnumbering the number of job seekers.

That leaves some finance chiefs looking for savings that don’t involve job cuts or complement layoffs, advisers and analysts said. Other ways to cut costs include terminating leases, reducing the number of vendors, automating tasks, cutting software spending and finding cheaper components, advisers said.

“Most CFOs are very reluctant to lay off staff in what appears to be a fairly mild recession,” said Alexander Bant, chief financial officer research officer at consultancy Gartner. Inc.,

adding that businesses don’t want to have to rehire staff if the economy recovers quickly.

Recruiters estimate that employers spend on average about six to nine months of an employee’s salary to find and train a replacement.

Recent corporate layoffs and hiring freezes have primarily hit the tech sector, following a hiring boom. Yet other large non-tech companies, including PepsiCo Inc.,

Ford engine Co.

and Wal-Mart Inc.

have announced job cuts in recent months.

Target Corp.

Last month it said it planned to cut costs by at least $2 billion over the next three years without significant layoffs, but did not provide details. Like other retailers, Target is reducing merchandise to eliminate excess inventory, which has reduced profits. The retail giant’s operating margin fell to 3.9% in the quarter ended Oct. 29, from 7.8% a year earlier. Profit fell 52% to $712 million.

Target recently improved efficiency by investing in in-store technology and its supply chain, Chief Financial Officer Michael Fiddelke said on a Nov. 16 earnings call. “There’s a lot of process re-engineering and optimization that we can do without there being an associated capital cost,” he said. Target said it expects to provide details on its savings plan early next year.

Michael Fiddelke, CFO of Target Corp.


Target Corp.

The retailer – whose sales surged earlier in the pandemic – could make savings in its supply chain, fulfillment and merchandising operations, including by automating more tasks in fulfillment centers or investing in the technology to improve planning and predictability in areas such as apparel, Corey said. Tarlowe, equity analyst at investment firm Jefferies Financial Group Inc.

Faced with thinner profit margins, retailers are looking for cost savings without cutting human resources and technology, he added, noting that “in the face of a recession, that’s probably a prudent thing to do.”

One of the biggest challenges CFOs face is ensuring that the expenses they cut don’t trickle down to the business, said David Garfield, global industries leader at the consultancy firm. AlixPartners LLP. For example, a company might cut its marketing budget only to spend more on third-party advertising, so the savings would be short-lived. “They really need to understand what drives the costs in their business and how to surgically remove them,” he said.

Among about 90% of S&P 500 companies that released their third-quarter results on Friday, the average net margin was roughly flat from a year earlier at 17%, according to financial data provider S&P Global Market Intelligence. Over the past year, many companies have raised prices to deal with escalating input costs, in addition to cutting expenses.

Total selling, general and administrative expenses rose 9% from a year earlier, to $582.8 billion, among S&P 500 companies that reported third-quarter results, according to S&P.

Choice Hotels International Inc.

– which owns hotel brands such as Comfort Inn and Cambria Hotels – offers franchisees ideas to cut costs, including offering housekeeping on demand rather than every day, and ensuring that staffing levels in the breakfast stations correspond to occupancy.

The initiative, called “Your Key to Profit,” also encourages hotel owners to use proprietary Choice Hotels software that recommends changes to room prices based on local demand, according to Choice Chief Financial Officer Dominic Dragisich. .

In the quarter ended Sept. 30, Choice’s revenue rose 28% from a year earlier to $414.3 million, while profit fell 12% to $103.1 million due to rising costs.

Choice hasn’t cut corporate jobs in response to the economic outlook, Dragisich said. “We think any recession would likely be a short, shallow recession. We want to make sure we continue to invest for the long term,” he said.

Related video: The layoff announcements keep coming. As interest rates continue to climb and earnings plummet, the WSJ’s Dion Rabouin explains why we can expect to see a bigger wave of layoffs in the near future. Illustration: Elisabeth Smelov

Jack in the Box fast food chain Inc.

also works to improve the efficiency of its franchisees. That includes installing new kitchen equipment, such as cheese pumps, to speed up production and reduce waste, chief executive Darin Harris said on a Nov. 22 earnings call.

Like its competitors, Jack in the Box is battling rising wages and food prices and has raised prices over the past year. Still, the company’s restaurant-level profit margin in the quarter ended Oct. 2 fell to 16.2% from 20.1% a year earlier.

As investors watch how quickly Jack in the Box can find savings, layoffs at the store level are unlikely given the restaurant industry remains understaffed, said equity analyst Andrew Charles. at Cowen. Inc.

“Opportunities arise from the efficiency of processes, equipment and technology,” Mr. Harris said. Jack in the Box declined to comment on the job cuts.

Write to Kristin Broughton at

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